Thousands of men from Central Asia, the South Caucasus, and Russia’s Muslim republics gathered in central Moscow on August 8 to mark the closing of Ramadan.
The Eid al-Fitr prayers, which celebrate the end of the month-long fast, gave Moscow’s estimated million-plus population of Muslims, many of them migrant laborers, a chance to put aside, for a few minutes, growing concerns about the nationalist rhetoric, police roundups, and migrant detention centers that have become a feature of the city’s ongoing mayoral campaign and Russian politics in general.
Some knelt on carpets, some on newspapers. Radio Ekho Moskvy said more than 3,000 police and tens of thousands of worshipers gathered outside Moscow’s four mosques for the 8:00 a.m. prayer. Others estimated well over 100,000 faithful.
Outside the Sobornaya Mechet, Russia’s Chief Mufti, Ravil Gainutdin, relayed messages of peace from President Vladimir Putin, Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin, and Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov, among others. Blessings in several languages including Uzbek and Tajik were broadcast to the men kneeling in the streets before the main prayer.
A circling police helicopter often drowned out the announcements. For several construction workers from Tajikistan, however, that didn’t matter. As the mufti spoke and they waited for the moment to pray in silence, they were absorbed with a mobile phone video of a tracksuited woman in black leather boots dancing on top of a car.
This just in from the Uzbek Ministry of No Fun: For the remainder of the holy month of Ramadan, government employees, which in authoritarian Uzbekistan includes not only ministry and law enforcement workers, but also those toiling for government-run banks and medical clinics, shall go straight home after work and not consort with anyone.
So reports the Uzbek service of Radio Free Europe. Apparently, it is not bad enough that Ramadan, which requires Muslims to fast during the day and eat only after sundown, falls this year during the longest days and hottest part of summer in blistering Central Asia. As part of its continued crackdown on religion, the Uzbek government has decided to put the kibosh on the daily ritual celebrating the day’s end known as Iftar, which involves friends and family gathering for food and relaxation.
It’s not clear who issued the new rule, but it is leading to some predictable absurdities.
According to Radio Ozodliq, via the Russian-language Lenta.ru, for instance, employees of the state-owned Halk Bank have been asked to go straight home after work as per a special decree of the company’s human resources department. Eateries in Tashkent, the report says, have been forbidden from letting the pious break fast on their premises, despite the fact that reservation-takers find it impossible to distinguish those hoping to get a table for Iftar from those simply hoping to stop in for an evening meal.
Her father is tough when it comes to religion, but it looks like Gulnara Karimova is now reaching out to Muslims. Could this be, some wonder, a bid to assert herself as an inclusive candidate to succeed her father, President Islam Karimov?
The Uzdaily.uz website reports that Karimova, in her capacity as chairwoman of the Mekhr Nuri (“Ray of Mercy”) foundation, awarded grants to 20 distinguished students from ten (officially sanctioned) Islamic educational establishments in Uzbekistan on May 4.
The ceremony was held in Bukhara Region as part of a folk art festival. The Directorate of Muslims, a state body, provided organizational assistance to Karimova’s charity, Uzdaily said. Uzdaily did not specify the size of the grants, but noted that Karimova pledged to improve infrastructure at Islamic institutions as well.
Embroiled in money-laundering and bribery investigations in Switzerland and Sweden, Karimova, Uzbekistan's ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, seems to be spending a lot of her time in Uzbekistan lately. Some observers believe Karimova’s active public life at home, and on Twitter, in recent months is a sign of her growing presidential ambitions as her aging father’s health is questioned.
A little-known Las Vegas-based showman crowned Karimova the "Princess of Uzbekistan" in a recent PR stunt.
But as a potential leader Karimova would inherit the nasty consequences of her father's brutal policy toward followers of Islam.
Vodka named after Allah was always sure to create a storm of controversy in mainly Muslim Kazakhstan – as it did last year, when bottles bearing Allah’s name went on sale in the eastern city of Semey.
Those bottles were produced in Aktobe on the other side of Kazakhstan, where it seems the country’s security services have recently uncovered a plot to blow up the offending factory.
On February 19 three young men – including a minor – were jailed by a court in the western city of Aktobe for plotting to plant explosives at a factory producing vodka with a label mentioning Allah, KTK TV reports.
Media reports did not name the plant at the center of the plot, but back in April last year a factory owned by Kazakhstan’s GEOM company (which makes liquor under the popular Wimpex brand) got into hot water for making vodka with a label showing an Arabic inscription reading “Allah’s strength is enough for everybody.”
The court found the three young men guilty of plotting to blow up the factory and sentenced 17-year-old Salamat Akhet to three years in prison and Nursultan Tenizbayev and Arslan Zhakabayev, both 18, to five years.
Akhet’s mother claimed her son was the victim of a stitch-up by the security services, which have been cracking down heavily on suspected extremists – particularly in western Kazakhstan – since a spate of terrorist attacks began in 2011.
Not long ago Tajik police were forcing men to shave their beards, convinced a terrorist lurked behind every whisker. Now the health minister has recommended salons stop trimming Tajikistan’s chins lest dirty razors spread HIV.
Nusratullo Salimov said barbers are not doing enough to disinfect their shaving equipment, RIA Novosti quoted him as saying on January 10. The health minister emphasized, however, that the majority of Tajikistan’s new HIV infections are transmitted via dirty needles and unprotected sex. He gave no statistics for new infections from tainted razors.
Facial hair is a popular topic of official chatter in Tajikistan. In late 2010, a number of bewhiskered men told local media outlets they were being harassed by police. Some reported being stopped and forced to shave. At the time, an Interior Ministry spokesman confirmed police were detaining “suspicious” men sporting long beards as part of their search for members of banned Islamic sects. Muslim men, moderate and radical alike, often wear beards out of reverence for the Prophet Muhammad.
More recently, in November, a new injunction sponsored by the State Committee on Religious Affairs reportedly prohibited men from wearing beards longer than their fists, though some officials later denied the existence of any rules. (Ironically, across the border in Afghanistan, the Taliban were once said to forbid men from wearing beards shorter than fist-length.)
The chief suspect in the shooting of an exiled Uzbek imam in Sweden last winter has been detained in Russia, according to Swedish media.
Swedish media reported on October 13 that a 35-year-old man was detained in Russia on suspicion of the attempted murder of Obid-kori Nazarov, a prominent Uzbek imam who has political asylum in Sweden. Nazarov has been in a coma since the shooting, the independent Uznews.net website says.
The arrest has not been officially confirmed by Swedish or Russian law-enforcement bodies, but Uznews.net suggested that the man was Yuriy Zhukovskiy, a citizen of Uzbekistan and Russia identified as chief suspect by Swedish police after the shooting on February 22 in Stromsund. The arrest reportedly came after Swedish intelligence spotted the suspect using his cellphone in Russia.
An Uzbek couple suspected of complicity in the shooting were acquitted by a Swedish court in July.
In the 1990s, Nazarov gained popularity as an imam in Uzbekistan, where his fiery sermons led President Islam Karimov’s administration to cast him as an opponent at a time when the main challenge to Karimov’s rule came from clerics with wide public followings. He is still an influential preacher with a wide following.
A court in Kyrgyzstan has banned a Dutch documentary about gay men who are practicing Muslims.
The 59-minute film, “I Am Gay and Muslim,” was scheduled to screen at the Bir Duino (“One World”) Human Rights Film Festival in Bishkek on September 28.
Kyrgyzstan’s chief cleric, Mufti Rakhmatilla Egemberdiev, said the film slanders Muslims by presenting Islam "in a bad form using as examples people who have nothing to do with religion,” local news agencies quoted him as saying. The State Committee on Religious Affairs concluded the film incites religious hatred. Only hours before the scheduled screening, a Bishkek court banned the film as extremist.
Most Kyrgyzstanis profess Islam, though relatively few are hard-core adherents to the faith.
The State Committee on National Security and the Interior Ministry are charged with enforcing the ban on showing or distributing the film in Kyrgyzstan. Earlier this month, a Bishkek court banned the anti-Islam film “Innocence of Muslims,” which had sparked protests across the Muslim world.
“I Am Gay and Muslim” was shot last year in Morocco, where homosexuality is illegal.
Director Chris Belloni says on his website that the documentary “follows a number of young gay men in Morocco in their exploration of their religious and sexual identity.”
Thousands of men filled every nook and cranny of the Haji Yacoub Mosque in Dushanbe, Tajikistan's capital, for the first day of Ramadan on July 20. This year, the holy month began on a Friday, Muslims' main day of prayer.
David Trilling is EurasiaNet's Central Asia editor.
In case anyone still doubts that a 1,400-year-old religion is compatible with a 21st-century social-networking tool, a new Twitter-based project in Kyrgyzstan should put those doubts to rest.
On July 20, the country’s Muslims joined with millions of their co-religionists across the world in marking the start of Ramadan, Islam’s annual holy month of fasting, self-sacrifice and contemplation.
Sticking to the rules of the fast – which forbid eating or drinking during daylight hours – can tax even the fittest of the faithful in Central Asia, where summer temperatures regularly rise above 30 Celsius and the sun stays out from before 6 a.m. until after 8 p.m.
But this year those new to Ramazan, as it is called in Kyrgyzstan, or simply worried about missing their pre-dawn breakfast, can sign up for a free text-messaging service that will send morning and evening reminders about prayer and meal times, as well as 140-character-max hadiths (sayings attributed to the Prophet Mohammed) and ayahs (Koranic verses) about the importance of love, attentiveness, loyalty, caring, knowledge and Ramadan itself.
The new Russian-language resource, called @RamazanTime, was the brainchild of a 22-year-old Bishkek resident whose two female friends, aged 21 and 22, then joined her as co-writers.
“We created this service to morally support our compatriots who are planning to keep the fast,” the idea's author wrote in an email to EurasiaNet.org. (She asked that neither her name nor her friends’ be printed as they were doing this “not to promote ourselves, but to gain Allah’s pleasure and motivate others.”)
Authorities in Uzbekistan are increasing their surveillance of Muslims, while showing greater concern about what they wear.
At the beginning of March, a representative from the government-controlled Muslim Spiritual Board in Namangan Region requested that cameras be installed in and around 181 mosques in the area, Regnum reported. Authorities claim the installation of security cameras follows thefts at some mosques.
However, an Uzbek imam living across the border in neighboring Kyrgyzstan told Radio Free Europe’s Uzbek Service he believes “the authorities are trying to control what happens during prayer, to track what imams say to believers and to see whether young people are attending prayers.”
Also this month, Uzbek authorities have prohibited the sale of religious clothing, specifically hijabs and burqas, at several Tashkent markets. After receiving an oral order, venders at several markets including the massive Chorsu Bazaar, quickly pulled headscarves and other coverings from their racks. Local authorities reportedly confiscated some clothing, reported the Institute of War and Peace Reporting:
Tashkent businesswoman Mutabar, who imports goods from Turkey and the United Arab Emirates, still offers the items to customers, but only in secret.
“Islamic clothing is being sold under the counter,” she said. “I am selling it from home, but only to trusted customers.”
Officials in Tashkent confirmed the ban was in place but were reluctant to comment in detail.