Tajik President Imomali Rahmon's administration is discouraging believers in the impoverished Central Asian nation from making the Hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca, this year. Instead, authorities are asking that would-be pilgrims make a donation to charity.
Tajikistan is coming under growing economic strain during the global financial crisis, with officials struggling to provide essential services as they confront the implosion of the industrial and agricultural sectors. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Rahmon's call for donations to charities underscores the tenuous nature of the country's economy. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
"I call on future pilgrims from Tajikistan during the global economic and financial crisis to donate their savings to charity," he announced in late June. Every year 4,500 Tajiks perform the Hajj pilgrimage to Islam's holy sites in Saudi Arabia -- a journey that costs an average of $3,000 per person. Rahmon targeted his appeal at Tajiks who have already made a pilgrimage, and were intent on returning. "In a time of crisis, your savings could go to needy families," the president stressed.
For the past two years, Tajikistan's State Religious Affairs Committee has been controlling the number of pilgrims traveling to Mecca. The official limit is 4,500 a year. In 2008, the committee denied 1,500 applications, though local observers say this is not viewed as a violation of believers' rights. The 2009 Hajj falls in November.
Rahmon is known for his efforts to regulate behavior, and for trying to alter social customs. In May 2007, for example, he endorsed a law regulating the way weddings, funerals, circumcisions and other family events were celebrated, mandating the maximum number of guests at any given event and time limits, as well as financial penalties and administrative punishments for violators. Prior to endorsing the Law on Squaring Traditions and Rites, Rahmon explained that Tajiks spent too much on both secular and religious celebrations, adding that the money spent could serve more essential purposes. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
In June, Rahmon led by example, hosting a small wedding party for his eldest son, Rustami Imomali. Local press reports described the celebration as modest and state television showed Rahmon and his family donating goods to orphanages.
But, just as some back in 2007 said the limits on party size were designed to prevent mass gatherings that could turn political, now some see ulterior motives in the president's appeal concerning the Hajj.
"Tajik authorities' advice on how to properly spend private money is just an attempt to distract the attention of people from the government's inability and reluctance to resolve domestic problems," said a local university professor, speaking on condition of anonymity. "Instead of tackling these problems and countering corruption, authorities criticize religion and superstition."
The 2007 "traditions act," as it is popularly known, as well as other sweeping Rahmon initiatives -- such as the abolition of school graduation celebrations -- continue to face criticism, both in public and private. Many Tajiks believe the government could do more to improve social services. More than half of the population lives in poverty, but at the same time, locals are quick to note, Dushanbe is awash in expensive private cars and ringed by hundreds of luxurious private villas.
Some see the recent Hajj declaration as part of a wider crackdown on expressions of Islamic faith. Citing the widespread problem of corruption, one Dushanbe resident called the new directive "total cynicism." He indicated that few Tajiks were receptive to the president's appeal. "All we see now are summer houses and private hotels under construction. I am sure that nobody will make any donations to a public charity," he said.
While he certainly has a fair share of critics, Rahmon is applauded by many poorer Tajiks, who say the president's directives helped lift a huge financial burden off hard-pressed families. Political analyst Parviz Mullojanov feels that this time media outlets are perhaps being unfair to Rahmon. "This statement by the president has caused more feedback in the media that it deserves. It does not go beyond any other of Rahmon's messages regarding the frugal use of funds during the crisis. On the one hand, the Hajj is a duty of every Muslim; on the other hand, there is a traditional message in Islam saying that a Muslim cannot go on Hajj while leaving behind hungry children and relatives," he said.
"This statement of the president will definitely be interpreted in different ways by different social groups -- depending on their political sympathies and antipathies, as well as on their extent of religiousness," Mullojanov added.
Konstantin Parshin is a freelance correspondent based in Dushanbe.