Tajikistan: Could Showdown With Popular Cleric Backfire?
With a court order to close one of Tajikistan’s most popular mosques, President Imomali Rahmon’s administration is stepping up its campaign to neutralize both Islam and the last vestiges of any political opposition.
The May 28 ruling to close the Muhammadiya Mosque – run by the family of Haji Akbar Turajonzoda, a popular theologian and charismatic leader during the country’s civil war in the mid-1990s – marks the latest confrontation between the authorities and the powerful family. But the closure is also “part of a larger campaign against unofficial Muslim life in all its forms,” said John Heathershaw of the University of Exeter, an expert on Islam in Tajikistan.
Turajonzoda, who was the leader of the state-sanctioned clergy during the late Soviet era, is a contentious figure in Tajikistan’s recent history. Blamed by many for helping fan the civil war by siding with the Islamic opposition, he became first deputy prime minister in 1999 as part of a power-sharing agreement that helped end the civil war. As deputy premier, however, he turned on his former allies and became a critic of the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRPT), Tajikistan's main, but now marginalized, opposition movement.
After 2005, when Rahmon demoted him from the cabinet to the senate, Turajonzoda became a critic of the president, and was sacked in 2010. Since then, he has made headlines for making disparaging comments about the president. In addition, he has reportedly mended fences with the IRPT, apparently fueling government fears of a resurgent Islamic opposition.
Despite his popularity, or perhaps because of it, he is often accused of being both an agent of Moscow and a heterodox Islamist. Muzaffar Olimov, head of the Sharq Information and Analytical Center in Dushanbe, describes Turajonzoda “a politician in the guise of a religious figure.”
Certainly, the Turajonzoda family is a powerful force. Their mosque in Vahdat regularly draws 15,000 men for Friday prayers. The sermons given at the mosque are sold on compact disks around the country.
The current dispute dates back to December. Alleging that Turajonzoda’s brothers, Nuriddin and Mahmudjon, had observed rituals commemorating the death of Imam Hussain – an event known as Ashura, which is observed by Sh’ia Muslims – the state-run Ulema Council, which regulates and interprets Islamic activities in the Sunni-majority country, attempted to remove the brothers and install a more doctrinally reliable imam.
The country’s chief mufti went to the mosque about 30 kilometers east of the capital Dushanbe during Friday prayers on December 9 to read a statement accusing the brothers of trying to disturb the peace by introducing foreign religious rituals. But angry worshipers forced the mufti to flee. The State Committee on Religious Affairs immediately suspended prayers at the mosque for three months and brought charges against the brothers in a local court.
In the reading of a preliminary decision, the Vahdat court stripped the mosque of its right to observe Friday prayers. The written verdict, delivered in late May, however, went further even than the State Committee on Religious Affairs' original demand, and closed the mosque altogether. A lawyer for Turajonzoda family asserts the court does not have that authority to issue such a closure order, and went on to question the judiciary’s independence.
Turajonzoda himself had earlier predicted the case would be decided against him and his family. Claiming the court order came as a “command from above,” he remains defiant.
“We are not going to stop praying in our mosque. Even if they decide to launch criminal proceedings, we [are] still going to pray here,” the Asia-Plus news quoted Turajonzoda as saying on May 30. Observers in Dushanbe take him at his word and warn that his legion of followers will likely force the government to back down, for now.
Over the past two years, the government has waged a broad campaign against public expressions of piety. The Ulema Council has issued extensive guidelines on religious curricula in schools, restricted what imams can discuss, recalled Tajik seminary students studying abroad, regulated the annual Hajj pilgrimage, and banned children from praying in mosques. Courts regularly sentence alleged extremists to long prison terms on flimsy evidence. An unexplained arson at a women's mosque in October 2010 and raids on IRPT offices have also reinforced a belief among practicing Muslims that the government is intent on stifling religious freedom.
“There is no real concept of religious pluralism or tolerance” in Tajikistan,” Heathershaw said. “This is about state control of religion.”
The uneasy relationship and deepening tension between official and uncontrolled religious observance is illustrated in the person of Turajonzoda, whose visible and varied career has spanned both secular and religious politics.
Turajonzoda “never shied away from criticizing the government's policy on religion,” says analyst Alexander Sodiqov. “People respect him mostly because he is not scared of standing up against what he sees as unjust policies on religion.”
The mosque's closure appears to be an extension of recent attacks on the Turajonzoda family, which have included an aggressive press blitz following his removal from the Senate in 2010, a suspected case of arson at Turajonzoda's cotton-processing factory in October 2011, and what appears to be a determined media effort to isolate and ostracize the family, publicly harassing many who associate with them.
Sodiqov attributes the government's timing to presidential elections next year, recent violence that authorities blame on Islamists, and fear that Rahmon’s political opponents are drawing inspiration from the Arab Spring. “This development is further proof that the regime is not ready to tolerate any kind of political dissent, particularly if it comes from religious leaders and groups,” said Sodiqov.
For Heathershaw, the mosque closure confirms “there is no possibility for dialogue on the place of Islam in Tajikistan.”
“Government policy is not about dialogue or diversity, it is about imposing its very narrow vision of Islam on society,” he said. “This,” he added, “will push more pious or divergent Muslims out of public life” – that is, underground, where observers fear they are more likely to become radicalized.