Turkmen government keeps sharp eye on extremists

By Dzhumaguly Annayev

Elderly Turkmens walk past a mosque in Mary Province in September. Almost 90% of Turkmen mosque-goers have reached retirement age. [Dzhumaguly Annayev]

Elderly Turkmens walk past a mosque in Mary Province in September. Almost 90% of Turkmen mosque-goers have reached retirement age. [Dzhumaguly Annayev]

ASHGABAT -- Turkmen authorities are doing everything they can to prevent extremism from gaining a foothold.

The effort comes as the government refuses to acknowledge the presence of Turkmen citizens on the battlefields of Syria and Iraq. An independent think tank, the Soufan Group, put that number at about 360 as of January 2015.

An elderly group

Turkmen Muslims differ from their counterparts in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Afghanistan by starting religious rituals relatively late in life, clerics say.

In fact, almost 90% of mosque-goers are retirement age or older, imams from Turkmen mosques tell Caravanserai.

"There are few young people among the worshippers," Pirguli-haji, an imam in Dashoguz Province, told Caravanserai, explaining that young Turkmens have many other concerns in their lives.

"Right now, Turkmen youth treat religion more casually than do their peers in neighbouring countries," Pirguli-haji said.

However, authorities are taking no chances, seeing the terrorist acts that rocked neighbouring Kazakhstan this summer.

Gathering information

The country's authorities have a long-standing policy of monitoring believers for signs of extremist behaviour or inclinations, a retired National Security Ministry (MNB) employee who requested anonymity told Caravanserai.

In his past career, the retiree was responsible for security in religious matters.

Turkmen authorities use that system to nip suspicious behaviour in the bud, the MNB retiree said.

In the past, sometimes, "it was sufficient to summon [a possible extremist] to the local MNB office and issue a warning", the retiree said.

In other cases, authorities had to take firmer action, he noted.

The authorities have scored some successes in recent years by using their informant network, a Caravanserai source at the Interior Ministry (MVD) told Caravanserai.

Tips from concerned worshippers enabled police to break up extremist cells in Dashoguz, Turkmenabat and Tejen, the MVD source said.

Maximum security for extremists

Recognising the danger of proselytisation behind bars, authorities segregate convicted extremists from other prison inmates, Dovran Khojamyradov, an MVD penal system official based in Ashgabat, told Caravanserai.

The segregation is necessary because convicts, with so much time on their hands, are vulnerable to proselytisation, Khojamyradov said.

"I know how often prisoners start studying Arabic, reading the Koran and praying five times a day," Khojamyradov said. "Imagine what proportions extremism would reach if radical Islamists were near these convicts."

Keeping extremists apart from common criminals "prevents the germs of radicalisation from spreading in prisons", Khojamyradov stressed.

The government does not disclose the number of imprisoned extremists, but "slightly more than 300" such individuals are serving prison sentences presently, Caravanserai sources in the MVD penal system say.

Convicted extremists are fated "to do every minute of their time", a pardoned ex-convict who requested anonymity told Caravanserai.

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