| Terrorism

Turkmen imams battle radical Islam

By Dzhumaguly Annayev


Turkmen elders and imams are shown in Akhal Province in March. [Dzhumaguly Annayev]

ASHGABAT --Turkmen imams are helping the government reach out to worshippers to prevent their recruitment by extremists.

A call for outreach to congregations

In mid-July the government's Central Council (Gengeshi) for Religious Affairs (Central CRA) sent out a decree to imams and to the leaders of lower-level CRAs, ordering them to "step up educational work among their congregations and the entire local population".

The educational work is meant to inform Muslims about extremists who promote radical Islam as true and pure.

Pirguly-haji, an imam in Dashoguz Province, confirmed the existence of the decree.

"A consultant from the provincial CRA who came to our mosque suggested that we change the emphasis of our daily sermons," he told Caravanserai.

Authorities are seeking to have imams tell worshippers "not to fall into the grasp of those who, covering themselves in the name of Allah, promise them a brighter and happier life", Pirguly-haji said.

The Central CRA is a consultative body that co-ordinates with the president or with government agencies in issuing directives to mosques.

It helps in the process of vetting imams before they are hired.

"The state appoints imams of all ranks," Pirguly-haji said.

Worshippers hear new content

Worshippers are noticing the new message in sermons.

Imams "don't mention radical Islamist groups by name", Yegshem Saribayeva of Boldumsaz city, a retiree who regularly attends his local mosque, told Caravanserai. "But ... we all understand they're talking about ISIL ['the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant'] and other extremist groups."

Authorities in Turkmenistan have never acknowledged a case of ISIL recruiting a Turkmen or of demonstrations fomented on religious grounds, Caravanserai sources say.

However, those with long memories remember incidents that aroused public alarm.

For example, a wave of arrests swept through Tejen city in February 2015. Sources differed on what lay behind the arrests, but one version held that the police arrested individuals with ties to Islamists from Afghanistan.

"The threat of radicalisation hasn't gone anywhere," Ertogul Gazy, a retired security agency official and now a regular mosque-goer in Ashgabat, told Caravanserai.

Worrisome events at home and abroad

Recent events have given authorities a reason to warn the public about radical Islamists, he said. They include, according to Gazy, the deadly June 5 and July 18 terrorist attacks in Kazakhstan.

Turkmen authorities fear that disappointed Turkmens might seek answers to their problems in radical Islamists' promises of paradise, Gazy said.

Trouble always "starts from things that look harmless", Gazy said, calling for an anti-extremism campaign by the mass media and in schools and prisons, not just in mosques.

"Saying that everything is great doesn't make it so," Gazy warned.

Sarybayev the Tejen retiree would like imams to speak directly about radical movements rather than elliptically.

"Radicalism is dangerous," he said. "It's better to call everything by its own name rather than make concessions."

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