Writ large in the psyche of today’s society is the seemingly inalienable right for all to do what they want, when they want or, as Bart Simpson’s once concluded to ‘do what he(or she) feels’. Whilst freedom is in equal proportion taken for granted or yearned depending on individual circumstances, an unchecked laissez faire approach can result in the abuse of liberty that people often no not what to do with. With freedom of choice, movement, whom to worship and append your support, there are though great responsibilities attached to what everyone now seems to demand: to do with their lives what they will. No single individual, government, or even God can dictate to them as only they know what is best for their earthly existence.

For society to function every nation needs laws which its citizens’ are expected to adhere, if not particularly like. There is though an increasing tendency to pick out from the statutes what doesn’t fit with an individuals aspirational template for their life and disregard it, or dismiss it as bigoted, narrow-minded, or belonging to a different, supposedly less enlightened era. Indeed, God’s Word is also sifted to remove elements an individual might classify as out of touch, or redolent of another age. An attitude of ‘God cannot any longer believe that’ or even an ‘I know better than God, my creator, what is best for mankind’ highlights a society riven with arrogance and hubris.

In an era replete with choice there has never been more of a ‘kid in a sweet shop’ mentality but a panoply of options that do more to bewilder with opacity than aid educated decision-making can generate poorly made choices, especially when in the hands of those least equipped to do so. Where then should an incumbent administration draw the line where it makes decisions for the good of its citizens depends on its prime motivation: the greater good of the electorate’s welfare or a despotic, autocratic need for self-promotion predicated on deification, control, and paranoia.

Tajikistan, not known for being an exemplar of societal freedoms and democracy has recently implemented an unwieldy diktat outlawing the free movement of literature – in to or out of the former Soviet republic. Should I wish to convey into Dushanbe a 1964 Rupert annual penned in English, I would first have to obtain written permission but only after filing an official form stating where and by whom such an potentially inflammatory tome was published, as well as the identity of its author. The official line explains that this measure is to counter the smuggling of rare manuscripts but in an era of heightened tension within the country, due to its close proximity to Afghanistan and fertile recruiting ground of disenfranchised citizens that ISIS are seeking to proselytize, such legislation seems to be a method of staunching the flow of extremist literature into Tajikistan – in effect doing the Levant’s job for them.

ALL books written in Farsi and Arabic will by default fall under suspicion – simply due to both languages not being widely understood by those tasked with intercepting rather than bowdlerizing literature on the banned list. There is though great nervousness that Tajikistan is far further than it should be under the radar of the international community, who will inevitably look instead to North Africa and the Middle East as being the natural breeding grounds of ISIS’s next generation of fighters. Whilst this counter-measure to restrict the flow of material into willing hands might yield negligible results and impress the coalition fighting in theatres against ISIS, the advent of the internet’s all-consuming tentacles is surely of greater concern than the reading habits of the few tourists who manage to enter Tajikistan.

If this had been Turkmenistan I might have been tempted to suggest the measure was conceived purely to ensure outside literature and propaganda didn’t adulterate the minds of those reared on a diet of books penned by absolute ruler Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, whose discursive oeuvre includes works on tea drinking, horses, and carpet weaving. Whilst I am not aware of Tajik premier Emomali Rahmon, a man one rung down on the autocracy scale from Berdymukhamedov, being familiar in Central Asian literary circles there will undoubtedly be somewhere a reading list of preferred titles from which citizens are expected to glean ‘objective’ information. The pen though being mightier the sword, the written word can bring down nations and leaders – or stoke up fanaticism through incendiary rhetoric, facts presumably not lost on Rahmon.

Is it therefore appropriate to control the reading choices of a country’s populace? There will never be a catchall answer to this when an official reason for censure might not be the one generally accepted by the public. When it is deemed necessary to restrict literature in certain languages, a process of saving people from themselves and in effect making that choice for them, will rarely be viewed positively and could in the end be counter-productive. In this sense a country such as Tajikistan can never win; to allow extremist material to fall into willing hands is a potential self-perpetuating nightmare, but to deny the freedom to view religious doctrine without allowing citizens to make up their own minds on its content will only serve to drive the disillusion deeper into the terrorists’ clutches.  Whilst this represents a cleft stick that Tajikistan has no choice but to address, it is undoubtedly more pertinent for the country to address why so many of its people are inclined towards extremism as a positive alternative to their everyday lives, many of which rely on remittance wages earned in Russia in the absence of realistic employment within their own country.

Many are drawn to religion during times of hopelessness. Only when Tajikistan starts to set its own agenda – rather than continually being adversely affected by Russia’s sanction-induced economic downturn, in turn affecting its already over-reliance on remittance liquidity – can it expect a more stable and less biddable society disinclined to vent its frustrations through skewed ideologies on foreign soil.

Source material and further information:

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty: https://www.rferl.org/a/tajikistan-books-religious-extremist-material-culture-ministry/28434892.html