Hoji Akbar Turajonzoda, an influential Tajik cleric and political figure, and his brother Nuriddin (aka Eshoni Nuriddin) have come under fire for accusing the head of Tajikistan’s Council of the Ulema, Saidmukarram Abduqodirzoda, of sympathizing with the beliefs of the banned Islamic group “Salafia” (BBC Tajiki, December 22; for background on the Turajonzoda brothers see EDM, November 2).
In an incident which took place at Friday prayers at the “Mohammadia” mosque in the village of Turkobad in the district of Vahdat, the Turajonzoda brothers also allegedly made “insulting and slanderous” remarks about Abdulrahim Khaliqov, the head of Tajikistan’s Committee on Religion, and Anvar Vaycidin, the head of Vahdat district. On December 21, they were summoned to court and found guilty for comments made during a Friday sermon on December 9. As a result they have been fined, their mosque has been closed, and in the fall out of the affair several other clerics loyal to Turajonzoda have also been dismissed (Tojik Islom, December 26).
The Turajonzoda brothers comments were a reaction to accusations by the Council of the Ulema and Center for Islam published on December 6 in a government newspaper, “Khovar,” condemning Turajonzoda and his mosque for observing the Shia ceremony of “Ashura” – ritual mourning marking the martyrdom of Husain ibn Ali at the Battle of Karbala – and the detention of nine members of the Mosque for a period of ten days (www.ozodi.org, December 22).
Hoji Akbar Turajonzoda, one of the most well respected clerics in Tajikistan, denied the accusation saying that they were not holding a proper Ashura mourning festival, rather simply commemorating the death of a grandson of the Prophet Muhammad whom all Muslims are supposed to respect. He also noted that this was the tenth year they had held such a commemorative service and they had never been reproached before (www.ozodagon.com, December 16).
In response to allegations that he had converted to Shia Islam and was trying to create “fitna” (incitement of sectarian strife) Eshoni Nuriddin responded: “we have nothing against the religious precepts of the followers of Shia Islam, including the Iranian brothers whom we consider our own Islamic brothers. We do this is all for the sake of Muslim unity” (Ruzgor, December 12). Even though Tajikistan is an overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim country, which adheres to the Hanifi school of jurisprudence, it has a secular government and it has attempted to stamp out a perceived increase in the influence of radical Sunni Islamists groups like Salafia, Hizb-ut-Tahrir, and Jamaat Tabligh.
Zubaydullah Roziq, the head of Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan’s Fatwa Council (Tajikistan’s primary opposition and only Islamic party) defended the Turajonzoda brothers, agreeing that the so called “Ashura sermon” was not the sort of ceremony inconsistent with Sunni beliefs and that its condemnation was merely “a pretext that intended to permanently limit the influence of the Turajonzoda family” (www.ozodagon.com, December 16). Other Tajik analysts have warned that this latest dispute is symptomatic of a natural Islamic awakening that has slowly been taking shape since the fall of the Soviet Union that has been exacerbated by worsening economic and social conditions. Saifullo Mullojonov, a professor at the Tajik National University said: “In this kind of situation, the activity of Islamic groups and the increase in sectarian differences is inevitable” (www.ozodi.org, December 17).
In an interview with BBC Tajiki, Saidmukarram Abduqodirzoda defended his condemnation of the “Alien Ashura ceremony,” saying that while there is a place in Sunni Islam for the commemoration of the death of Husain, what is not permitted is the Shia practice of “damning of Yazid and Muawiya” – the two commonly seen responsible for Husain’s death (BBC Tajiki, December 20). He also denied accusations of having any connection to Salafi or Wahhabi groups noting that his council recently dismissed an Imam in Farkhor district for espousing Salafi opinions (BBC Tajiki, December 20). When asked about reports indicating that Iranian diplomats were present at the ceremony he responded: “It would have been nice if the Iranian officials would have made us aware that they intended on participating in the ceremony at Mohammadia, although we have neither criticized nor protested against the Iranian embassy” (BBC Tajiki, December 20).
Faroukh Ummarov an expert at the government associated Center for Strategic Studies suspects the “influence of Iran,” citing the recent criticism of Iranian Ayatollah Safi-Golpayegani who called for the end of the regime’s “anti-Islamic programs in the country,” which are “against the will of the Tajik people” (BBC Tajiki, December 7; Press TV, August 2).
While the regime’s warnings of an Iranian conspiracy may be regarded as merely a thinly-veiled attempt to attract US and Western support to a political power play, Iran does have considerable economic and cultural influence in Tajikistan about which the government has long been wary. It will be recalled that last year the government of Tajikistan ordered the return of 137 students studying at Iranian madrasahs fearing their radicalization (Radio Free Europe, November 2010).