Tajikistan is grappling with how to enforce a ban on adherents of an ultra-conservative branch of Islam. At the same time, parliament seems prepared to adopt a new law on religion that, critics say, will effectively prohibit small religious groups from operating legally.
The Tajik Supreme Court in January outlawed the Salafi school of Islam from operating in the country. Authorities blame the movement for stoking religious tensions in Tajikistan and for its alleged ties to terrorist groups. Salafis espouse an ultra-conservative approach to religion, asserting that their practices emulate those which existed during Islam's early days. Believers in Salafism do not acknowledge the legitimacy of other forms of Islamic worship, including Shi'ism and Sufism.
It remains unclear how authorities can enforce the ban, which went into force on February 9. "How will the authorities decide who is a Salafi? What will such an individual have to do -- if anything -- before officials decide to punish them?" asked Felix Corley of Forum 18, a Norway-based religious freedom watchdog.
Shortly after the Supreme Court issued its ruling, Prosecutor-General Bobojon Bobokhonov, the man who initiated the case against the Salafi movement in December, told journalists January 13 that the ban was preventative in nature. "During the short period of their activities in Tajikistan, Salafis did not break laws, but their propaganda [did influence] security in the country," he said.
Such a stance has drawn criticism from domestic and international human rights advocates. Many of those same advocates are viewing the pending religious legislation, which parliament is expected to consider on February 11, as an attempt by the government to formalize a roll-back of religious freedom.
Corley suggested that Tajikistan may be headed in the same direction as neighboring Uzbekistan, which has created a draconian system of control over matters of faith. "One early indication is the report that police in Sughd District [were] already listing those they regard as Salafis, even though the ban [had not] come into force," Corley told EurasiaNet. "Such moves would bring Tajikistan into line with Uzbekistan, which already maintains extensive listings at a local level of people regarded as 'suspicious' because of their religious affiliation."
"Active Muslims and Protestants are already known to be listed and kept under scrutiny," Corley continued. "Some are then prosecuted, others are sacked from jobs and others are prevented from traveling abroad."
In its annual assessment of human rights practices in Tajikistan, released in March 2008, the US State Department said that the Tajik government over the previous year had "intensified its monitoring of the activities of religious groups and institutions to prevent them from becoming overtly political."
In apparent connection with this intensification of monitoring, numerous unofficial mosques were closed down in Dushanbe. In addition, the sole remaining synagogue in the country, built in the 19th century, was demolished because the "ramshackle building" -- according to municipal authorities -- was "disfiguring" the landscape near the president's new home, the Palace of the Nation. Although authorities promised to apportion a new parcel of land for a new synagogue, no land has yet been allotted.
Moreover, schoolgirls and university students are not allowed to attend classes wearing a hijab, thus seeming to violate their rights, say observers.
Bobokhonov said the prohibition of the Salafi movement is meant to protect constitutional order and strengthen national security. Printed material promoting Salafi ideas is also prohibited. The prosecutor-general conflated the Salafi movement with Wahabbism, a puritanical branch of Islam that inspired Osama bin Laden. "The [1992-97] civil war [in Tajikistan] also started from the growing influence of the Wahabbi movement," he said. For many in Tajikistan, with memories of that conflict still fresh, such a reference is enough to justify authoritarian restrictions.
Salafis prefer not to be associated with Wahabbism, given the latter's political undertones. Even so, both schools of thought proclaim the "oneness" of God and creation, urging believers to look to the lives of Mohammed's companions for earthly guidance.
Rakhmatillo Zoirov, chairman of Tajikistan's Social-Democratic Party and a former legal advisor to President Imomali Rahmon, alleged that the prosecutor-general's initiative to ban Salafis is illegal, the Asia-Plus news agency reported.
Despite questions about the government's motivation, the increase in restrictions placed on religious groups appears to enjoy widespread support among Tajiks. "Salafi representatives in Tajikistan have gone beyond the borders of religious tolerance and become a factor for public and political instability," Asia-Plus quoted Abdulloh Rakhim Rakhnamo, an independent expert on religion and conflict prevention, as saying on January 16. The "politically erroneous statements of some young men, who call themselves Salafis, have cleared the way for a deep religious split in our society, which might easily grow into a public-political conflict. Thus, the Salafi movement has turned from a purely religious phenomenon into a political factor."
Ozoda Rakhimova, a Dushanbe physician, agrees with the ban. "We learn about some new organizations and movements emerging from nowhere, professing something obscure," she told EurasiaNet. "Apart from the freedom of consciousness, we must have the freedom of protection from sects. In my opinion, the latter is far more important."
But experts say that prohibitions could provoke a dangerous reaction, especially given the drastic recent decline in Tajikistan's economy. Some believe the ban will merely increase the popularity of the Salafis, or push ever more youngsters to explore membership in other banned organizations, such as the underground Hizb-ut-Tahrir movement, which seeks the non-violent ouster of existing governments in Central Asia followed by the establishment of an Islamic caliphate.
Corley of Forum 18 sees the Salafi ban as part of a wider trend throughout Central Asia. "Tajikistan is following similar moves to [toughen] religion laws in Kyrgyzstan, where a new law was adopted in January, and in Kazakhstan, where [such a law] is now undergoing a last-minute review by the Constitutional Council. Kazakhstan especially is already cracking down hard on religious communities the authorities do not like, including Protestants, Hare Krishnas, Muslims outside the framework of the state-sanctioned [Spiritual] Board [of Muslims] and Jehovah's Witnesses."
Konstantin Parshin is a freelance correspondent based in Dushanbe.