Two recent criminal cases concerning Muslim religious leaders promising mystical cures are helping to focus attention in Tajikistan on the phenomenon of faith healing. The cases in question involved a “possessed” teenager who was bled and beaten to death, and a woman who was sexually molested while seeking fertility treatment.
Amid a steep decline in the quality of education since the 1991 Soviet collapse, Tajikistan is proving to be fertile ground for non-traditional, largely unregulated healers, health care professionals assert.
The trend has led to tragedy and scandal. In one of the highest profile cases, police in the Pyanj District, near the Afghan border, detained an imam November 15 in connection with the death of a 19-year-old mentally handicapped man during a supposed attempt to exorcise evil spirits. Abdulvokhid Kodirov allegedly beat his patient with a wooden cane and cut his skin to bleed him. Doctors concluded the young man died from trauma and excessive blood loss, local media outlets reported.
The month before, a mullah from a Dushanbe suburb, 46-year-old Asadullo Ibrohimov, was found guilty of sexually molesting a female client who had come to him for help conceiving a baby. He was sentenced to seven years in prison. On November 27, an appeals court in Dushanbe upheld the sentence, the Asia-Plus news agency reported.
Authorities seem tentative when it comes to addressing problems related to faith healing. Mavlon Mukhtor, deputy director of the State Committee for Religious Affairs and Streamlining National Traditions, said the number of self-styled faith healers is on the rise, but added the agency keeps no records of crimes committed in connection with such practices. He also acknowledged that he hadn’t heard of the Kodirov case, in which the imam stands accused of beating the young man to death.
"We are aware that there are many impostors profiting from human illiteracy,” Mukhtor told EurasiaNet.org, adding that his office tries to raise public awareness. “We talk about it in public on television and during our meetings with people; we ask them not to succumb to the unjustified slogans of uneducated people, not to turn to these people.”
Ultimately, complaints about healers’ activities and methods are a police matter, he stated.
President Imomali Rahmon has been quick to link problems to the rapid reemergence of Islam, along with a rise in radical beliefs, in Tajikistan. “In the past, there were very few religious educational institutions in the country, but there was understanding and tolerance in society; children loved their parents, and young ones always treated elders with respect,” Rahmon said in July.
Today “there are more than four thousand mosques … yet extremism and fanaticism flourish,” he continued, in comments reposted on his website. “The construction of mosques and houses of prayer in every residential block leads to needless disputes and controversies among Muslims; it undermines stability; it contradicts the unifying essence and mission of Islam and other religions.”
Some observers believe the president is exaggerating the threat of radical Islam to justify human rights abuses and make it easier for his administration to attract foreign security assistance. Others suggest that he may be trying to use religion as cover for his administration’s own shortcomings: these critics point out that in his 21 years in power, Rahmon has done little to improve the quality of education or expand employment opportunities – two factors that many see as playing a role fostering radicalization and spurring the proliferation of faith healers.
Though there are no statistics, faith healers and fortunetellers appear to be common in Tajikistan. "People are drowning in sins because they are illiterate. An educated person should not go to any healers,” Domulloh Ilkhom, a mullah at a small mosque in Dushanbe’s 11th Microrayon, told EurasiaNet.org.
Eroding public confidence in the health care system is a big part of the problem. To underscore that point, a trained psychotherapist, speaking on condition of anonymity, told EurasiaNet.org that falling education standards have left many recent medical graduates “unable to tell psychology from psychiatry.” Under the present circumstances, the psychotherapist added, it’s no surprise that healers do a brisk business.
One faith healer, known as Apai Nilufar, or Auntie Nilufar, told EurasiaNet.org that she sees about a dozen clients daily.
“Some of my visitors need only a kind word; others need real assistance – cleaning, both physical and spiritual. Almost in every case, I strongly advise my visitors to go to the church, mosque or synagogue,” said Nilufar, who is in her fifties and sees clients in a modest apartment on the outskirts of Dushanbe. “Some of my clients confess that they used to go to bad wizards and sought to succeed in some endeavors or take revenge on someone.”
Konstantin Parshin is a freelance writer based in Tajikistan.