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Tajik Muslims bristle over anti-fundamentalism efforts
DUSHANBE, Tajikstan — Tajikistan's government is aiming to combat Islamic fundamentalism in an effort that many Tajiks say is counterproductive and interferes with their religious lives.
The government's effort includes banning children from praying in mosques, establishing a strict dress code for Muslim pilgrims and building a giant mosque in the capital, Dushanbe.
"Tajiks who want to attend mosque with their children and live according their beliefs in an open manner will be pushed toward extremist groups," said Hoji Akbar Turajonzoda, a Tajik cleric and former deputy prime minister.
About 90 percent of Tajikistan's 7.6 million people are Muslim.
Earlier this year, President Emomali Rakhmon announced the need for tough measures to stop the spread of Islamic extremism in the country, which shares an 850-mile-long border with Afghanistan.
A law introduced in August that forbids Muslims under the age of 18 from attending Friday prayers has angered many.
"The law is a shame for our country," Mr. Turajonzoda said. "What kind of a state violates the fundamental right of a citizen to go to a mosque or to a church with their children?"
Authorities appear reluctant to enforce the law. Last Friday, two police officers stood watching as a group of teenagers made their way to the Central Dushanbe Mosque for prayers.
"Even criminals are able to go to mosque. Everybody knows that Allah doesn't ban anyone from going. and Allah's laws are stronger than laws of our president," said 12-year-old Makhmud, one of the boys heading to the mosque.
Mr. Rakhmon has been president since 1992. The first five years of his rule were marred by a civil war that claimed 50,000 lives as his government fought an Islamist opposition.
According to a high-ranking source in the Ministry of Internal Affairs, police have been instructed not to prevent teenagers from going to mosques.
"Authorities are worried about a popular revolt," said the official who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "Frankly, even policemen do not support this law, so it is not enforced at the moment."
Observers say that fear of unrest among citizens who believe that Islam is under attack from the state might be one reason why the government is building a 150,000-capacity mosque in Dushanbe.
Scheduled for completion in 2014, it will be the largest mosque in Central Asia.
"The construction of a mosque is a godly act but this particular mosque is being constructed with an ulterior motive," Turajonzoda said. "When criticized for cracking down on believers, it gives the authorities a free pass - now the government can point to the giant mosque and show that it supports religious freedom.
"But small groups still don't have the right to construct a mosque themselves," he said.
During the past year, the government has closed mosques around the country that were not operating under state control.
"The mosque will make it easier for the authorities to monitor and control what is preached in Dushanbe," said Tajik analyst Alexander Sodiqov. "After all, one large mosque is easier to control than 20 smaller ones."
Others see the new mosque as a diversion from more pressing social issues.
"Building a mosque is good because people will not pray on the streets near mosques as they do now," said Vali Yusupov, 54, a Dushanbe construction worker who said he has seen a recent increase in mosque attendance.
"On the other hand, our city has more urgent needs, like there not being enough schools or hospitals - with 43 students in my grandson's classroom, schools in general are overcrowded."
The government also has produced a standardized curriculum for Islamic religious schools and a uniform that the country's 5,500 pilgrims to Mecca were compelled to wear for the first time this year.
"Friends that are going this year got the new uniform. It's just a dark blue waistcoat with national Tajik emblem and a note stating 'Tajikistan, Hajj 2011,' " said Riskullo Aslamov, 65, a driver and resident of Rudaki district, 10 miles north of Dushanbe. "Tajiks are simple people. If they were told to wear something, they do it."
The uniform costs $50, adding an extra cost to the rising expenses that Tajiks pay to government organizers to undertake the pilgrimage, called the Hajj.
This year, the trip cost $3,348, up by almost $200 from 2010. And that doesn't include the cost of bribes that many claim are necessary to ensure a place on the Hajj. The average annual wage in Tajikistan is $820.
"When I first went in 1996, the [government] did not intervene in our matters and it was three times cheaper," said Aslamov, who made a second pilgrimage in 2010.
"Now you have to go with an application to the committee two or three years before you go, and if you don't want to be 'lost' from the list of people who wish to make Hajj, you better 'reward' necessary people."
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