Tajikistan recalls students from Islamic schools abroad

Dushanbe, Tajikistan - The Tajik government has called for hundreds of students and school children to return home, amid concerns they are being radicalised in Islamic places of learning abroad.

Many Tajik youngsters are enrolled in religious institutions in countries such as Egypt, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Now the country's president, Emomali Rakhmon, has called for them to return, claiming that they are being led along a path of Islamic extremism.

In 1992 the Central Asian nation descended in to a five-year civil war between the Moscow-backed government and the Islamist-led opposition.

The country's economy has never fully recovered, while in recent years interest in religion has grown in Tajikistan.

CDs and DVDs of radical preachers are on sale at markets and the paranja, similar to a burka, is becoming increasingly popular with women.

This worries the government, which now wants all Tajiks studying in religious schools abroad to be repatriated.

Financial hardship

More than 100 Tajik students touched down at Dushanbe airport from Iran this week, and another 200 recently returned from Egypt.

Many of those who came from Egypt had been studying at the prestigious Al-Azhar University in Cairo.

They were questioned for up to five hours by the Tajik security services, before being returned to their families.

None would speak to the BBC, some saying they had been forbidden to talk to foreign media.

Al-Azhar University - founded in the 10th century and the leading centre of Sunni Islamic learning - reacted angrily to the suggestion that it might be radicalising students.

"Al-Azhar University is a moderate university and a place of learning. Graduates of Al-Azhar do not go on to become terrorists," said Dr Farhat Monji, an official at the university.

But some of the other returnees were at private madrassas - Islamic schools - elsewhere in Egypt. Some of the pupils were as young as four years old.

At the airport, mother of seven Zarina was waiting for her youngest son.

She told the BBC she sent him to an Egyptian madrassa because she and her husband did not have enough money to put food on the table for all her children.

"Good people helped me send my son to Egypt. But I rarely get to speak to him.

"I don't know exactly where he's studying, and I don't really know what they teach him," said Zarina.

Zarina is not alone - many parents do not know where or what their children are studying.

The average wage in Tajikistan is $60 (£38) a month, and financial hardship makes sending a child abroad an attractive option.

The family must only cover the cost of the visa and a one-way ticket, while the cost of living and study are covered by Islamic charities.

Many families have complained they can't afford to take their children back.

Farouk Umarov, an expert on religious affairs in Tajikistan, says the education system in Tajikistan is riddled with corruption, and although education is officially free, many have to pay thousands of dollars for a place.

"Most people can't afford an education in Tajikistan. A place at university can cost anything from $5,000 to $20,000, putting it well out of reach of most Tajik youngsters. So of course they want to go somewhere else," he said.

"Many institutions, often very extreme ones, offer free accommodation, clothing, food and study. Then in the future they recruit the students for other things."


Although exact figures aren't available, the Tajik foreign ministry says that there are at least 4,000 of its citizens studying abroad in religious institutions.

They say that over 500 students have already voluntarily returned. Tajikistan is now negotiating with the governments of Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Pakistan and Yemen to have all students repatriated by the end of this year.

It says it is not against its citizens studying abroad, but insists they should have official documents to do so.

It says the process must be controlled by the Tajik government, as it has overall responsibility for its citizens.

The Tajik authorities have also said that they will help all returnees continue their education at a secular or religious institution.

But political scientist Abdugani Mamadazimov doesn't think it will be easy.

"Integrating these people back in to Tajik life will be difficult. Some will accept their fate and try to continue their education back in Tajikistan.

"However, many will try to leave the country again in any way they can. They've seen that life is better abroad, and they'll do anything to get back there."

It is not the first time that Tajik students have been forcibly returned to their own country from Islamic institutions abroad. A few years ago, more than 700 Tajiks were repatriated from religious centres in Pakistan.

Akhliddin Bekov was one of the returnees. He has mixed feelings about what happened to him.

"I really think that our compulsory repatriation was necessary. There were attempts in Pakistan to recruit us, and who knows what we'd be doing now if we'd stayed.

"But since my return, I still haven't found another path in life - I'm at a crossroads and I don't know which way to go."

Akhliddin, like many of those returnees, feels like a stranger amongst his own people. Because he was educated in Arabic, he cannot read Tajik newspapers, which are written in the Cyrillic script.

Many returnees also struggle to find work, as they are considered to be suspicious or disloyal.

Some also think they are still being watched by the security services, and find this attention frightening.

For these reasons, many are once again searching for a way to leave their homeland.