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.