From May 1, no new mosques will be built in Muslim Turkmenistan and repairs on old structures will require a special government license. The three mosques under construction will be finished. But as far as the Turkmen authorities are concerned, the people have enough mosques to last them for years to come.
This order may remove the last straw holding up the regime of President Saparmurat Niyazov against the incoming Islamic terrorist threat.
Their president is already an object of deep concern to his people after he advised them to stop capping their teeth with gold, banned beards and listening to car radios and declared a national holiday in honor of a melon.
Al Qaeda may therefore feel it can waltz into the perplexed Central Asian nation without too much resistance. According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s counter-terror sources, Osama bin Laden’s group has ordered a number of cells to penetrate Turkmenistan from neighboring Afghanistan and set up terror bases. Some are Turkmenistani natives who spent years in Afghanistan for training and guidance under the former Taliban regime and who lately served with al Qaeda. Most of them were happy to return home and escape the joint US-Pakistan pursuit operation carried out in southeast Afghanistan in March.
In recent weeks, since the al Qaeda-linked Uzbek Islamic Party blew up buildings in Tashkent, its members have been relentlessly pursued by Uzbek forces. Escapees from Uzbekistan and al Qaeda infiltrators from Afghanistan are finding sanctuary in Turkmenistan.
Since becoming president in 1991, Niyazov has sworn to fight the spread of Islamic extremism in his country, a blight that gives sleepless nights to him, Washington and the American companies heavily invested in the development of oil pipelines to carry oil and gas from Central Asia to Afghanistan and Pakistan via Turkmenistan. He has ordered the zakat (believers’ donations to charity) to be deposited with a special commission appointed by the president instead of being freely handed out by the imams as was customary.
The sudden withholding of these revenues has hit the clerical establishments disseminating Islamic propaganda. With no cash to hand out, the clerics have lost popular respect and have nothing to offer the Islamic terrorist groups.
The president’s standstill order on mosque construction is treated by Muslim organizations as a declaration of war and pushed some who never engaged in violence into joining external terrorist groups. Most Islamic analysts in Central Asia expect Turkmenistan to go the way of Uzbekistan and attract terrorist attacks and even attempts on the president’s life. He will hardly find support among the many poor in the country or those who feel they have fallen prey to a modern Asian Caligula.