Islamists Crack Down on New Year’s Eve in Central Asia, Caucasus

New Year’s Eve, the former Soviet Union’s biggest holiday, is coming under attack as ‘anti-Muslim.’

In Kazakhstan, a Christmas tree was toppled and many New Year’s Eve celebrations were canceled. In Tajikistan’s capital, Dushanbe, a man dressed as Father Frost, the former Soviet Union’s Santa Claus, was murdered.

Across the majority-Muslim areas of Central Asia and Russia’s North Caucasus, the New Year’s Eve holiday is suddenly fraught with controversy. As the role of Islam in daily lives increases—with more men growing beards and women wearing hijabs, purchased in Turkey or Dubai—traditional all-night celebrations on New Year’s Eve are coming under attack.

The former Soviet Union’s biggest holiday, New Year’s Eve was promoted by the authorities before 1991 as a secular substitute for Orthodox Christmas, which falls on Jan. 7. Many of the Christmas traditions were held over, including Father Frost and putting up a tree—the latter of which, as Muslim critics now point out, was adapted long ago from pagan celebrations.

The new holiday, in any case, was celebrated lavishly even in Muslim areas, and New Year’s Eve has retained its prominence since the fall of the Soviet Union, even as more and more Muslims from former Soviet states go on the hajj to Mecca. Many also elect to send their children to study Islam at universities in Syria, Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, and other countries that provide free Islamic education.

But this year, the official website of the central mosque in Kazakhstan’s former capital, Almaty, suggested that Muslims should cancel their New Year’s Eve celebrations, calling them an “atheist legacy of the Soviet past.” In Tajikistan, a grand mufti told believers: “Decorations of the New Year tree, dances and games are not a part of our culture; celebrations of the New Year’s Eve holiday have religious roots contradicting the laws of Islam.”

Under pressure from local imams and respected Muslim elders, 206 schools in five regions in the southern Russian republic of Dagestan opted not to celebrate the holiday. The initiative came from the grassroots and not from the government, officials said. And last month, a number of actors, athletes, and journalists from Dagestan posted a video to YouTube explaining why New Year’s Eve is not a Muslim holiday.

According to the International Crisis Group’s North Caucasus project director, Yekaterina Sokirianskaya, the anti–New Year’s Eve push from the Islamic community was well-organized propaganda and shows that fundamentalist Islam is increasingly taking hold in Dagestan and other majority Muslim republics of the former Soviet states.

“Everyone has a right to celebrate or not to celebrate holidays, but the Russian government should pay more attention to the fact that the basis of secular Russian statehood is increasingly eroded in the North Caucasus,” Sokirianskaya said. “For the secular state to be attractive, it must be efficient and just. Both things are lacking in this region.”

The new backlash has surprised Svetlana Isayeva, chairwoman of the nongovernmental organization Mothers of Dagestan for Human Rights, in Dagestan’s capital, Makhachkala. Just a few years ago, no New Year’s Eve in the republic would have been complete without the traditional bottle of semi-sweet Soviet sparkling wine and tangerines on the table. But after years of hearing from imams that New Year’s Eve is a “pagan holiday” that brings nothing but sin, people feel torn, Isayeva said. It turns out Russia’s Santa Claus, Father Frost, and his granddaughter, the snow fairy Snegurochka, who helps him hand out gifts, are bad influences for Muslim children.

“I’m shocked,” she said. “We’re rolling down the hill. By forbidding New Year’s Eve celebrations, Islamists want to split us into believers and nonbelievers.” There’s still hope, however, that the traditional New Year’s Eve feast might win out in the North Caucuses republic, she added. She’s seen some positive signs: on Dec. 31, shoppers swept all the goods off the shelves in grocery stores in her home village of Dachny.

The motive for the stabbing in Dushanbe last Tuesday is still unclear. Parviz Davlatbekov, 24, was dressed in a Father Frost costume when he was set upon by a gang wielding knives. Initially, Russian news outlets reported that relatives of the victim said the attackers yelled “infidel” as they struck. But police say robbery was the motive—Davlatbekov’s red costume attracted the criminals.