The government of Tajikistan has banned Christmas trees, gifts, and New Year’s “festive meals” as part of a greater attempt to minimize Western cultural influences within the country.
The government of the Muslim-majority country has agreed to displaying a small Christmas tree in the center of the capital, Dushanbe, while banning any public displays of celebration related to Christmas, particularly in schools. “The use of fireworks, festive meals, gift-giving and raising money” have all also been banned. Tajikistan had already banned any instances of “Father Christmas,” the Russian version of Santa Claus, but not before a 24-year-old man dressed as Father Christmas was stabbed to death in 2011 by a mob shouting “you infidel!”
Reports note that Tajikistan’s government is notoriously oppressive of celebrations, not exclusively Christmas, though non-Muslim Western celebrations have received closer scrutiny. The government has cracked down on people in costume during Halloween for two years in a row, for example, and recently arrested a man for celebrating his birthday with friends at an Irish pub after photos of their evening appeared on social media. The man was subsequently fined $600, or the average salary a worker in Tajikistan would make in four months, for the incident. The anti-birthday party law is allegedly in place to prevent individuals from spending unwisely to host parties.
Tajikistan’s ban on overt Christmas celebrations follows news that Brunei, another Muslim-majority country, has banned the observance of Christmas entirely, including the possession of any celebratory Christmas materials, such as Santa hats and ornaments. Those violating this law face up to five years in prison in the southeast Asian nation.
Tajikistan, while Muslim-majority, has not shied away from limiting the free exercise of Islam, as well, particularly after becoming an active target of recruitment for the Islamic State. The government claims hundreds of its citizens have left to fight with ISIS in Syria and Iraq, the most prominent among them the former head of Tajik police forces. Colonel Gulmurod Khalimov disappeared from his job, claiming to have “gone on a business trip,” and resurfaced months later in an Islamic State propaganda video urging the massacre of non-Sunni Muslims.
Tajikistan has since limited the public wearing of Islamic garb, including hijabs, and forced imams to edit the content of their sermons to include effusive praise for the government. They have also implemented a strict no-beard policy sometimes forcibly enforced by police carrying razors. President Emomali Rahmon has reportedly also considered a ban on Arabic-sounding names, though such a law would require him to change his own name.
Resource-rich Central Asia has become a target for Islamic State recruitment not just for its high percentage of Muslims and relative remoteness from its major adversaries in the West, but because it is rife with eccentric dictatorships whose oppression leaves the population vulnerable to persuasion by jihadists. It has acquired at least one satellite group in the region: the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which declared itself to be a sovereign state and pledged allegiance to caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.