Authorities in Tajikistan appear to espouse a great affection for secularism. Last year, Tajik President Emomali Rahmon announced his desire to create a ‘democratic and secular country based on the rule of law’, which must be ‘mainly focused on the development of secularism and national and secular thinking’. Such language follows the government taking an increasingly hard-line on various Islamic practises and symbolism across the country, with the independent Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) reporting on the closure of hundreds of shops and stalls selling hijabs, the attempted regulation of ‘words, names, ideas, appearance, and clothing’, as well as, most recently, the forced shaving of nearly 13,000 men, whose beards were deemed ‘overly long and unkempt’. This is all supposedly part of combating any ‘foreign’ influences which don’t conform to Tajik values, in a country where the population is, however, overwhelmingly Muslim.
‘This is a secular nationalist project to control and co-opt religion,’ explains Dr John Heathershaw, Associate Professor in International Relations at the University of Exeter. ‘That doesn’t mean that religion is being pushed out completely, far from it. What’s really being struggled over is the control of religion in the public sphere. The government would declare itself to be consistent with Muslim values, but they have a very specific and limited idea of what that is.’
“The main thing to be a good Muslim in Tajikistan is to do whatever the state tells you, and not begin to suggest that the regime may be itself morally corrupt”
One of the government’s most high profile actions last year was the official revoking of the principal political opposition, the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan, claiming they no longer had broad enough support across the country to qualify as a national political party. ‘This decision represents a huge setback for human rights in Tajikistan,’ announced Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch, at the time. ‘The Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan’s very existence emerged out of a hard-earned 1997 peace agreement that put an end to the country’s bloody civil war. Shutting down the party is perilous for human rights, democratic participation, and stability in the country.’ This decision resulted in the country’s ‘political rights’ rating in the latest Freedom House ‘Freedom in the World’ report dropping to seven, the lowest possible level.
Heathershaw explains how the authorities in Tajikistan use exaggerated fears of religious extremism to justify the extermination of any expressions which fall outside of their control. ‘This is an authoritarian government,’ he continues, ‘that’s how best to understand what’s going on. What is of concern to the regime is any unofficial expression of Islamic practice. The main thing to be a good Muslim in Tajikistan is to be supine, to do whatever the state tells you, to not rebel or speak out in any way, and not begin to suggest that the regime may be itself morally corrupt. That’s their fear, and that’s therefore why they crack down.’
This was published in the March 2016 edition of Geographical magazine.