A pair of Tajik policemen have reportedly been reprimanded for their role in a spate of recent forced beard shavings in northern Sughd region. The country has been in headlines in recent weeks for what is seen by some as a tightening of state control on the practice of Islam.
The beard shaving rebuke in Sughd came after locals complained to authorities about the incidents, according to Deputy Interior Minister Ikrom Umarzoda in an interview with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
“We have ordered regional police departments to talk to local residents about extremism, but have never called on them to work with people through force and pressure,” Umarzoda told RFE/RL.
Among the anecdotes that have surfaced is one from a man named Rustem Gulov, reported by the AFP to be a well-known blogger. Gulov penned an open letter to Rahmon in which he recounted being nabbed by police in Khujand, the capital of Sughd, and forcibly shaved. “Judging by the hair in the room,” he said “I estimate they shaved the beards of approximately 200-250 people before me.”
Gulov noted that officers told him having a beard was against “state policy.” AFP says that a spokesman for the interior ministry denied this claim, commenting instead that officers were “exceeding their remit” in forcibly shaving men. He did, however, confirm that “police could approach young bearded men to ensure ‘that they take care of themselves and observe personal hygiene.’”
Last month, President Emomali Rahmon railed against women wearing black clothing–which he said was not traditionally Tajik. Rumors have circulated widely, thanks to state-controlled media–that prostitutes were donning hijabs in order to make more money. And the state announced last week that it would not permit those under the age of 35 to travel to Mecca on hajj this year. Couched in terms of practicality–Saudi Arabia lowered Tajikistan’s hajj quota–and deference for elders, the restriction nonetheless has upset some of Tajikistan’s devout.
One man, a 31-year old petty trader from Dushanbe, interviewed by AFP said that “[e]veryday I pray to God that I might visit our sacred holy places. But now state officials have ruined my dreams.”
In the political realm, Islam has also suffered. In March flawed parliamentary elections saw the region’s only Islamist political party, the IRPT, swept entirely out of parliament for the first time since the end of the civil war in 1997. The IRPT maintains a secular political platform and in 2013 backed a secular, liberal, woman for president. Oinikhol Bobonazarova never made it to the actual election and recently spoke to IWPR about the arbitrary direction of recent lawmaking in the country.
Tajikistan, like its neighbors, has increasingly spoken out over the past few months about the looming threat of ISIS in the region. Although not all Central Asia analysts agree that Muslim radicalization is a serious and present danger, the governments of the region seem convinced. Numbers vary but the government of Tajikistan state estimates between 200 and 300 have gone to join ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Many, according to researchers, are recruited in Russia where they work as migrant laborers.
It seems, also, that the state is not the only entity praying on Tajikistan’s Muslims. Eurasianet’s David Trilling reported last week that:
Someone is profiting from Tajikistan’s official Islamophobia, peddling expensive permits purporting to allow observant Muslims to wear a beard or hijab – fashions that are officially discouraged. The permits, adorned with an official-looking stamp, allegedly go for 250 somoni (about $40) each.
Ridiculous as these stories are (“forced beard shaving” was not something I ever predicted I would write in a headline) they point to the absurdity of Tajikistan’s efforts to control the ways in which its people practice their religion.