Tajikistan Intensifies Restrictions on Religious Freedom

The News International: Women in Tajikistan wearing traditional clothing. Tajik lawmakers voted in favor of new legislation that increases restrictions on clothing and behavior on August 23. Although the bill doesn’t explicitly ban items like the hijab, it uses language such as “traditional and national clothes” to discourage citizens from wearing overtly religious clothing. Many view this decision as another attempt to suppress religious freedom.

This action comes on the heels of a series of previous government crackdowns on religious expression, specifically of Islam. On September 6, the State Committee on Women’s and Family Affairs, as a part of a government campaign, sent six million phone numbers a series of text messages urging them to “observe Tajik traditional clothes” and “make it a tradition to wear traditional clothes.” In the Tajik capital Dushanbe, over 8000 hijab-wearing women were confronted by state officials in August and pressured to change their headscarves to a more traditional style. This discrimination against Islam has grown over the past several years. In 2013, the government implemented restrictions that regulated funerals and weddings. In 2015, the government shut down over 100 headscarf shops, forcibly removed thousands of men’s beards, and banned Arabic-sounding names.

Although Tajikistan’s government is secular and its constitution stipulates freedom of religion, the majority of the population is Muslim. Of a population of 8.3 million, roughly 90 percent or more are Muslim. The majority of these Muslims are Sunni and are followers of the moderate Hanafi school.

Many government officials have tried to justify the legislation. The Tajik Minister of Culture Shamsiddin Orumbekzoda called Islamic dress “dangerous.” Furthermore, Justice Minister Rustam Shohmurod said that “foreign” names have led to increased divisions in society, and Tajik President Emomoli Rahmon said that “wearing the hijab... is not a sign of having high moral and ethical standards for women.”

The government’s instigation and enforcement of these policies came about as an attempt to curb religious radicalism and hinder the growth of Islamic terrorist and extremist organizations. However, there is speculation that this crackdown may be contributing to the increased radicalisation of devout Muslims. Hundreds of young Tajiks have reportedly joined ISIS or other extremist groups, most notably Gulmurod Halimov, a former police commander that defected to ISIS. Halimov explicitly called out the government and its repression in a video in 2015. Regardless of effectiveness, harsher restrictions seem to be the crux of the government’s strategy to combat extremism, and it will likely follow this pattern in the months and years to come.