For Tajiks, Ramadan Barely Registers

APTajik women carrying brushwood near a village north of Dushanbe on Sunday. Islam holds a loose grip on the lives of most Tajiks.
DUSHANBE, Tajikistan -- A soft-voiced mullah shuffled out of the main mosque in Tajikistan's capital and berated a group of men for smoking before sundown during Ramadan. Only one relinquished his cigarette.

While Muslims across the border in Afghanistan and worldwide went without lunch, the Khasanov family invited guests for a midday meal of spicy meat dumplings and vodka.

As the holy month of fasting for spiritual renewal began at the weekend, Tajikistan and other former Soviet states on the rim of Afghanistan barely seemed to notice -- or tried hard to look that way. All are predominantly Muslim. But their leaders are deeply wary of the Islamic extremism that has flourished next door and fueled insurgencies at home.

The secular traditions of the atheist Soviet era still dominate here, and Islamic teachings have remained limited despite a decade of independence. Many think it's safer that way.

Across from the parched wheat fields on Tajikistan's southern border, believers from Afghanistan's hard-line Taliban and the opposition alliance fighting them gathered on opposite sides of the front for services heralding Ramadan on Friday and Saturday.

But in the Haji Yakub mosque in Dushanbe, just a few hundred men heeded the call to prayer.

"There are many believers, but not many know the Koran," Mullah Khudoiberdi Egamberdiev lamented after the service.

"Our hope lies in the young people," he said, proudly adding that one of his four sons is studying in a madrassa, or religious college.

Ramadan, a month of dawn-to-dusk fasting and abstinence, celebrates God's revealing of the Koran, Islam's holy book, to Mohammed 1,400 years ago.

The Tajik government says 90 percent of the population of 6.1 million is Muslim. The mullah estimated that 30 percent of the people attend prayer services regularly, and about 60 percent during Ramadan.

Yet in fragrant spice markets and at dusty taxi stands, many Tajiks who call themselves Muslim cannot remember the last time they were inside a mosque. Most people in this deeply impoverished country are more concerned with feeding their families than their souls.

Egamberdiev praised the Taliban for its commitment to Islam -- including rules such as banning women from working or going to school -- but criticized it for taking up arms against other Muslims. He denounced Osama bin Laden and terrorism in the name of Islam. "This path is not Islamic; that is godless," he said.

Tajikistan's secular government fought a 1992-97 war with Islamic guerrillas -- many trained in Afghanistan -- and four years on, peace remains shaky.

In some regions, warlords tried to impose strict Islamic rules such as shaving the heads of women who appeared in public without their heads covered, according to a report by the Keston news service, which monitors religious freedoms. Residents have rebelled against the harsh measures.

In neighboring Uzbekistan, the government's fear of Islamic extremism means that distributing religious materials can land you in prison, and long beards are suspect. Human rights groups say the government has gone too far.

Many Uzbeks are observing Ramadan quietly, or at government-sponsored services. In the city of Termez on the Afghan border, children scampered through the streets Sunday evening at sundown to collect donations from residents for the fast-breaking meal. "Ramadan, Ramadan!" they shouted.