Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Tajikistan: Is Religious Tolerance Waning in Tajikistan?

This article originally appeared in the Institute for War and Peace Reporting,

Is Religious Tolerance Waning in Tajikistan?

New Year's Eve killing prompts debate on which traditions really count as Tajik.

The murder of a man dressed up to celebrate New Year on December 31 immediately raised the spectre of Islamic extremism and intolerance towards other cultural traditions.

Parviz Davlatbekov, 24, was dressed as Father Frost – the Russian equivalent of Santa Claus, but without the latter’s Christian associations – when he was confronted by a group of young people and, after an altercation, stabbed several times. He died later in hospital.

The circumstances of the attack meant that it got wide coverage in Tajikistan and abroad. Tajik police flatly denied suggestions that the killing was the work of Muslim extremists, or that the assailants called Davlatbekov an “infidel” when they set on him. It was just a drunken brawl that got out of hand, they concluded.

After the initial shock, a wider debate took place about the timing and context of the attack. After all, not long beforehand a top Islamic cleric in this Muslim-majority state had appeared to disparage New Year festivities as something alien both to the faith and to Tajik culture generally.

New Year celebrations became widespread in Tajikistan in the Soviet era, and remain so today despite the reintroduction of other dates like the traditional solar new year, Nowruz, in March, and major festivals in the Islamic religious calendar.

Despite its enduring popularity, some believe New Year is an imported secular tradition that should be left behind as Tajikistan develops its own national identity.

In late December, the head of the officially-sanctioned Islamic clergy, Saidmukarram Abdulqodirzoda, told the BBC’s Tajik Service that the year-end holiday was imposed by the Soviets and was “alien” to their culture.

Decorating fir trees, dancing, consuming alcohol, and overeating all went against “the laws of Islam and Tajik traditions”, he said.

Abdulqodirzoda is not the first senior Muslim cleric to rail against the New Year holiday – several others have done so in recent years, and it is a frequent topic in sermons.

Interviewed a few days after Davlatbekov’s killing, Abdulqodirzoda said he his comments had been misinterpreted and he never called on Tajiks to stop celebrating New Year.

A Dushanbe-based political analyst who spoke on condition of anonymity said Abduqodirzoda’s original remarks had been ill-advised.

“With statements of this kind, it needs to be remembered that the words of the Muslims’ head carry irreversible force for many believers, and some of the more zealous might take it as a call to action,” he said.

The analyst said the position of the Tajik government itself was unclear, in that it carried on marking New Year with decorated trees and a speech from President Imomali Rahmonov, yet tolerated a religious establishment that launched attacks on secular symbols. He concluded that this ambivalence reflected a desire by officials to show that they too are devout Muslims.

There is some anecdotal evidence to suggest social attitudes are shifting so that observance of Islamic traditions is seen as the norm.

Tahmina, a 27-year-old resident of Dushanbe, said her husband, who attends the mosque on a regular basis, had banned New Year celebrations for the last two years.

“It’s hard for me to adjust because ever since childhood it’s been my favourite holiday. The tree, Father Frost and the presents were all part of the magic atmosphere of celebrations that I looked forward to all year,” she said. “We still mark it, but we don’t put up a tree because my husband says that’s forbidden by Islam.”

A 55-year-old Dushanbe resident recalled how she was told off by other women wearing Islamic dress or hijab when she took her teenage daughter to a health centre.

“They told me I should be ashamed of visiting public places without covering my head. They also reprimanded me because my grown-up daughter wasn’t properly covered up or covering her head,” she said. “Since then, I’ve started considering moving to another country.”

Lola Olimova is IWPR editor for Tajikistan.