Ramadan shows religious freedom deficit in Central Asia

Ramadan shows religious freedom deficit in Central Asia

The holy month of Ramadan puts in sharp relief the challenges to religious freedom by secular governments in the former Soviet Central Asian republics.

Most notably, this year in Uzbekistan, the government has tried to prevent state employees from engaging in public iftar (breaking of the fast) meals, ordering them to return directly home after work. Uzbekistan, like a number of its neighbors, has also monitored and restricted access to Friday prayers during Ramadan. While issues are most readily apparent in Uzbekistan, they also plague its neighbors, who often counter threats of extremism with overzealous monitoring of or restrictions on religious practice.

The fall of the Soviet Union led to a brief renaissance of religious expression in several Central Asian states. However, particularly after 9/11, the Soviet successor states in Central Asia have used the specter of religious fundamentalism as a pretext for preventing religious individuals and groups from participating in politics or advocating for greater religious freedoms.

Tajikistan, which boasts the only legal Islamist party in former Soviet Central Asia, fares only slightly better than its neighbor in terms of challenges to religious practice around Ramadan. Last year, Tajikistan began enforcement of its notorious “no children in mosques” policy on the last day of Ramadan. The law forbids minors in Tajikistan from attending mosque, even when accompanied by parents, and punishes parents if they allow their underage children to attend.

The law is an illustrative example of the current regime’s attempt to counter a perceived security threat with laws that  both are largely ineffectual and clearly trample on individual freedoms. Likewise, recent attempts by the Tajik government to stifle political participation by the Islamic Renaissance Party, the legal Islamist opposition, as well as attempts to monitor and control speech in mosques, serve only to alienate religious voices in Tajikistan.

Surveillance and attempts to control preaching in mosques is a problem throughout the region, particularly in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan. While the issue persists throughout the year, they become more prominent during Ramadan, when more citizens actively and publicly engage with their religious tradition.

Turkmenistan’s attempts to control Islam are perhaps the most severe. The country has developed an officially sanctioned religious hierarchy, whose members adhere to nationalist ideologies and promote them when preaching. While Turkmenistan’s attempts to control religious practice are not particularly heightened during Ramadan, in past years the country has attempted to control another religious obligation of Muslims, the hajj. In 2009, Turkmenistan did not permit any of its citizens to make the holy pilgrimage to Mecca, ostensibly over concerns about swine flu. Since then, the government has hand-picked individuals to make the hajj, sending a minuscule 188 citizens in 2010, compared to similarly-sized Kyrgyzstan’s 4,500 pilgrims.

Even Tajikistan’s attempt to build the world’s largest mosque indicates that leaders in the region hope to neutralize the role of religion by bringing it under state control. By concentrating religious power in the capital into a “mega-mosque” which will eventually hold up to 150,000 people, Tajik authorities hope to exert greater control over which clerics and religious leaders influence the country’s Muslims.

As Muslims throughout the region complete their celebration of Ramadan this week, the leadership of the former Soviet Central Asian states continues to find new methods to limit and monitor religious expression. It seems likely, however, that increased repression of religious ideologies will only serve to alienate Muslim leaders in the region and may ultimately backfire, leading to an increase, rather than suppression, of religious extremism.

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