TAJIKISTAN: 'Political' Imams Sacked.

by Igor Rotar, Keston News Service, 18 October 2002

A senior member of Tajikistan's Islamic Revival Party (IRP) has complained to Keston News Service that compulsory attestation of imams by a joint religious and government commission in one district alone of the country's northern Sogd region has seen more than a fifth sacked for alleged sympathy with his party's views. "Those in power have started a campaign against our party," Dodojon Yakubov, the chairman of the Sogd regional division of the Islamic Revival Party, told Keston in Khojand on 10 October. "The majority of imams who failed registration are those who share our views." However, Tajikistan's laws on religion and on political parties do not ban individual religious officials from being members of political parties.

The attestation of imams to allow them to retain their positions took place in July to August in the Isfara district of Sogd region, the Varorud information centre in the regional capital Khojand told Keston on 9 October. The commission, comprising both government and religious representatives, found that 11 of the 52 imams under attestation did not meet the requirements of their positions. They were obliged to leave their posts.

Yakubov declared that commission members failed to approve the 11 imams believing they were members of the Islamic Revival Party, something commission members claimed was banned under Tajikistan's laws on religion and on political parties. However Yakubov said that at the time of the attestation the imams had already left the Islamic Revival Party, and "consequently their discharge from duties is not lawful".

In fact Tajikistan's religion law does not prohibit religious officials from being members of political parties. Article 5 indeed states that religious organisations cannot participate in the activity of political parties and movements, but the same article maintains that members of religious organisations enjoy the same rights to take part in political life as all citizens. In Article 5 of the law on political parties, members of religious organisations do not figure among those professions whose members are forbidden from joining political parties, which are listed as judges, prosecutors, and those working for the Interior Ministry, State Security, tax police, customs and judiciary.

Yakubov told Keston that the campaign against the IRP was unleashed after President Emomali Rakhmonov addressed the district leadership in Isfara on 9 July. Rakhmonov declared that among the Taliban prisoners held at the US base on Guantanamo Bay in Cuba were three Tajik citizens from the Isfara district, something that has not helped the country's international standing. Rakhmonov argued that events of the early 1990s - a reference to the Tajik civil war, in which one of the sides was Islamist - could be repeated in the Sogd region. The president also observed that in the Isfara district today there are twice as many mosques as schools. Currently the district has 142 ordinary and 10 cathedral mosques, significantly above the national average. Rakhmonov claimed that more than 60 Isfara youths are "illegally" receiving religious education in other Islamic countries.

In the president's opinion, everything points to a determined effort to strengthen the roots of fundamentalism, which "cannot but cause alarm". Rakhmonov spoke of the need for "adherence of the district's religious institutions to the country's laws".

But some see a more direct political aim. "In fact, in launching a campaign against our party, those in power are merely attempting to eliminate a political rival," Yakubov told Keston. "Islamic Revival Party members and non-party believers make up a unified force, and those in power are attempting to divide us. It would seem that the Dushanbe government has already begun preparing for the 2005 parliamentary elections."

Yakubov's point of view may have some validity. In the 2000 parliamentary elections, the vast majority of votes in the Isfara district went to the Islamic Revival Party. In the town of Chorku, 15 kilometres (10 miles) to the south of Isfara itself, it received 93 % of the vote. Visiting the town on 12 October, Keston noted that no alcohol is on sale and all women wear the hijab, a scarf covering the head and neck entirely. Both are unusual for today's Tajikistan.

Ismajon Puladov, the head of the department of religion of the Isfara district administration, argued that the attestation commission was justified in removing the imams from office. "In accordance with the laws on religion and political parties, religious officials may not be members of political parties," he told Keston on 11 October. "Consequently those imams who were members of the Islamic Party of Tajikistan were lawfully dismissed from their positions." Asked by Keston how state officials can conduct the attestation of imams when religion is separate from the state, Puladov responded: "Of the seven on the attestation committee, six were Ulema Council members, and only I represented state structures. As an official concerned with religion I have to know the situation in my own district." (Strictly speaking the ulema are Muslim scholars, but in Tajikistan all district and regional ulema are imams loyal to the state).

The chairman of the Isfara district Ulema Council, who was present at this discussion, admitted that Puladov had not only attended the attestation commission session, but had also taken part in the voting. Also indirectly admitting the state's role in the attestation of the imams was the head of the Isfara district administration, Mirzosharif Islamiddinov. "The attestation was conducted by the Isfara district Ulema Council, and so the principle of the separation of the state from religion was not broken," he told Keston on 12 October. "It is another matter that, in consideration of the difficult situation in the district, we found it necessary to recommend to the Ulema Council that they hold the attestation." At the time of the 2000 parliamentary elections Islamiddinov was Tajikistan's deputy prime minister, and he confided to Keston that after the IRP victory he had been sent to the Isfara district as head of the administration to "stabilise the situation".

The Islamic Revival Party of Tajikistan, which was founded in 1990, called for the creation of an Islamic state. The party's organisers were in the Soviet era probably the main opponents of the official Muslim leaders, who had practically become part of the communist leadership. Many of the party's leaders speak practically no Russian, but know Arabic. Most wear national costume and their way of life barely differs from that of Tajiks before Russian colonisation.

In May 1992 the anti-communist opposition (the backbone of which was made up of Islamic Revival Party members), attempted to seize power by force from the country's leadership, which virtually entirely comprised former Communist Party functionaries. A bloody civil war began. A year later detachments of the opposition were forced to flee to Afghanistan, but in essence the civil war continued. Peace was only achieved in 1997 when an agreement was reached between the government and the opposition to create a coalition government.

The Islamic Revival Party was once again registered by the Ministry of Justice. In its programme the aim to create an Islamic state was replaced with the "defence of the rights of Muslims".

From 1997 to today's clash in the Isfara district, the Islamic Revival Party has not confronted the authorities. However as the Tajik newspaper Najot reported on 4 October, the leader of the Islamic Revival Party, Said Abdullo Nuri, has criticised the enforced removal of imams sympathetic to the party in the Isfara district, accusing the authorities of organising a large-scale campaign against Muslims. (END)