Tajik authorities have apparently found a new way to discipline Islamic clerics daring to criticize state policies. The novel approach consists of mobilizing state-controlled Islamic leaders to discredit and penalize the dissidents. In December 2011, the nominally independent Council of Ulamo (CoU) accused three influential clerics, the Turajonzoda brothers, of performing “alien” Shia rituals at their mosque. This is a very serious claim given that most people in Tajikistan are Sunni Muslims. The CoU is a government-controlled body of clerics charged with regulating Islamic activities in the country.
The accusations against the Turajonzoda brothers were leveled in a public statement on December 6. The document alleged that the clerics had performed the Shia ritual of “Ashura” at the Muhammadiya Mosque. This mosque in the brothers’ native village of Turkobod, some 30 kilometers east of the Tajik capital Dushanbe, is considered one of the most prominent in the country. Friday prayers at the mosque commonly attracted between 15,000 and 20,000 people, with many worshippers coming to listen to the traditional Friday sermons. These sermons were consequently circulated on CDs and DVDs across the country and were available for download on a website that the authorities have blocked since May 2011. The oldest of the Turajonzoda brothers, Eshoni Nuriddin, frequently used the sermons to condemn government policies which purportedly restricted Islamic expression in the country. He was repeatedly rebuked by the authorities for these criticisms. In January 2011, Eshoni Nuriddin resigned as imam, ostensibly under pressure from the security agencies. He was replaced by the youngest brother, Muhammadjon.
Yet many analysts interpreted the CoU’s accusations as targeting the most outspoken of the brothers, Hoji Akbar Turajonzoda. Unlike other brothers, Hoji Akbar is widely seen as a political figure. He served as Tajikistan’s supreme Islamic authority in the final years of Soviet rule. During the civil war in the country in 1992-1997, Hoji Akbar became the second most senior leader of the United Tajik Opposition and the Islamic Revival Party (IRPT). For most of that period, he lived in exile in Iran and allegedly had close ties with Shia clerics there. After the 1997 peace accords, the cleric denounced his former “brethren in arms” from the IRPT and supported Emomali Rahmon’s reelection as president. In exchange for this support, Hoji Akbar was appointed First Deputy Prime Minister and put in charge of Tajikistan’s relations with the former Soviet states. However, the senior government post involved little real power, and the cleric was largely ostracized within the administration. In 2005, Rahmon appointed him to the upper house of the parliament, effectively marginalizing him from politics. After becoming a senator, Hoji Akbar began to openly criticize the government for restricting religious freedoms in the country. As a result, the cleric lost his seat in the parliament in 2010.
Hoji Akbar has denied accusations leveled against him and his brothers. Moreover, he alleged that the CoU’s statement lacked signatures of several members of the Council and was therefore invalid. These protests notwithstanding, the CoU ordered that all imams around the country read the statement to worshippers at Friday prayers. A number of mosque leaders who refused to do so were reportedly dismissed. On December 9, the CoU’s head, Saidmukarram Abduqodirzoda, arrived at the Muhammadiya Mosque to read the statement in person to worshippers there. However, after provocative remarks by Hoji Akbar and Eshoni Nuriddin, the worshippers interrupted Abduqodirzoda’s speech and forced him to leave the mosque. A government official who accompanied the CoU’s head at the mosque announced that President Emomali Rahmon would soon meet with Hoji Akbar Turajonzoda to discuss the “recent developments”.
The meeting has not occurred. Instead, the authorities used the December 9 incident to penalize the Turajonzoda brothers. The government Committee for Religious Affairs (CRA) appointed a new imam to the Muhammadiya Mosque. The committee also imposed a three-month ban on Friday prayers at the mosque, noting that the ban would be lifted only if the “shortcomings related to the functioning of the mosque” are properly addressed. Moreover, Hoji Akbar and Eshoni Nuriddin were ordered by a Tajik court to pay a fine of 350 somoni (about US$ 70) each, allegedly for insulting public officials. The brothers have decided not to appeal the court ruling, suggesting that it was clear that it had been sanctioned by senior government officials. Independent analysts suggest that Tajik authorities will continue using state-supported religious leaders to punish independently minded Tajik imams and political dissidents.