Outside column: Tajikistan outlaws witchcraft

Posted: Thursday, January 31, 2008

DUSHANBE, Tajikistan - Apparently concerned that his country is in danger of falling under a supernatural spell, President Imomali Rahmon last month launched a major crackdown on the practice of witchcraft.

While some may see the move as merely an oddball diversion - similar to Rahmon's initiatives outlawing expensive weddings and gold teeth - from more substantial issues facing the country, the new law is considered serious business in Tajikistan.

The law, approved by parliament last month, provides for stiff fines ranging from $180 to $240 for those who convicted of violating the law.

The authorities insist that the rising number of magicians and sorcerers in the country made the action necessary.

And in fact, belief in mystical healing powers, casting the evil eye and other magical practices remain widespread in the country, despite the prevalence of Islam, which frowns on such beliefs, and years spent as a Soviet republic, where atheism reigned.

A recent survey commissioned by law-enforcement authorities found more than 5,000 regular practitioners of magic in the country.

Leading politicians and business leaders routinely claim to be the victims of malicious spells.

Zafar Saidov, the director of the state-run Khovar news agency, claims he has been the victim of just such a curse - one cast by foreign sources.

"Unfortunately, some of our fellow countrymen seek the help of Pakistani and Afghan magicians," he said. "Black magic comes into Tajikistan from outside and has a negative influence on people."

Saidov said that some sorcerers are even turning to modern technology to cast their spells.

"Some magicians now use modern mobile phone technology and the Internet for their black deeds, damaging people's health," he said.

Others see a less supernatural reason for the widespread believe in the occult.

Rashid Abdullo, a political analyst, says magic has enjoyed a renaissance in Tajikistan because people have not been able to cope with psychological distress caused by the political and economic collapse that followed the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

"Magicians and wizards play the role of psychotherapists," he said. "People feel they can't solve their problems themselves and try to enlist the help of magicians instead."

The best-known practitioners of the dark arts often do a booming business. People sometimes line up for days in order to see the most popular magicians.

Bibi Fatima, a popular fortune-teller in the capital Dushanbe, said her clients are mostly well-heeled professionals.

"Members of parliament, artists, prosecutors, fiscal agents and businessmen come to me for amulets against the evil eye," she says.

"For some money, I can insert bear's teeth or claws, garlic or red pepper into an amulet. I can also advise my clients to make the fig sign when talking to their enemies," she said, referring to the symbolically potent gesture made by inserting one's thumb between the second and third fingers of a clenched fist.

"That helps a lot," shemaintained.

Islamic leaders in the country routinely rail against belief in magic, apparently to little affect.

Domullo Murojon Sabitzade, the senior imam or prayer leader at a Dushanbe mosque, says the quest for supernatural advice distances people from their faith in God.

"A person's desire to seek God slackens," he explained. "Most fortune-tellers are also charlatans. The conclusions they draw are not trustworthy, because only Almighty God governs the fate of the world. He is the only one making decisions."

But while many here may agree with Sabitzade, few appear willing to take the chance and abandon witchcraft altogether.

Abdullo thinks that since witchcraft is so popular, the government would do better to license its practitioner rather than try to ban the outright.

"We should make a more rational decision and impose some kind of tax on them," he said. "Let them continue to work."

Salomat Mahmudova, a prominent local lawyer, agrees.

"They give advice to businessmen, tell traders whether to get involved in some business or not, and reveal which season is the most beneficial for concluding a deal, or arranging or canceling a meeting," she said.

"As long as there is a demand, there will be a supply. As long as (witches) pay their taxes, why not? Going to see a magician is the exclusive right of each person. No one should ban it."

• Lola Olimova and Mukammal Odinaeva are reporters in Tajikistan who write for The Institute for War & Peace Reporting, a nonprofit organization that trains journalists in areas of conflict.

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