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.
Rakhmon and his circle, most of whom are secular former Soviet apparatchiks, fought and won a brutal civil war against a loose coalition of Muslim and secular opposition groups in the 1990s.
Though former opposition field commanders were promised places in the government after the war, many have been jailed, exiled or murdered.
“We have secular extremism here,” said Khodzhi Akbar Turadzhonzoda, a prominent Islamic leader and a former member of Tajikistan’s parliament.
Talk of Islamic radicalism in Tajikistan, he said, “is a lie. This is only to deceive the people, strengthen dictatorships and spend more money on weapons and the secret services.”
The law barring children from mosques has not gone into effect. Rakhmon, who proposed the measure, must still sign it.
However, government critics and religious figures say the authorities have begun to enforce it in some places, raiding mosques, removing young people and fining adults accused of teaching religion without government permission.
After the law is signed, parents could face steep fines and even jail time for defying it.
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