A Discussion with Batir Zalimov, Center on Mental Health and HIV/AIDS, Tajikistan

With: Batir Zalimov

February 11, 2011

Background: This discussion preceded a consultation on faith and development in South and Central Asia in Dhaka, Bangladesh, on January 10-11, 2011. The interview was by telephone between Michael Bodakowski and Batir Zalimov, with Russian/English interpretation provided by Manizha Haitova. In this interview Mr. Zalimov discusses development in Tajikistan, the role of civil society, religious leaders, and the government, and the sometimes tense interactions between and among them. He emphasizes that Central Asia is not a homogeneous region; but rather, each country has a unique context that requires a unique response. Mr. Zalimov discusses the important roles religious leaders play in advancing social causes; given limited communications infrastructure, he says, religious leaders are a primary source of information on social issues and deserve further engagement. He also talks about his work on HIV prevention and drug addiction, as well as his faith convictions for that work.

Tell us about you, your life journey, and your inspirations.

I was born in 1969 in Tajikistan in Dushanbe. Both of my parents worked for the government; my father worked in the Ministry of Internal Affairs and my mother in the Ministry of Health. I started school and attended for 10 years, though following my studies I decided I wanted to join the army, and I went to Afghanistan. Following my military service, I returned home and began my studies in the Institute of Languages in Dushanbe, when I also worked in security.

For a long period of my life, almost 15 years as a student and afterwards, I used drugs. I have been clean now for 10 years, and it was my experience as a drug user that inspired me to do the social work I am doing today. I started using drugs when I was in the seventh grade in school, and I continued using drugs while at the Institute of Languages. At first I did not encounter any difficulties performing my daily duties; I was able to use drugs and continue normally with my daily life. After some time, however, I started to recognize that my drug use was adversely affecting my life.

A major event in the 1990s for me and for my family was the civil war in Tajikistan. In 1992 in Tajikistan, the civil war began, and the main concern for me and my family became to stay alive. During the beginning stages of the war, I worked and tried to keep my family secure. That was the daily life at that time. During the civil war, two camps of people were fighting each other. I was targeted because of my nationality and I feared for my life, so I left my job and in 1992 moved to Moscow, where I stayed until 1997.

When the civil war officially ended, I returned to Dushanbe. I could not find employment, and I started to use drugs again, this time hard drugs, including heroin. Because of my drug use, I could not do anything; I could not function in my daily life. In 2000 I stopped using drugs and began to work as a consultant in a hospital for drug addicts, called the Republican Clinical Center of Narcology. I was there from 2001 and was one of the first men in Tajikistan to build and establish a rehabilitation center with services for drug users [also one of the first NGOs in Tajikistan of its kind], along with a group of former addicts from [Narcotics Anonymous]. We worked with a lot of boys who were addicts and were able to help them to stop using drugs. From 2007, I started working at the Center for Mental Health and HIV/AIDS (MHAIDS).

How has your faith been a motivation in your personal and professional career?

Religion has played a central role in my life. From 2000, I started to live according to my religion. It was the only way not to only stop my addiction, but also to change myself, my behavior, and my life.

Before coming to religion, I tried many different ways to stop drug use, including rehabilitation, cold turkey, etc; I exhausted all avenues. Religion was the only way to stop my 10 years of addiction. Addiction is a style of life. Understanding that, I started to change my lifestyle. Looking back, I now ask myself, “How did I live without religion for so long?” I am very sad that I lived that way.

I have always respected religion, even when I was not a strong adherent. During my childhood, I saw my grandfather, a very religious man, pray every day. I tried to repeat after him but did not understand what he was doing or why he was doing it. I did, however, participate in some religious events with him, and I always respected Islam. But at that time, it did not play a very big role in my life.

I was born in the Soviet period, during a time of religious persecution; the main religion was atheism. But even during the Soviet Union, my grandfather always told me that every man should have his faith. If the man does not have his faith, he is like an amoeba, he said, a small organism without a skeleton. My grandfather always told me that without a faith, it will be very difficult to live. At that time I understood him, but also understood that following religion would be to refuse my style of life—vodka, drugs, sex; it was not the right time for me.

Now, I think that it is both sad and funny how I thought of faith at that time in my life. I was not so clever; looking back, I was stupid.

Tell us about the Center on Mental Health and HIV/AIDS? What do you do, and with whom do you work?

MHAIDS started its activities in 2006; our office is located in Dushanbe. We are a service organization, providing psychological, humanitarian, and social services to vulnerable populations, HIV-positive individuals, and drug users. Our team and staff are very friendly, and we have a good work structure. Each staff member knows their duties and responsibilities and carries them out in a timely manner. Also, our organization provides and holds training, research, forums, and roundtables. We target different populations, including religious leaders, migrants, migrants' wives, and youth, and conduct different seminars and events for each.

Our organization is not a religious organization; looking at our charter we are a social NGO, established for solving social problems. Our faith and faith beliefs, however, are important to our activities, and we use them as a guide and as one way to solve our problems.

As part of our focus on religious leaders, we hold information sessions and involve religious leaders to solve social problems, including HIV/AIDS and drug addiction. We also go to the mosque and provide information sessions together with the religious leaders.

Youth and children are important to us, especially school children; when children grow up—they can either be at risk, or they can be healthy—we help to guide them to have healthy lifestyles. It is important to start prevention activities from childhood. I also want to say one more important point, that our NGO is the only NGO in Tajikistan with a medical license. We have a medical center under our roof for the local population, which we opened to provide quality and comprehensive services to vulnerable groups, including those who are HIV-positive.

We have a national law in Tajikistan that mandates free medical services to people with HIV/AIDS. Our center provides free services, but we are the only medical center that does. The law is good, but there are no other centers to carry out the law. We provide other services by pay as part of our strategy to work towards sustainability. Most NGOs depend on grants, and it is sad that some NGOs have stopped working when their grants dry up; our medical center helps us to be sustainable.

I work at MHAIDS as a consultant/psychologist and work with drug users and HIV positive people, but also with others with problems in their lives. My background helps and supports me to help others; my former addiction has given me the confidence to do this sort of work. In life, I firmly believe that there are not negatives that exist without positive counterparts.

My daily workload consists of psychological counseling and facilitation of a self-support group. I want to say thank you to God for giving me this opportunity to help others. When I see glimmers of hope in people’s eyes, I am encouraged to continue my work.

Tell us about your work with the mosques, and why you chose to work in the mosques?

Religious leaders have a huge influence on the population of Tajikistan; it is hard to convey fully how great their influence really is. We are seeing a younger and younger group of people visiting the mosques; even children visit the mosques on their own. Our main task is to provide correct information to religious leaders and involve them in prevention issues, so that they then can pass the information on to their parishioners. Religious leaders are influential, and their influence should be used for good; we start with activities to change the religious leaders’ views and perspectives about HIV, and then help them to use their new perspectives to help stop the spread of HIV in our country.

Religious leaders are particularly effective in conveying information on delicate topics, including condom use, sex, and attitudes between men and women. If the religious leaders start to talk about these issues and discuss them with their parishioners, the information will reach all parts of the population by word of mouth. But first we have to work to change the attitudes of the religious leaders on these delicate matters. For a religious leader to provide such information, he himself must understand the information and believe in it himself.

It is most effective to engage religious leaders on issues of prevention. That is the main task of our engagement, but we also explain to religious leaders that HIV-positive people and drug addicts are members of our society, and they should not be outcasts but rather be helped. The mosque should be open for all to enter and find support. Looking at the past compared to now, the situation is improving; our organization was the first to work in Tajikistan with religious leaders on these issues. Before, while in the mosque during prayer, I heard others saying that we should kill people with HIV and drug addicts, but now the door of the mosque is open to them.

I now go to the mosque every day and hear the religious leaders providing useful and correct information. Our program is working.

How do you work with imams themselves to change their attitudes?

During the trainings, we provide information on HIV. The information is adopted to resonate with the imams. We teach on prevention, transmission, and the lifestyles of those infected. We sometimes invite those infected to the trainings. We try to be comprehensive in the information we provide. The main topics of the training include epidemiology, history of HIV in the world and in our country, prevention, stigma, and discrimination.

Concerning our methodology, we use lectures, role-play, and other interactive exercises. We also show presentations, and have discussions. As an example, we show films about HIV-positive people, sometimes on the life of one of our clients, covering how he became HIV positive, and about his life living with HIV.

Are there any challenges in involving religious communities in your work?

Yes, of course there are. Because many religious leaders are simple people, they often have certain preconceptions and limited knowledge. For example, in one of our trainings a religious leader did not understand the importance of working on prevention issues, but another leader stood up to the group, saying that if imams do not learn the facts and preach on prevention issues, they will contribute to a people living a poor and unhealthy lifestyle; subsequently, the tone and enthusiasm of the participants changed dramatically. It often takes multiple meetings and training to help religious leaders understand their important role on these issues. Their understanding depends on their education.

What is the role of the government, and how does it interact with faith-inspired groups?

I cannot say for certain what our government wishes to do with religious leaders, but religions in Tajikistan are under the control of the government. Two or three years ago, the situation was more open and free, but now it is under government control. Of course, this can be a barrier to involving religious leaders in our social activities. There are areas of engagement between the government and religious leaders on social issues, however. I know of a national government program to fight against HIV/AIDS that identifies religious leaders as important actors in our society.

I think there are two main problems in our society. One is corruption, which is pervasive in all government structures, NGOs, and international organizations. Another is that religion has become a tool for control of society, a tool in the hand of the government.

People turn to religion, day to day, more and more because their lives appear empty. It is interesting to note as well that nobody tells people to turn to religion; people come themselves. As I said, every day I see young boys in the mosque, and when I ask them why they come, they say “I want to, and I feel like I need it.” Maybe that is why our government is trying to control this movement; people are turning to religion and not the state.

Tajikistan has been in the news recently concerning a rise in religious extremism. What are the effects on civil society in general, and on your work?

Of course our government tries to prevent this movement, though they do not know exactly how. However, in my own personal opinion, and I am convinced that it is the truth, not one religion in the world likes extremism or propaganda. No religion likes the blood of people, so extremism is not central to religion, or to our faith. I think that if some religious leaders promote the killing of others, they have no claim to Islam, or to any religion, because no religion promotes the killing of others. Extremists are using religion for their personal objectives.

Looking at the civil war in Tajikistan, what are the legacies that remain today?

I think that the civil war was part of the social upheaval in the post-Soviet territory, but the conflict in Tajikistan was one of very high social psychosis; it was meaningless. It was like a play put on by a small group of people. There were two or three political leaders that wanted to cut the country like a piece of cake. When they could not cut this cake as they wished, they tried to push the people to conflict.

The conflict was caused in large part by a country existing for many years without spirituality. Some political leaders used and manipulated the situation to draw people into conflict. Some political leaders used Islam as a tool in the conflict. It was a really stupid situation when brothers killed brothers and fathers killed sons—one Tajik killed another. We were involved in the play of a few leaders.

The effect of this war was horrible and pushed us about 10 years back in our development. We stopped all development, social, political, etc, during the conflict. Our country came to a halt and moved backwards. The conflict affected all segments of the populations.

Did religious leaders play a role in building peace, and do they continue peacebuilding work today?

During the war, there were two camps. One camp was the people who promoted a secular country, and the other was the religious camp, headed by religious leaders that wanted to build an Islamic country with Islamic law. The main actors in conflict resolution were, however, religious leaders, and they started the peace negotiations. I feel that the war would have continued five or 10 more years if the religious leaders had not started a dialogue for peace.

Religious leaders have significant influence in society and play important social roles. The leaders played a role in stabilizing the situation in the country. A lot of people do not agree with the politics of our country or with the political structure and government. Religious leaders today are holding the middle ground to keep the situation calm.

What other development challenges does Tajikistan face? How are faith-inspired actors working on these issues?

A primary challenge in unemployment. Unemployment contributes to a very low standard of living. There is also a lack of quality education resulting in a lack of qualified workers; those that are educated often try to leave the country in search of better opportunities abroad. There is a lack of good medical services as well, and in some areas, there are no medical services at all. Many people live below the poverty line.

A new challenge appearing is conflict with our neighbor Uzbekistan over the building of a big hydroelectric station in Tajikistan. Because of the conflict, Uzbekistan closed the border, and we now have limited ways to exit the country and limited trade of food and petrol.

At the national level, Tajikistan has high debt abroad, which limits the government’s investment in our society. Speaking about corruption, it has widely appeared linked to nepotism; a father hires his son, his uncle, and his relatives—this is particularly true in government ministries. It is a big problem. There is no control over corruption.

What other faith-inspired organizations do you know of in Tajikistan?

Christian Aid, from the United Kingdom, has a large presence in Tajikistan working on development issues including health, education, climate change, livelihoods, and human rights; they are also one of our donors. The Islamic Development Bank works with the government on infrastructure projects and road construction.

I heard about with a small, Tajikistan-based organisation called CADA, which was closed by the government [due to unclear circumstances] and reopened under the name Operation Mercy. Another Christian-inspired organization I heard about as well, ORA international, was closed because it spread information about Christianity.

I hope that other organizations pay attention to our country and region. There are many different Islamic organizations in the world, and we want to invite them to be involved in the social development process in our society, to solve our problems, and to develop and educate the religious leaders.

In Central Asia, the situation is difficult. The conditions and context in each country is unique. What works in Kyrgyzstan, for example, will not work in Tajikistan. In Tajikistan, one of the main ways to change attitudes is through the religious leaders. Tajikistan has totally destroyed education and other structures, and we have very limited access to internet, TV, and radio due to lack of reliable electricity; thus one of the main ways we can receive information is through the religious leaders.

Can you talk about the issue of proselytizing and religious conversion in Tajikistan? What are the social implications?

What I can say is that there are different religious movements in Tajikistan. We have different Christian churches—Adventists, Protestants, and Catholics; there is a Jewish community as well. People go to churches or the synagogue and pray. I know they have community and social activities, including sports, for example. But there is a fine line between what is allowed and what is prohibited. If the people from the Christian churches try to promote the religion or spread information on their religion, that is illegal.

Laws on proselytizing are not only confined to Christian and Jewish communities; it is also an issue with the Salafi movement. The Salafi movement was popular two years ago, but these groups were found to have violated the law, and they were stopped by the government and arrested. Hizb ut-Tahrir, the transnational Islamic movement, is also prohibited in Tajikistan.

What networks do you belong to or do you know of and how are these helpful?

We are part of different networks. The first is the Vienna NGO committee. Our organization represents Tajikistan in this United Nations body. Our main network here in Tajikistan is the Tajikistan Network of Women Living with HIV, which we created and organize. In our organization, we have six female colleagues with HIV who are working for us, and they facilitate and work with over 100 other women through the network; the network was actually their idea.

We are also a member of the association of adult education in Tajikistan, a big network that aims to develop education in Tajikistan. We have also become part of a new network that was formed through the January consultation in Bangladesh, and we have already been in touch with colleagues to forge new partnerships.

What were the most important lessons you took from Dhaka? Will any be applicable to the work you are doing now or plan to in the future?

The meeting in Dhaka was very important. Unfortunately, I had some problems with translation, but I understood the main points. The most important information I took away from the conference was hearing experiences from other countries with different government structures and from those representing different religions, learning about how they live and solve their own problems. Before this meeting, we had been working with religious leaders individually or in smaller groups, but after Dhaka, we see the importance of bringing leaders together and joining them in a network to hear each other’s voices. The meeting has further solidified my belief that religious leaders should continue to play a role in solving social problems; they should have a place in the government structures as well, to have a voice in solving social problems.

Dhaka also displayed that people from different faith beliefs can work together cordially, and that religious leaders and civil society can cooperate on common issues.

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