Beard-banning — a fantasy for many in hipster-fatigued New York City, but in some countries, the mortal threat to facial hair is a reality.

In the small Central Asian nation Tajikistan, the government is in the midst of a crackdown on beard-growing in the predominantly Muslim population. Citing concerns over displays of religious extremism, authorities even go so far as to forcibly shave offending citizens. In August, Umar Bobojonov, a 23-year old Tajik student, was left in a coma after alleged attacks by policemen for refusing to remove his beard.

What is behind this draconian attack on freedom of expression?

Wearing a beard is not prescribed in the Qur’an. The Hadith (writings that also guide Muslims) suggest that beards should not be shaven and Prophet Muhammed is believed to have worn a beard. Those who advocate maintaining a beard say they are emulating Muhammed, and many senior religious figures around the world follow the practice. Western associations between beard-wearing and devout, or even radical, faith stems from over-exposure through media to extremist regimes such as the Taliban in Afghanistan. In Tajikistan, men do not only wear beards as a sign of their faith — some are just keen followers of fashion.

The Tajik government claims it is forcibly shaving men in order to promote hygiene and to facilitate identification. However, the policy is actually part of a campaign of forced secularism. Beards are considered a sign of religious extremism that is alien to Tajik national culture; across the country, freedom to practice religion is severely restricted by the government. Under-18s are not allowed to pray in mosques, young people need permission to study Islam abroad, and religious activities can only take place instate-approved buildings. Recently, concerns over extremism have gained further capital due to the rise of ISIS in Syria and Iraq.

However the extent of religious extremism in Tajikistan is exaggerated, according to experts. University of Exeter PhD researcher in religion and security in Tajikistan Edward Lemon points out that approximately 500 young people from Tajikistan have left to join ISIS. By contrast an estimated 500-600 young people from Britain and 1200 from France have joined ISIS fighters in Syria. “The specter of Islamic State constitutes a useful tool for the regime to crackdown on both real and imagined faith-based opposition to the regime”, according to Lemon.

The policy also has its roots in the country’s Soviet past. The Soviet Union brought scientific atheism to Central Asia countries — closing down mosques, banning religious practice and promoting a singular allegiance to the state. By stamping down on religious practices, the Tajik government today hopes to promote national identity as first and foremost.

But attacks on citizen religion have escalated to fundamental threats on political pluralism and democracy. In August the authoritarian Tajik government banned the main opposition group Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT). Photos circulated of party leaders arrested and facing prison.

This is not the first time in Tajik history that religion has been a cause of conflict. In 1992-97 Tajikistan fought a bitter civil war. Edward Lemon argues that bouts of conflict today, including a deadly military rebellion led by junior defense minister General Abduhalim Nazarzoda on September 4th, are the result of breakdown in post-conflict power sharing agreements. The rebels eventually retreated into the mountains, and now the government claims to have liquidated General Nazarzoda.

The suppression of rights and political pluralism in Tajikistan is a product of the history of warlord politics and authoritarianism —now adorned with the new veil of explosive geo-politics and extremism in the Middle East and Central Asia. It suggests that in their efforts to combat extremism, the US-led coalition against ISIS needs to monitor their blast radius more carefully.

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