Tajikistan last year converted 2,000 mosques into facilities for general public use in its latest effort to streamline the practice of religion in the country and marginalize those not directly under government control.
The head of the Committee for Religious Affairs, Husein Shokirov, said in a news conference on February 5 that the unauthorized mosques have been repurposed into teahouses, hairdressers, cultural center, medical clinics and kindergartens, among other things.
“We gave the owners of the mosques time to file [registration] documents, but they didn’t do it, so the sites were either reclaimed by the government or repurposed into social facilities,” Shokirov said.
The committee says that there are 3,900 mosques operating with proper permits in Tajikistan.
Under Tajik law, while the responsibility of building mosques lies with the public, ultimate control over the premises and what happens inside them is assumed by the government. Imams are regularly required to renew paperwork so as to be able to execute their functions and sermons are written on their behalf by the authorities. Any clerics declining to cooperate with the government are invariably ousted.
Since 2014, imams have been receiving state salaries as if they were civil servants. And as of last month, laws have come into force requiring imams to declare all their sources of income. Most of their money typically comes from the offerings of congregants and payments for officiating special events.
Starting from 2010, the government began pursuing policies to restrict entire sections of the population from going to mosque. First women were forbidden and then it was the turn of young people under the age of 18.
The overall direction of travel is for greater state control over religion as a whole. The intent is to have single large mosques serve entire communities, so as to simplify the process of keeping tabs on the faithful.
But often, this centralizing trend complicates the exercise of attempting to observe religious obligations. Many believers hold to the view that prayers to the recently departed are meant to be said in the mosque. People in the regions, who have to cover distances of more than 50 kilometers to reach their closest place of prayer, are no longer in a position to fulfill that obligation in a convenient manner. The same difficulty obtains with attending Friday prayers.
While there may be quiet grumbling about such heavy-handed measures, there have been few shows of open discontent thus far. There have some embarrassing missteps along the way, however.
An amateur video surfaced online some months ago in which a Committee for Religious Affairs representative, Shokirjon Holdorov, could be seen on the grounds of a mosque in the Rudaki district, to the south of Dushanbe, demanding its closure. In the video, a man is heard accusing Holdorov of being drunk. This sparks a foul-mouthed tirade from Holdorov, who threatens grave consequences for the congregants and local cleric.
“It is six months that I have been warning you. If you don’t shut this down, I will label you all salafis and you will all go to jail,” Holdorov is heard to say.
The mosque was later closed. Holdorov was given a verbal warning for his behavior.