ASHGABAT -- Turkmenistan's law enforcement agencies recently exposed alleged corruption among the ranks of senior officials of the country's muftiate.
Several officials took bribes from pilgrims who wished to make the Hajj to Mecca, according to Turkmen Prosecutor General Batyr Atdayev, who spoke at an expanded cabinet session on September 13.
The bribes amounted to 10,000 TMT ($2,857 at the official exchange rate), Turkmen emigre media reported in August.
The session, which showed the handcuffed suspects in person, was broadcast on all channels of national television.
Those accused included Rovshen Allaberdiyev, chief specialist at the muftiate; Mukhammetmyrat Gurbangeldiyev, chief specialist in the muftiate human resources specialist; and Gurbanberdi Nursakhedov, chief specialist in the Turkmen cabinet's department for co-operation with religious organisations.
Some imams were accused of corruption in the same matter.
The prosecutor general did not mention the amount of the alleged bribes.
Locals expressed shock at the allegations.
"We thought and believed that leaders of the clergy, especially when it comes to a deed as virtuous and pleasing to God as performing the Hajj, did not take bribes," said Gurbanmyrat, a 40-year-old attendee of the Ertuğrul Gazi Mosque in Ashgabat.
"It's good that they were arrested, and that authorities confiscated the quite large amounts of money, apartments, expensive cars and jewelry acquired by haram means, but believe me, everyone is still bitterly disappointed," he added.
The news is somehow more upsetting than corruption scandals involving government officials, he said.
"They [the allegedly bribe-taking muftiate officials and imams] not only defamed themselves; they undermined the trust of many believers in clerics," said the imam of a mosque in Lebap Province on the condition of anonymity.
Each year, 160 pilgrims from Turkmenistan perform the Hajj to Mecca at state expense.
The competition for those precious slots incentivised bribery, said the imam.
"Now, this motive will be eliminated," he said, referring to a recent decision by Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov to double the number of pilgrims whose expenses the state covers. It plans to organise other flights for Turkmens who wish to pay their own way on the Hajj.
Saudi Arabia's annual Hajj quota for Turkmen pilgrims is closer to 4,500, but the Turkmen government often has sent only a fraction of that number.
Corruption encourages radicalism
The corruption scandal involving officials of the muftiate could encourage radical preachers, fear observers.
Many Turkmens, frustrated by the alleged corruption on display, could easily fall for the blandishments of recruiters and preachers of "true Islam", said the Lebap imam, referring to extremists' own description of their message.
"Unfortunately, because of the corruption revealed in the top leadership of the muftiate, we are effectively disarmed in trying to argue with the preachers of radicalism," he said.
Any increase in recruitment by radical preachers bears watching by the security agencies that are assigned to combat manifestations of radicalism and extremism, he said.
"The National Security Ministry, the Interior Ministry, the Prosecutor's Office and other authorities should regularly report on the work they have done to identify the recruiters of radicals, the new followers and the preachers calling for creation of an 'Islamic caliphate' in Central Asia," he said.
The muftiate of Turkmenistan also is worried about the recent incident.
"We are faced with a lot of serious work in restoring the trust and respect of the population toward clerics," said one muftiate specialist.
"After what happened, I am sure that the lists of applicants for the Hajj will be reviewed again," he said. "Some have been waiting their turn for years, while others have already performed the ritual several times. Now we'll put everything in order."
Turkmen battle with extremism
The country, like its Central Asian neighbours, has fought to contain extremism.
An unspecified number of Turkmen militants were captured or killed in combat in Syria and Iraq this decade.
More than 400 Turkmen citizens joined "Islamic State" (IS) during the terror group's heyday, the US-based think-tank Soufan Group estimated in 2017.