Tajikistan, located in Central Asia, has been ruled by numerous empires and dynasties throughout history including the Mongols, Timurids and the Russian Empire. But no rule was as destructive as the Soviet era as its communism doctrine suppressed the country’s cultural and religious heritage. Between 1864 and 1885 Russian imperialism gradually took control of the entirety of Turkestan, including Tajikistan. After the 1917 Russian Revolution, Soviet authorities started a campaign of secularization and suppression of Islam, Judaism and Christianity and many mosques, churches and synagogues were closed. Tajikistan became an independent country in 1991 as a result of the collapse of the Soviet Union.
A civil war broke out immediately after independence between 1992 and 1997. In the five years of the war, about 100,000 people died and approximately 1.2 million people became refugees because of persecution, increased poverty and better economic opportunities in the West or in other former Soviet republics. Tajikistan was the poorest republic of the Soviet Union and is the poorest country in Central Asia as well as in the poorest former Soviet republic.
Tajik President Emomali Rahmon, who has ruled the country since 1994, was criticized by opposition parties and foreign observers for unfair presidential elections in 1999 and 2006. Nontransparent elections were criticized by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and mainline opposition parties, so the Islamic Renaissance Party boycotted the elections. Rahmon’s administration came under further criticism from the OSCE in October 2010 for its censorship and repression of the media. The OSCE claimed that the Tajik government censored local and foreign websites and newspapers.
Tajikistan is a secular state with a constitution providing for freedom of religion. The government declared two Islamic holidays, Eid al-Fitr and Eid el-Adha, state holidays. According to the Pew Research Center, the population of Tajikistan is 98 percent Muslim. However, Muslim Tajiks face fundamental rights abuses. Constitutional guarantees for fair trials are not always observed by Tajik courts, torture is often used on individuals accused of crimes in Tajikistan, detentions are often lengthy and prisoners are kept in inhuman conditions. According to an Amnesty International report, detainees are routinely interrogated without a lawyer and some lawyers are unable to see their clients for several days despite legal provisions ensuring the right of detainees to see a lawyer from the time the detention is registered. People accused of involvement in banned Islamic movements and Islamic groups or parties were usually detained by the Ministry of Interior Affairs. They are at particular risk of torture and other ill-treatment and access to defense lawyers is limited or denied. Defense lawyers also have inadequate access to the case materials on their clients.
The 2005 parliamentary elections saw increased closures of independent and opposition newspapers and attacks on journalists. In 2003 the government blocked Internet websites run by the political opposition. YouTube was also partially blocked by the government in June 2014
According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), Tajik authorities maintain tight restrictions on religious freedoms including religious education and worship. Regulations restrict religious dress. Under the pretext of combating extremism, Tajikistan continues to ban several peaceful minority Muslim groups. Headscarves are banned in educational institutions and beards are prohibited in public buildings.
In November 2014, the Tajik National Assembly rejected a proposed law to allow prayer in public and work places. Furthermore, some activities of religious groups have been restricted by the requirement for registration with the State Committee on Religious Affairs (SCRA). Religious groups that do not have a physical structure are not allowed to gather publicly for prayer. Failure to register can result in large fines and closure of places of worship. “At least 50,000 signatures must be collected to build mosque across Tajik provinces. Women and those under 18 years old are banned from mosques,” Muhiddin Kabiri, the leader of the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan, said in 2014.
Wearing black was banned for women in the northern Khujan province by Mayor Ahmadzade in April 2015. Also, importing black dresses is banned to diminish the “Shiite effect.” “Everyone must honor national and traditional Tajik clothes. We should not allow the belittlement of our culture. Other nations’ cultures are so far from us,” Ahmadzade had said. Tajikistan’s supreme court sentenced five members of Tablighi Jamaat (Society for Spreading Faith) to between three and six years’ imprisonment in August 2008 for “public appeals to overthrow the constitutional order” and defined them as an “extremist and terrorist organization.” Three members of the organization were also imprisoned with the same charges in January 2015. Tajiks under the age of 35 were banned from the hajj in 2015 by SCRA.
On the other hand, the construction of a mosque with capacity for 150,000, the largest in Central Asia, continues in the capital Dushanbe and is to be opened at the end of 2016. Qatar is one of the financiers for the mosque. According to some experts, the mosque is being built to avoid criticism on the lack of freedom of religion in Tajikistan. The government is now debating to ban Arabic names as part of an ongoing campaign against Islam and Arabic words in Tajik. Some members of parliament are reportedly demanding that existing names that are Arabic-sounding should be changed to Tajik-sounding ones. The Ministry of Justice is preparing a list of recommended names if parents cannot think of one.