Officials in Tajikistan, apparently worried about a potential rise of militant activity in the economically embattled Central Asian state, are putting pressure on Tajiks studying abroad at Islamic universities and madrasas to return home. Over a thousand students are estimated to have retuned so far, mostly from Egypt, Iran and Pakistan.
President Imomali Rahmon has stated that Tajiks studying Islam abroad could develop extremist views and end up destabilizing the country. State-controlled media outlets, meanwhile, have played up what they portray as joyous reunions between returning youths and their parents. Some parents have been quoted as saying they didn’t know what their children were studying and that tuition and other expenses had been covered by “charity.”
Officially, around 1,400 Tajik students study abroad at Islamic universities and madrasas. But many suspect the number is much higher, with some estimates putting the number of Tajiks studying in Pakistan alone at 4,000.
Government critics are assailing the government’s push to bring students home, saying the use of coercive measures can only be harmful, leaving mainstream believers disgruntled and radicalizing some. Returning students interviewed by EurasiaNet.org adamantly denied nefarious motives.
“I only went abroad for a proper Islamic education, not to become an extremist,” said a 19-year-old returnee from the renowned Al-Azhar University in Egypt. “Now I have had to come home where there is no opportunity to learn about the Koran.” Describing his five-hour interrogation upon touchdown at Dushanbe’s airport, the student added; “the government policy is counter-productive; all it will do is force us to study illegally here instead. The government cannot control everything we learn."
According to a 2008 Gallup poll, some 76 percent of Tajiks said religion played an important role in their daily lives; many parents seek to instill Islamic values in their children. With only one Islamic university and 20 official madrasas, rising demand has forced many to study illegally or move abroad. Unofficial madrasas, both inside Tajikistan and abroad, do not charge tuition fees like their official counterparts in Tajikistan, creating another incentive for students to study unofficially.
Umarali Nazarov, the head of Tajikistan's state-run Islamic University, has announced he will try to accommodate returning students at his university or other religious schools. But Muhiddin Kaberi, chairman of the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), told EurasiaNet.org that Tajikistan lacks the necessary institutions to offer comprehensive Islamic education and suggested bringing thousands of unemployed young men into Tajikistan’s stagnant economy may be unwise.
“Many people in the government see Islam as a threat to Tajikistan, but this is not true.” Kaberi said. “The main threats come from unemployment, poor education standards, a lack of freedom and democracy.” The scarcity of jobs may cause the students to become more radical, others have warned.
Tajik officials have justified their actions by contending that many students did not have the correct paperwork and were therefore studying abroad illegally. Diplomats also have cited humanitarian concerns: "They live and study in horrible conditions. ... They always suffer from hunger and do dirty jobs in anti-sanitary conditions," Zubaydullo Zubaydov, the Tajik ambassador to Pakistan and vocal critic of Islamic education, told RFE/RL in January. "When you speak to these young men, you quickly notice that their views of their own country and society have completely changed."
Authorities have targeted the students since an August speech in which Rahmon urged parents to recall their children from foreign madrasas and Islamic universities. “Otherwise the majority of them may turn into extremists and terrorists in five or 10 years time,” Just a few weeks after the president’s speech, authorities stopped dozens of students and scholars from boarding a Tehran-bound flight at Dushanbe's airport. The government said it was responding to a lack of information about the purpose of the trip.
Students studying abroad are not the only targets. In October, authorities shut down 20 unregistered religious schools in Khatlon Province alone, RFE/RL reported.
Rahmon reiterated his support for state control over religious education during the Muslim festival of Eid al-Adha in mid-November. Speaking on national television, he said Tajikistan needed a “healthy education” system under the watchful eye of the state. Specifically addressing the issue of Islamic education, he said that "the regulation of this process will be for the benefit of every student, society and our dear motherland.”
Representatives of some Islamic universities, such as Al-Azhar in Cairo, have reacted angrily to the Tajik government campaign. Farhat al-Munji, a scholar at Al-Azhar, told the Avesta News Agency: "I will take a legal action against anybody who says that we are training terrorists. People come here to study, not to become terrorists."
The leader of the Union of Tajik Youth in Russia, Izzat Aman, told the Najot newspaper recently that returning students could end up being blamed for recent disturbances – including anti-government militant activity in the Rasht Valley – further alienating them from mainstream society.
“The state has no clear plan what to do with these young men upon their return home. One thing is clear, most of them will be 'filtered' in connection with the recent conflict in the Rasht Valley. They will be questioned about their involvement in those events although it is unlikely that any of them has anything to do with the conflict,” Aman said, adding that the government was nurturing a resistance that may result in a “sudden explosion.”
Sign up for Eurasianet's free weekly newsletter.