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Tajikistan’s crackdown on cultural identity

2 min read

The government of Tajikistan, the smallest country in Central Asia, has long targeted what it perceives as non-Tajik influences on its domestic culture. Poorly developed and discriminatory national policies have fragmented Tajik society into insular ethnic identities, a legacy of the country’s five-year civil war that ended in 1997. Hostile relations with neighbouring Uzbekistan have reinforced Tajik nationalism, making daily life difficult for minorities, particularly Uzbeks. Tajikistan’s authoritarian nationalism has affected the ability of Uzbek speakers to participate meaningfully in the political process, as the state’s lack of pluralistic language policies have essentially excluded Uzbek minorities from the political sphere.

In addition to language barriers and low political representation, ethnicity directly affects employment prospects for Uzbeks who face discrimination while applying for jobs. There are reports of private employers rejecting applicants simply because they are ethnic Uzbeks. On the other hand, government officials have flatly rejected claims that discrimination occurs during consideration of applicants for civil service positions even though they must provide information on their ethnic origin during recruitment. Amid these restrictive policies, some ethnic Uzbeks have attempted to assimilate into the heavily exclusive society by requesting that their children be registered as Tajik rather than Uzbek in order to increase their prospects of a better future in Tajikistan.

A heightened fear of religious extremism has intensified the government’s crackdown on what it perceives as ‘foreign’ influences within Tajik society, including reports of police beating men with beards and even forcibly shaving them. On Tajikistan’s Mother’s Day in March 2015, President Emomali Rahmon vocally denounced dark clothes on women as ‘foreign’, and instead encouraged them to wear traditionally colourful and vibrant clothing. Although he did not mention the hijab, commentators noted that the president’s target was clear. The Mayor of Khujand, Tajikistan’s second largest city, quickly followed with a demand to ban the sale of Iranian and Afghan clothes, leading to a mass inspection of Islamic clothing shops.

The annual Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca has also been restricted for individuals under 35. In April, the Committee for Religious and Cultural Issues issued the limitation and linked the decision to Saudi Arabia’s annual quota for Tajikistan’s pilgrims, which was reduced from 8,000 to 6,300. However, many citizens believe that the ban on youth travel is a pretext for a larger government strategy to prevent radicalization. The country’s lawmakers have scrutinized individuals whom they believe have links to extremist groups and have expressed support for excluding all religiously inspired opposition parties from the political sphere.

President Rahmon also asked parliament this year to consider passing legislation that would forbid the civil registry from accepting names with Arabic origins and names designated as too alien to the culture. But Muslims are not the only religious group facing discrimination in the country: Christian denominations, including Jehovah’s Witnesses, face intense scrutiny. Heavy‑handed restrictions on religious practices and foreign‑influenced holidays have intensified because they are viewed as a threat to secular Tajik culture: for example, in 2015 the government implemented increasingly restrictive measures on Christmas celebrations by banning gift-giving and Christmas trees in educational institutions. Ultimately, however, the government has further alienated its minorities through its crackdown on diversity–despite the fact that fostering a climate of tolerance and multiculturalism in the country is the best path towards a stable and flourishing Tajik society.

By Amina Haleem

Originally published in State of the World’s Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2016.

Photo: Uzbek boys in Tajikistan. Credit: Evgeni Zotov.