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Fearful of militants, Tajikistan pursues bearded men

January 22, 2011

A file picture taken on July 12, 2009, shows Tajik Muslims praying in the village of Garm. Tajik police officers have got the right to take bearded men in for questioning if their identification documents do not show them with a beard, the RIA Novosti news agency quoted, the local Interior Ministry chief of staff as saying. –AFP Photo/Vyacheslav Oseledko

DUSHANBE: Sermons imposed on imams, the harassment of men with beards — anxious Tajikistan seems ready to try anything to curb the spread of Islam in this impoverished republic on the edge of Afghanistan.

With ethnic tensions still simmering from a 1990s civil war and the continued presence of the Taliban on the ex-Soviet state’s southern border, the Tajik authorities have recently mounted their own campaign against believers.

With increasing alarm, they have been watching more and more young men attend mosques — and fewer and fewer of them sit around squares and restaurants sipping beer.

In an apparent bid to cut the growth of radicalism at its source, the government has decided to publish a collection of 52 sermons that must be preached during Friday prayers under threat of sanctions.

Five thousand copies of the sermon book have been printed and distributed to the country’s 3,000 mosques, each one of them spelling out what may and may not be covered in sermons.

Anything deemed “chaotic” or “extremist” is now out, said an official with the state committee for religious affairs.

“These 52 Friday sermons cover all aspects of a Muslim’s life,” said the committee’s deputy head Mavlon Mukhtorov.

“These are ready-made recipes” on how to lead a proper life, the official said.

“It is quite enough to follow the book and avoid wasting your time choosing a weekly prayer. Imams should no longer enjoy the independence and liberalism they once did.”

The harassment of bearded men, meanwhile — a bizarre move first started in September — was followed by militant attacks and triggered a massive military operation in the country’s east.

“Terrorists and members of fundamentalist movements wear beards,” Makhmadullo Asadullov, the spokesman for the Tajik interior ministry said to justify the policy.

A 29-year-old Dushanbe resident who identified himself only as Nasrullo said police officers had picked him up and ordered him to shave, or else.

“I was hauled to the police station. They took my fingerprints, noted my address, phone number and asked me which extremist group I belonged to,” he said.

“After several hours of humiliation, an officer ordered me to shave or else he would do it for me — but in a way that would hurt.”

Khabib, another young man who described himself as a police victim, preferred to shave after his arrest.

“I told the police that the beard had no religious significance to me but that it adorned me as a man, but they said that our society was filled by scum like me.”

Such a seemingly haphazard approach to a national security issue is being interpreted by some as a sign that the country’s strongman president, Emomali Rakhmon, is running scared and out of ideas.

“It is an attempt to administer the religious sphere by officials who have no clear policy on religion,” said Dushanbe resident Saymuddin Dustov.

“It shows that officials fear the growing influence of religion.”

But a spokesman for the Islamic Revival Party, Khikmatullo Sayfullozoja, said the government could do little to curb the revival of religion in the former Soviet Union’s poorest state.

“The number of believers is growing steadily and things that are alien to Islam — such as alcohol — are disappearing,” said Sayfullozoja.

“The faithful understand that and they do not need a book of sermons for that.”