U.S. Embassy in Ashgabat Helps Turkmenistan to Renovate Mosque
On the symbolic date of September 11, the 9th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the U.S., the U.S. Embassy in Ashgabat joined the Turkmen government in celebrating the reopening of the newly-renovated Shir-Kebir (Mashad Ata) Mosque in Ashgabat, the Embassy reported on its website.
The Shir-Kebir Mosque, built in the 9th century, is the oldest standing mosque in Turkmenistan. The renovations were sponsored by the U.S State Department, which has spent a total of $230,000 on a 11 cultural heritage projects in Turkmenistan through the Ambassador's Fund, a global program to help rebuild historical sites, including mosques. A group of professionals from the Turkmen Ministry of Culture's National Administration on Preservation and Restoration of Cultural and Historical Sites performed the work.
The good-will project in Turkmenistan is part of a global effort by the Obama Administration to mend relations with the Islamic world which have been strained by the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. A number of similar outreach efforts have been made since President Barack Obama's speech in Cairo in June 2009, where he indicated that the U.S. would adopt a more humble and tolerant position regarding the cultures of other nations. The laudable efforts have no doubt won back some hearts and minds, but also drawn critics such as the New Yorker's George Packer to ask how the Administration's new deference will translate to human rights progress.
For the Turkmen government, restoration projects like these are part of an ambitious program to reconstruct the glorious past of the Turkmen people and link it to the current "Era of Great Renewal," as President Berdymukhamedov has dubbed his administration.
The U.S. still has no ambassador to Turkmenistan, but Charge d’Affairs Lynne Tracy was present at the mosque opening to deliver remarks, opting to highlight both the historical and national meaning as well as the international community of Islam:
The great Turkmen centers of learning in Merv, Ismamut Ata, and here in Mashad Ata inspired generations of thinkers that formed the basis of Turkmen literature and history. Such great poets and thinkers as Dovletmamet Azadi, Makhtumkuli, and Mollanepes used the teachings of Islam to become voices for a unified nation. Islam though is not merely a collection of buildings with a venerable history. It is also a living religion with communities of believers across the globe, including within the United States, and of course Turkmenistan - Believers that espouse our shared ideals of peaceful coexistence and mutual respect.
Turkmenistan is avowedly a secular state. The majority of the population are Sunni Muslims. State-controlled Muslim clergy are permitted to function in some mosques. The government's Council on Religious Affairs (CRA) exercises direct control over the hiring and firing of Muslim clergy as it does of Russian Orthodox priests. When President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov was inaugurated in 2007, he laid his hand on the Turkmen Constitution to take the oath of office, but then bowed to Koran, which was also used in the swearing-in ceremony. Council elders then presented him with a copy of the Ruhnama, the cult book instituted by his predecessor, Saparmurat Niyazov.
Gradually, President Berdymukhamedov has reduced the ubiquitous Ruhnama cult, although Ruhnama is still a required subject in schools and on university entrance exams. Most importantly, the Ruhnama quotation placed on mosques, which angered Muslims, has been removed. In 2006, President Berdymukhamedov released from prison the former chief mufti of Turkmenistan, Nasrullah ibn Ibadullah, who had been ordered sentenced to 22 years for treason by Niyazov after refusing the imposition of Ruhnama, and possibly because as an ethnic Uzbek he was seen as a threat. After his release, the religious leader was put on the state Council of Religious Affairs but has seldom many any public comments.
Despite such welcome gestures, the Turkmen leader's relationship with Islam remains ambiguous. Like other Central Asian leaders, President Berdymukhamedov continues to harshly discourage any non-state form of Muslim religious belief. According to the Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights, Turkmen authorities have also arrested several mullahs and charged them with crimes in a number of cases which appear to have been fabricated to discredit them.
Muslim cleric Shiri Geldimuradov, arrested with his sons on charges of terrorism and extremism after a shoot-out in September 2007 between militants and police, died in a prison in July under unexplained circumstances, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported.
Last year, the Turkmen government prohibited Muslim believers from making the haj, citing the alleged dangers of H1N1 flu virus. Instead, officials substituted a domestic pilgrimage around holy archeological sites in Turkmenistan. In previous years, only 188 religious believers -- a plane load -- were permitted to travel to Mecca; the policy for this year is not yet known.
Eager to do business with a strategically gas-rich Central Asian nation, recently U.S. has praised even very minimal progress by the Turkmen government in tolerating freedom of religion, such as permission for a small Catholic parish to register, enabling less than a 100 mainly ex-pats in the diplomatic and business community to attend Mass.
With the Protestant denominations, the Turkmen government has shown the same sort of ruthlessness as Uzbekistan, arresting people for holding prayer meetings in their homes or distributing literature. Currently Ilmurad Nurliev, a Protestant pastor in Mary, is awaiting trial in prison on charges of extortion based on the testimony of some parishioners, one of whom was previously imprisoned, Forum 18 News Service reports. His supporters believe the charges were trumped up to prevent his unregistered church from operating. The pastor's wife has urged the mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in Ashgabat to monitor his trial, and OSCE has responded that it is watching the case carefully. Nurliev has been barred from leaving Turkmenistan since 2007 and his church's request to register has been stalled since then.
The heavy control over any form of civic activity, including religious belief, has meant that few religious movements get started in Turkmenistan, such as to generate cases of political prisoners or closure of worship buildings as elsewhere in Eurasia. Even so, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (U.S. CIRF) has decided to recommend that
Turkmenistan be declared a "Country of Particular Concern", due to failure to reform religious legislation to enable independent organizations to register; harsh crackdowns on any form of unauthorized religious activity; and substitution of state-sponsored ideologies such as Ruhnama into school curriculum and public ceremonies.
By law, the U.S. Secretary of State must review the recommendations and reports of the U.S. CIRF and make its own recommendation and issue its own annual report. This year, as in past years, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that the U.S. would not include Turkmenistan is the CPC list, although Uzbekistan was included. The report usually comes out in September, but may be delayed this year and possibly consolidated with other human rights reporting from State that is published in February.
Ultimately, the U.S. has chosen to work with the Turkmen government on projects like the mosque reconstruction rather than condemn it through inclusions in the CPC list. The danger is that the U.S. may wind up helping the authoritarian Turkmen state make propagandistic use of religious symbols for the construction of state mythologies, and lessen instead of increase freedom of religious belief.