Muslims in Central Asia awaken to hope of power

October 05, 1991|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,Sun Staff Correspondent

DUSHANBE, Tadzhikistan -- A slender Muslim tower is rising unsteadily into the sky here, piercing the drab Soviet landscape with its bright mosaic sparkle.

One day soon, a crier will wind his way up the narrow staircase and sing out the Muslim call to prayer. When he does, 70 years of Communist-imposed silence will be symbolically broken.

Tadzhikistan's Muslims hope the call, issuing from Dushanbe's Central Mosque, will be answered with a revolution -- one that has implications for all of Central Asia. Here in the lands seized by Alexander the Great, ravaged by Genghis Khan and repressed by Russian czars, they say, lies a tolerant, free and democratic state waiting to be born.

"You'll laugh at me," says Khaji Akbar Turodzhonzoda, Tadzhikistan's charismatic Islamic leader, "but I think we could be a country like Switzerland."

Small and mountainous though it may be, Tadzhikistan lies in wild, primitive terrain. Its people were not only conquered but also persistently enslaved. Those who fear the rising Islamic passions look at the tower atop Dushanbe's mosque and see the first battlement of an Iranian-style fundamentalism.

Only a few blocks away from the the mosque, a middle-aged Russian woman named Nastiya stands behind a counter selling milk -- except there's no milk to sell.

"They speak their own language, and who knows what they say?" says Nastiya, wearing a crisply starched, flawlessly ironed peaked white hat, symbol of the sanitary nature of her job. In her dairy case, roaches march across the glass as if standing sentry over the few bottles of kefir -- a thick, fermented milk. "We support Nabiyev."

Rakhman Nabiyev, an old-time Communist boss, was recently installed as president of Tadzhikistan's parliament and has since warned darkly of the impending Islamic threat.

At the next counter in the dim, echoing store, a 56-year-old truck driver, Leonid Boldurev, stares pensively at a 2-gallon jar of murky green liquid.

He also is an ethnic Russian. Like Nastiya, he does not speak the Farsi language of Tadzhikistan, even though he has lived here all his life.

But he seems unaffected by the warnings the government has been issuing. He supports the thousands of Muslims who have occupied Dushanbe's square since Sept. 21, demanding Mr. Nabiyev's resignation and democratic elections.

"I think those in the square are sitting there for democracy," Mr. Boldurev says. "Why not let them pray, and God give them good health."

The political change set off in Moscow by Mikhail S. Gorbachev's perestroika has been slow to reach this remote capital cloistered by the Soviet Union's highest mountains.

Though Tadzhiks are in the majority, Farsi was not the official language until 1989.

The Communist Party has maintained a firm grip. Islam, established with Arab conquest in the seventh century, was driven underground.

Though 80 percent of the nation considers itself Sunni Muslim, only 17 mosques remained in all of Tadzhikistan 18 months ago. Yet there were 19 churches.

Bare hands and cheap mortar are changing all that. Just as volunteer laborers are erecting the Central Mosque, so are villagers throughout the countryside scratching out their own places to pray.

The sacrifice has been considerable. Sixty percent of the population lives in poverty. Many endure a slave-like existence, planting and picking cotton by hand long after the rest of the world mechanized.

They walk through fields clumsily sprayed with defoliation chemicals that sicken them. They earn about a third of the national average salary.

"Islam will change this," says Darlatova Kumat, a woman with 10 children who is finishing a 12-hour day in the fields. "Then only my husband will have to work in the fields. I will be home with my children. It will be easier for women."

This conviction is shared by her boss, the 56-year-old brigadier of the work crew. "We not only think, we know if we get rid of these Communists life will improve 100 percent," says Donayou Ismatov. "They haven't done anything for 70 years. We will have a democratic state, not an Islamic state."

And so the mosques go up, not only here but throughout Central Asia. Two years ago, there were 160 mosques throughout the region; today there are about 5,000.

With this religious growth comes political awareness. Tadzhikistan's Islamic Renaissance Party, formed just a year ago and promptly banned, already has 10,000 members.

Party leaders are aligned with the liberal opposition -- which includes the 15,000-member Democratic Party. Even if they wanted to seize political power, they say, it would be impossible. Islam has legions of believers here, but the Soviet system destroyed their understanding of it. Korans are difficult to find.

"For 73 years, people have been separated from Islam," says Mukhamad Sharif Khimatzoda, the Islamic party leader. "Very few of them know Islam. Any Muslim wants to live in a Muslim state. It is inevitable. But the people are not ready. When people are prepared, there will be a referendum."

But Mr. Turodzhonzoda, the country's Islamic spiritual leader, known as the kazi, has already refused to run for president.

The leader of the Democratic Party, a 42-year-old philosopher named Shadman Yusupov, said that Muslim leaders have signed an agreement pledging that they have no intention of setting up a restrictive Islamic state. He believes they mean it, but he doesn't rule out the possibility of despotism.

"If we don't reform the economy quickly and efficiently enough, another force could emerge saying, 'I will lead you,' " he says.

"Maybe it will fundamentalism, maybe Bolshevism. They are created by the same economic and social conditions."

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