DUSHANBE (Tajikistan): Islam is blossoming in Tajikistan. Beards are in style. Headscarves, too. Bazaars are doing a booming trade in prayer rugs, religious audio recordings and clocks featuring Muslim holy sites.
Former Soviet republic takes steps to curb growing religiosity
After decades of enforced secularism, the people of this impoverished former Soviet republic have been flocking to their traditional religion with all the zeal of born-again movements anywhere in the world.
The government could not be more worried. Spooked by the spectre of Islamic radicalism and the challenges posed by increasingly influential religious leaders, the Tajik authorities have been working fervently to curb religious expression. Bearded men have been detained apparently at random, and women barred from religious services.
This year, the government demanded that students studying religion at universities in places such as Egypt, Syria and Iran return home. The police have shuttered private mosques and Islamic websites, and government censors now monitor Friday sermons, stepping in when muftis stray from the government line.
Last month, lawmakers took what many here said was a drastic step further: They passed a law that would, among other things, bar children younger than 18 from attending religious services at mosques.
It is called the law 'on parental responsibility for educating and raising children'. The measure, according to officials, is meant to prevent children from skipping school to attend prayer services, and it would hold parents responsible if they do.
After the legislation is signed into law, parents could face steep fines and even jail time for defying it.
Government critics liken it to a Soviet-style attempt at reversing Islam's spread. Many warn, however, that banning young people from mosques may have the opposite effect.
'After this law takes effect and the government and security services start applying pressure, youth could be drawn to illegal organisations,' said Mr Mahmadali Hait, the deputy chairman of Tajikistan's opposition Islamic Revival Party. 'And it is possible that the level of radicalisation in the country could increase.'
Growing religiosity in Tajikistan and in neighbouring former Soviet republics is seen as a threat by the region's leaders, many of whom have been in power for decades.
The Taleban insurgency in neighbouring Afghanistan has only compounded fears, especially now that the United States plans to withdraw its troops from the country.
Clashes along Tajikistan's extensive border with Afghanistan are frequent, and the authorities have linked foreign militants to several attacks on the police and military units in the last year.
Travel between the two countries is relatively easy, and several Tajiks interviewed said they had visited Afghanistan for religious training.
'We have observed in recent years attempts by extremist movements to influence the world views of our children,' Tajikistan President Emomali Rakhmon said in a speech in April, arguing the need for the law on parental responsibility. 'The leaders of various extremist groups and currents have started appearing in academic institutions, recruiting inexperienced youth.'
However, observers say there is little evidence that militant Islamist groups have found much of a following in Tajikistan.
Rather, they say, regional leaders often use the threat of Islamic extremism as a pretext to crack down on political opponents and their supporters.
Still, fears of Islamic extremism are acute enough that many in Tajikistan - which has a population of 7.6 million people - including practising Muslims, support the law.
'The government is working to ensure that foreign terrorist structures do not influence the young people by distorting their impressions of Islam,' said Mr Zaur Chilayev, 32, an engineer, who was part of an overflow crowd at Dushanbe's central mosque for Friday prayer recently. 'The threats are always present, especially given our neighbours.'
NEW YORK TIMES