Mon, Jul 18, 2011 - Page 5 News List

In Tajikistan, Islam’s rise worries the government

‘SECULAR EXTREMISM’:Despite there being very little evidence of militant Islamic groups in the country, a new law will ban children under 18 from attending mosques

NY Times News Service, DUSHANBE

Islam is blossoming in Tajikistan. Beards are in style. Headscarves, too. Bazaars are doing a booming trade in prayer rugs, religious audio recordings and gaudy clocks featuring Muslim holy sites.

After decades of enforced secularism, the people of this impoverished former Soviet republic have been flocking to their traditional religion with all the zeal of born-again movements anywhere in the world.

The authoritarian government here could not be more worried. Spooked by the specter of Islamic radicalism and the challenges posed by increasingly influential religious leaders, the Tajik authorities have been working fervently to curb religious expression.

Bearded men have been detained at random, and women barred from religious services. This year, the government demanded that students studying religion at universities in places like Egypt, Syria and Iran return home.

The police have shuttered private mosques and Islamic Web sites, and government censors now monitor Friday sermons, stepping in when muftis stray from the government line.

Last month, lawmakers took what many here said was a drastic step further: They passed a law that would, among other things, bar children younger than 18 from attending religious services at mosques.

It is called the law “on parental responsibility for educating and raising children,” and the measure, according to officials, is meant to prevent children from skipping school to attend prayer services, and it would hold parents responsible if they do.

Government critics liken it to a Soviet-style attempt at reversing Islam’s spread. Many warn, however, that banning young people from mosques may have the opposite effect.

“After this law takes effect and the government and security services start applying pressure, youth could be drawn to illegal organizations,” said Mahmadali Hait, the deputy chairman of Tajikistan’s opposition Islamic Revival Party. “And it is possible that the level of radicalization in the country could increase.”

Growing religiosity in Tajikistan and in neighboring former Soviet republics is seen as a threat by the region’s entrenched authoritarian leaders, many of whom have been in power for decades.

Unlike the political arena or the media, Islam is a potential font of dissent that, so far, they have been unable to monopolize.

The Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan has only compounded fears, especially now that the US plans to withdraw its troops from the country.

Clashes along Tajikistan’s extensive border with Afghanistan are frequent, and the authorities have linked foreign militants to several attacks on the police and military units in the last year.

Travel between the two countries is relatively easy, and several Tajiks interviewed said they had visited Afghanistan for religious training.

“We have observed in recent years attempts by extremist movements to influence the world views of our children,” Tajik President Emomali Rakhmon said in a speech in April, arguing the need for the law on parental responsibility. “The leaders of various extremist groups and currents have started appearing in academic institutions, recruiting inexperienced youth.”

Independent experts say there is little evidence that militant Islamist groups have found much of a following in Tajikistan.

Rather, they say, regional leaders often use the threat of Islamic extremism as a pretext to crack down on political opponents and their supporters.

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