With little discussion, Tajikistan’s parliament recently approved a number of government-proposed amendments to legislation. These amendments impose additional restrictions on religious education for Tajik nationals both at home and abroad. Young Tajiks seeking to study Islam abroad will now find it increasingly difficult or impossible to do so, and their options for studying religion at home will be limited to a few government-sanctioned schools. As a result, people wishing to learn more about the religion will have little other choice but to seek such education from clandestine groups.
BACKGROUND: On May 25, the lower chamber of Tajikistan’s parliament approved changes to the 2009 Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations, most commonly known as the “Religion Law”. The changes introduce two mandatory requirements for Tajik citizens wishing to study religion abroad. The first requirement is to graduate from a similar level school offering religious education within Tajikistan. The second prerequisite is permission from the country’s Ministry of Education and Committee for Religious Affairs (CRA). These restrictions effectively bar young Tajiks from foreign Islamic schools because few people in the country would be able to meet both requirements.
Explaining the reasoning behind regulating religious schooling abroad Davlatali Davlatzoda, a parliamentarian for the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDPT), suggested that over 90 percent of the country’s Muslims are Sunnis of the Hanafi school of Islam, but some Tajiks have been taught the religion by other currents of Islam in foreign countries. He warned that this could lead to conflicts over the interpretation of Islam. According to the parliamentarian, the latest changes to the Religion Law would enable the authorities to regulate which countries individuals would go to and what they would study there.
The amended legislation reinforces previous restrictions on foreign religious education. In August 2010, President Emomali Rahmon initiated a massive campaign to bring back hundreds of Tajik students from madrasahs (Islamic schools) abroad. Rahmon then argued that foreign madrasahs were teaching young people to become “extremists and terrorists”, and that all Tajiks had to return from such schools. The campaign has prompted over 1,500 students to return to Tajikistan. Still, according to the CRA, about 500 Tajiks continue studying in foreign Islamic schools in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Pakistan, Iran, and Syria. Moreover, many of those who came back from foreign madrasahs were not able to find jobs or continue their education in Tajikistan and chose to leave the country again.
While introducing legal restraints on religious education abroad, the authorities are also seeking to more closely regulate Islamic schooling at home. On June 15, the parliament’s lower house approved a number of amendments to the country’s Criminal Code. These amendments introduce harsh penalties for “religious extremist” teaching, making the organization of “religious study groups of extremist nature” punishable by 8-12 years in prison. Participants in such groups could face up to eight years in jail.
Tajikistan’s Minister of Internal Affairs Abdurahim Qahhorov, who presented the amendments in the parliament, suggested that harsh measures were needed to prevent religious leaders with an “extremist” agenda from promoting intolerance and radical versions of Islam in the country. There is no clarity at the moment who will decide whether any religious teaching is “extremist” or not. The legislation in its present form seems to leave this judgment to prosecutors, enabling them to punish organizers of any unsanctioned activity which involves elements of religious instruction.
The enactment of this legislation serves to further suppress Islamic education opportunities outside of state control. A ban on religious teaching without a government-issued license is vigorously enforced in Tajikistan. In 2010, Tajik police carried out a nationwide campaign against “illegal madrasahs”, shutting down hundreds of informal study groups, where children learnt the basics of Islam. Since the beginning of this year, police has closed down at least 60 unapproved “Islamic study groups” in the country.
IMPLICATIONS: The new restrictions on religious education demonstrate that the Tajik authorities are determined to strictly regulate who teaches the country’s children and young people about Islam. The purpose of the legislation is to help achieve this by limiting the right to teach religion to a few government-licensed institutions within the country. The authorities rely on these institutions in promoting a “traditional” or “official” version of Islam, which can help prevent “extremist” religious ideologies capable of circumventing the state.
However, it is very unlikely that the persecution of unsanctioned Islamic study groups would help the authorities strengthen the role of traditional Islam vis-à-vis its more radical manifestations. On the contrary, these repressive measures might increase the influence of clandestine Islamic groups. The existing government-approved schools offering religious education cannot meet the growing popular demand for Islamic learning. The country now has an Islamic Institute, where about 1,500 students receive higher religious education. In addition, some 6,000 students attend 19 madrasahs and three mixed schools, where Islam is taught alongside secular subjects, all at the secondary education level. These institutions are obviously too few for Tajikistan’s over seven million Muslims, most of whom are young and eager to learn more about Islam. Besides, these institutions are mostly based in urban centers, while the majority of the country’s population lives in rural areas.
It is unlikely that the government will be able or willing to open many more Islamic schools and thus satisfy the rising demand for religious knowledge in the country. Instead, the authorities have chosen to rely on mosques in teaching the basics of Islam to school-age children. In June, it was announced that the CRA, Islamic Institute and Islamic Centre were working jointly with the country’s education authorities to develop a curriculum for a course in Islam which would be taught to children over the age of seven at all major mosques during the summer school break. Some mosques have already launched such courses.
It remains unclear whether mosque-based summer classes would help reducing the demand for religious education. Besides, the enrollment of children in such courses is expected to become illegal when the parental responsibility bill, which was approved by the lower chamber of Tajikistan’s parliament on June 15, becomes law. The bill bans children under the age of 18 from “participating in the activities of religious organizations”, which includes all places of worship, except during religious holidays. The legislation has yet to be approved by the upper house and signed by the president to become a law, but this is seen only as a formality. When the law takes effect, parents will be responsible for not allowing their children to participate in any activities organized in mosques.
Hence, it is unlikely that the government would be able to offer the country’s young people viable opportunities to study Islam beyond two dozen licensed institutions. The limited opportunities for Islamic education through approved schools will inevitably cause an increasing number of people to seek such education from individuals and groups which operate outside of state control. This will ultimately increase the ideological influence of underground Islamic groups, thus leading to exactly what the government-imposed restrictions on religious education aim to prevent.
CONCLUSIONS: The government-initiated legislative changes seeking to regulate where young Tajiks can study Islam and who can teach it are unlikely to help ward off “extremist” Islam. While interest in Islam is steadily growing in Tajikistan, the country does not have enough institutions to offer “official” religious education. An attempt to involve mosques in educating children about the religion clearly conflicts with the recently imposed ban on children attending places of worship. Thus, the amendments limit the options available to Tajik nationals for studying the religion while not filling the ensuing Islamic education deficit. This creates an ideal breeding ground for clandestine Islamic study groups, thus defeating the very purpose of the government-imposed amendments.
(By Alexander Sodiqov, 07/06/2011 issue of the CACI Analyst)