In the past eight years, around 3,400 young people have been brought back to Tajikistan before they could complete their Islamic studies at colleges abroad, the head of the religious committee told reporters at a press conference on July 25.
Sulaimon Davlatzoda, head of the state’s religion committee, said around 400 Tajiks are still studying at religious institutions overseas.
The government’s campaign to return students from religious schools in countries like Egypt and Iran came at the behest of President Emomali Rahmon, who warned that young people were being taught extremist ideals.
Rahmon doubled down in May on the suggestion that study abroad constituted a risk.
“We have our own Islamic institute, which can train specialists to a high level,” he said in a public address.
The only Islamic studies institute now operating in Tajikistan, in the capital, Dushanbe, can only accommodate a maximum of 1,400 students at any one given time, however.
Even Davlatzoda had to concede that only 126 of the returnees continued their studies in Tajikistan. Another 73 eventually went back to their institutes abroad.
It was slim pickings for the others.
Around 1,100 of the students joined the ranks of Tajikistan’s colossal army of migrant laborers, said Davlatzoda. Another 585 are officially registered as unemployed on a Labor Ministry database.
And about 1,300 of the former students are working on farms.
Although many of the young people might not have returned to anything in particular in Tajikistan, Davlatzoda said he was satisfied the government had achieved a positive result.
“The countries where these religious colleges are located are not stable. There is no certainty of safety. If it had not been for the timely decree of the president, then who knows what would have happened to these 4,000 countrymen,” he said.
Options for people seeking a religious education are limited in Tajikistan. The Islamic studies institute cannot meet demand. And madrasas are de facto forbidden. Changes to the law adopted in 2012 required religious schools to get approval to operate from the government, but no such institution has received the green light since that time.
In spite of the government’s hostility to pious Islam, the broad and long-term social trend has been toward a greater embrace of faith in Tajikistan. This has created a predicament that the authorities have typically sought to address with stifling and repressive measures.
Imams are almost universally coopted by being required to read officially approved sermons. Security cameras have been installed in some prominent mosques. Debate and dialogue about Islam is unwelcome.
Anybody seeking to explore alternative forms of Islam to what offered by the state usually have few options. That creates a fertile ground for the curious and unschooled to improvise by seeking out esoteric schools of thought online.