Youth doesn’t always get you the upper hand.
Last month, the government of Tajikistan passed a new law “on parental responsibility for educating and raising children,” which bans children under the age of 18 from attending religious services at mosques except for holidays and funerals. Praying is okay, but skipping school to attend a prayer service is not. And if a child is caught, parents can either face a steep fine or even jail time. The law may also give authorities the power to stop parents from giving their children Arabic names.
“We have observed in recent years attempts by extremist movements to influence the world views of our children,” Tajikistan’s president Emomali Rakhmon announced in a speech last April. “The leaders of various extremist groups and currents have started appearing in academic institutions, recruiting inexperienced youth.”
Yet “independent experts say there is little evidence that militant Islamic groups have found much of a following in Tajikistan,” The New York Times reported. “Rather, they say, regional leaders often use the threat of Islamic extremism as a pretext to crack down on political opponents and their supporters.”
This is not the first of many religious crackdowns by the forced secularist government. Already, bearded men get detained at random, women are not allowed to attend religious services, and private mosques and Islamic websites have been shut down. The remaining mosques are government-run, which allows censors to monitor Friday sermons.
“This law was passed so that the parents of these children fulfill their responsibilities for raising them,” said Mavlon Mukhtorov, deputy chairman of the Religious Affairs Committee. “Schoolchildren should be in school. If they all go to the mosques for prayers and cast aside their schoolwork they will not be able to learn.”
To which I ask, learn what? Repression, censorship, restriction, intolerance, denial of basic freedoms? Secularism is not the denial of religion, but rather the separation of faith and politics. When the two can co-exist, you have a democracy. But when you turn them on each other and force the two to battle it out like a divorce gone wrong, then all you have is Soviet residue with a McCarthy-esque legislation. Extremism doesn’t just encompass religion; it can apply to the lack of faith as well.
The root cause of terrorism is not religion, but poverty. It’s not Islam that teaches Muslims to hate America; it’s the uneven wealth distribution between the United States and third-world countries. Tajikistan has a high literacy rate, but it is also the poorest nation in central Asia and of all the previously Soviet countries. “Suicide bombers aren’t being recruited for dastardly acts on the lure of 72 virgins as much as they are promised their families will be cared for,” Muna Khan wrote in Al Arabiya. “Children attend madrassahs not because they espouse to be learned scholars as much as the school feeds them and clothes them.”
“The failure of a secular society with a large Muslim population has been that it has been unable to show that it can co-exist with religion. It’s almost succumbed to the the evil definition of secularism by Islamists- t0 be secular is to be without faith, when that is not the truth.”
You can’t fight extremism with monomania, because at the core, Tajikistan’s secular fundamentalism has nothing to do with religion or even terrorism, but power. Restrictions don’t maintain control; they either breed opposition or, in the case of Iran, push the people to thrive on an underground culture. Dialogue is how you break the cycle of radicalism. Allah is not the enemy here; it’s independence.
Photo courtesy of guisse95 via Flickr.