Tajikistan is trumpeting the repatriation of children from Bangladesh who were studying at Islamic madrasahs, as the Muslim-majority country keeps strict tabs on religious education.
But the return home for the children is not yet over as they have been put in schools for children with special needs to undergo what officials describe as an indefinite “readjustment” period.
Some 3,400 Tajik students have come home from foreign madrasahs since 2010, when President Emomali Rahmon demanded parents bring their children back to prevent them from potentially becoming “terrorists.”
But one family says they haven’t been allowed to contact their 13-year-old son — a former madrasah student — since he was taken to the boarding school in early November. “The family isn’t allowed to bring him home even on weekends,” says the boy’s father, Mahmadzarif Saidov. “We aren’t even sure if our son is really studying at that boarding school or somewhere else.”
“We’re worried that our child’s circumstances are being kept secret from us,” Saidov adds. “He must be allowed to come home on weekends and tell us what he’s studying, unless of course [the authorities’] aim is brainwashing.”
The Education Ministry says the returnees undergo the special readjustment classes to help them adjust to the secular Tajik school system. “These children haven’t been to a regular school and aren’t accustomed to our way of life,” ministry spokesman Ehson Khushvakht said on December 10.
Khushvakht said teachers will work with the children “to determine which grades of school the children should attend in the future” and prepare them for regular schools before sending them back to the families. “The duration of the readjustment period depends on each child’s ability — it could last three months, six months, or one year,” he told RFE/RL.
Authorities haven’t publicly commented on the exact number of Tajik children studying privately in Bangladesh or the circumstances of their return.
One law enforcement official put the number of recent returnees at around 10 and said they were brought back to Tajikistan during the past eight months. The official spoke on condition of anonymity as he wasn’t allowed to speak to the media.
The authorities reportedly found out about the children after one of them — Saidov’s son — was detained during a trip to the United Arab Emirates in February and deported to Tajikistan due to his expired documents.
As part of efforts to combat extremism, Tajikistan has banned its citizens from sending minors to religious schools abroad without hard-to-obtain, written permission from government agencies.
Authorities estimate that several hundred Tajik nationals, including minors, are currently studying in Islamic schools abroad.
A decade ago, Rahmon warned Tajik students studying in Islamic schools abroad that if they didn’t quit immediately and return home, “the majority of them will turn into extremists and terrorists in five or 10 years.”
“They don’t only study religion there,” Rahmon warned. “They will come back and create problems for the nation and the government.”
The majority of the 3,694 Tajiks that were studying in religious schools in Iran, Pakistan, and Arab countries in recent years have returned to Tajikistan, authorities say.
One former madrasah student, who swiftly stopped attending his school in Egypt after Rahmon’s appeal, says he is still under scrutiny by the authorities nearly a decade after his return.
Dilshod, a 33-year-old resident of the Hisor district near Dushanbe, tells RFE/RL that earlier this year police regularly summoned him and asked about his everyday life, contacts, and the whereabouts of his relatives and friends.
“They summon me every five or six months,” Dilshod says. “Each time I’m required to bring a photo and a letter from the local authorities.”
Three other former madrasah students who quit their religious studies in Egypt, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia offered similar accounts of being regularly questioned by Tajik police since they returned.
Shortly after returning religious students from abroad, Tajikistan also closed down all but one madrasah in the Central Asian country.
In September, Khoja Ansori, the last madrasah in the southern region of Kulob, was turned into a music school, four years after it was shut down for allegedly failing to meet license requirements.
The country of some 9 million is currently left with only one official madrasah and an Islamic University, both located in the capital, Dushanbe.
The government also prohibits minors from attending Friday Prayers.
Some Tajiks fear the state’s harsh measures against the freedom to practice the Islamic faith will lead to the opening of underground schools and alienate the parents who want their children to have basic religious knowledge taught to them by qualified professionals.
Tajik officials often emphasize the threats of religious extremism and terrorism in an apparent bid to justify their strict control of religious institutions.
Two deadly assaults and two prison riots in Tajikistan since 2018 were claimed by Islamic State, although the group’s claims can’t be independently verified.
Hundreds of Tajik citizens went to the Middle East in recent years to join IS.
Critics of the government, however, say widespread corruption in state institutions, extremely high unemployment that sends hundreds of thousands abroad to find work, abject poverty, and a lack of civil liberties in Tajikistan contribute to people’s discontent and pose a much bigger threat to the country’s stability.