Emomali Rahmon, Tajikistan’s president since 1994, has decreed all beards to be shaved. He is fighting the rising tide of Islamic extremism one follicle at a time.
The police in Tajikistan have shaven off the beards of some 13,000 men. Fearing the rise of radicalisation in the land-locked country of some 8 million, Tajik authorities have taken up razors to attack the symbols that remind them of the Salafist movements in the Middle East.
Hundreds of radicalised youth from the Central Asian Republics have reportedly joined the ranks of extremist Salafist groups. This has alarmed the authoritarian rulers who see the eventual return of the radicalised men as potential threats.
Instead of introducing genuine reforms to allow citizens a greater say in their affairs, Tajik authorities have resorted to brute force, claiming beards are alien and inconsistent with the Tajik culture.
Also read: Beards — a trim history
At the same time, women are instructed not to wear black, even when mourning.
The black-coloured garb of IS’s self-styled Caliph Abu-Bakr Baghdadi has hit a nerve in Tajikistan, where perhaps "Orange is the New Black".
No one can pay the price to stay bearded
What President Rahmon assumes a Tajik tradition might, in fact, be a reminiscent of Russian Tzars. In fact, it was in 1705 when Peter the Great decreed that men must shave their beards. Initially, he made no exemptions, forcing the clergy, nobles and serfs to comply.
Eventually, priests and peasants were permitted to grow beards, provided they paid a beard tax (kopek). The receipt in the shape of a coin bore the inscription of a nose, mouth, moustache and a long bushy beard on one side. The other side was inscribed with words “money received”.
Those who refused to comply were imprisoned.
It appears that President Rahmon has outdone even Peter the Great. No longer can one pay the price to stay bearded. The Tajik police have come out guns, scissors, and razors blazing to win the war on beard.
Meanwhile, religious authorities and ecclesiastical rulers of the past and present have always tried to exercise control over hair.
Their length and visibility have been the centrepiece of some religious doctrines. For instance, orthodox Jews and Muslims believe that women's hair should be concealed in public; Sikhs are forbidden to cut hair; the Taliban in Swat prohibited barbers from shaving beards.
Those who did not comply were flogged in public.
The European clergy has battled curls for centuries. Towards the end of the 11th century, the Pope decreed that those who wore long hair must be excommunicated while living. Once dead, they were denied prayers.
What denying control over hair means
However, it is not just the religious authorities that remain preoccupied with hair. Authoritarian regimes do the same.
In Iran, for instance, women are forced to wear head scarves and clothes that conceal their hair. Violators are fined, harassed and shamed, and in some cases, arrested.
In Saudi Arabia, women are subject to even harsher treatment should their locks make a public display.
In the dark days of the Taliban rule in Afghanistan, visiting soccer players from Pakistan, wearing shorts, had disturbed the religious sensibilities of the authorities.
As punishment, the Taliban shaved off the hair of their Pakistani guests.
Denying control over one’s hair is the sign of an overbearing, authoritarian, and at times, dictatorial regime that enacts laws and regulations to sustain and prolong its non-representative rule.
Such regimes often use brute force to deny the majority the right to exercise control over their affairs. They use religion or “the greater national interest” as an excuse to justify their despotic rule.
President Rahmon is right in standing up to the rising tide of Islamic extremism in the region. However, his methods are faulty, and are unlikely to curb militancy.
He should know that his dictatorial rule, and that of others, is the reason why extremism has spread in the region.
Genuine and serious reforms enabling masses, especially women, to have control over state affairs will defeat the threats posed by IS and the Taliban.
Banning beards, however, will not stem the tide of extremism.