A recipe for radicalisation: the campaign against Islam in Tajikistan

A government campaign against Islamic education and political movements in Tajikistan, prompted by an armed conflict with ’mujaheds’ in the Rasht valley, risks creating the very militancy it aims to prevent, write Sophie Roche and John Heathershaw.
John Heathershaw Sophie Roche
17 January 2011

In earlier articles for opendemocracy, we wrote of the armed conflict between government and rebel factions in the Rasht valley region of Tajikistan.  This violence, the most serious in Tajikistan for 10 years, began with an attack on a government convoy in September 2010.  

On 4 January 2011, official and local sources confirmed that Government forces had killed Alovuddin Davlatov (aka Ali Bedak), the commander accused of having launched the attack, and the remnants of his groups. This news apparently brings to an end the military conflict between the Government and the self-styled ‘Mujaheds’ led by Davlatov and other former civil war commanders.  However, the conflict itself, which has led to around 100 deaths, has had far wider repercussions that go beyond the terrible violence of Rasht. 

Central mosque Dushanbe

Dushanbe, Central Mosque. This year, however, all forms of unofficial Islam have been rejected, becoming almost synonymous with terrorism (photo: fergana.ru)

In the months since the conflict began, the military strategy has been accompanied by a campaign against “unofficial” Islam in the country: at a level unseen since the 1992-1997 civil war, when perhaps more than 100,000 people were killed or perished.  While the international community continues to worry about terrorists, local people face arbitrary policies where religious practices that were permitted at one point are now forbidden. This unpredictability creates an environment of insecurity and fear, and the grounds for some young people to turn to religion for justifications for their violent resistance. 

The conflict in the Rasht valley was not directly caused by militant Islamist sentiment.  However, the government’s response to the violence has the potential to ‘radicalise’ some Muslims, not just because of the nature of the military campaign in the Rasht valley, but as a consequence of repressive state policies against Islamic education and the legal and moderate Islamic Revival Party. 

In this article we wish to discuss the causes and effects of the recent anti-Islamic policies. What is the context of the recent wave of anti-Islamic policy? What does this mean to people and how has their life changed?

The armed conflict and its aftermath

The conflict in Rasht seems to show that militant Islam has few followers in contemporary Tajikistan.  Far fewer young men than were originally assumed joined the Mujahed groups, despite the calls to resist the state in the name of Islam.  Students from Rasht continued their studies in Dushanbe, deeply affected by the situation back home, but with no rush to join the struggle.

The story of Firuz, a teenager from Rasht studying Islam with a mullah in Hisor, is in many ways a typical one. He has seen his studies interrupted by the conflict, but he did not want to join the Mujaheds. He is more interested in the theological aspect of Islam than in military and political discussions. “Islam in Tajiksitan is like a wave, it comes and goes, sometimes it is strongly forbidden, sometimes openly practiced. We wait, as this is what Islam tells us to do,” he declares.

In the villages of Rasht, support for the uprising was also minimal.  Although some individuals joined the Mujahed groups, only 2 to 3 people per village left for the mountains. Moreover, the declarations of both the militants and state officials that the rebellion is somehow supported by the Taliban and other global Islamist groups is one that must be viewed with great suspicion. What is true is that the Mujahed did call for help and do have links to a world-wide network, but the conflict is not (yet) of global or even regional significance.  Earlier declarations of Jihad by single individuals did not lead to a large-scale participation.

Rasht VAlley

Rasht Valley. In the local villages, support for the uprising was also minimal. Although some individuals joined the Mujahed groups, only 2 to 3 people per village left for the mountains (Photo: Catherine Hine, www.flickr.com).

Mullo Abdullo, the phantom figure of militant Islam in Tajikistan, may be alive or dead. He was not among the casualties when Bedak’s group was eliminated. However, that the government declared its intention to continue hunting Mullo Abdullo may be a hint that military action could continue in some form.

"Across Rasht young men have been taken away by the secret services and held incommunicado.  Many have left the region to escape these operations."

Sophie Roche and John Heathershaw

Since October 2010, government action has seen the military and security services gradually reassert control in the area. However, civil liberties have never been high on the agenda. Across Rasht, young men have been taken away by the secret services and held incommunicado.  Roche was told of a case in which a young man disappeared and was held for several days without his parents being informed. Many have left the region to escape these sweeping-up operations.

A change of policy

From the start of the conflict in September, the Tajik Government has moved against religious groups, worshippers and students in a reckless attempt to suppress Islam in its unofficial forms. This stands in contrast to its policy following the country’s civil war of the 1990s, which sought to promote official Islamic events and institutions for the sake of social stability and political legitimacy. 

During that period, an Islamic university was built and put under state control, and 2009 was declared the year of Imomi Azam (the founder of the Hanafi school, which is the largest among the four main schools in Islam, and the predominant tradition in Tajikistan). This year, however, all forms of unofficial Islam have been rejected, becoming almost synonymous with terrorism. The logic behind this sudden turn is in a political crisis where Islam is identified as the cause.

Tajikistan map

Tajikistan is a mountainous landlocked country in Central Asia. Its area is 143 000  km2 and population 8 million.

Since November 2010, repression against religious activities has increased exponentially. Not only are bazaar stalls searched for religious video material, but traders with a beard are asked to shave and a fine has been put on women wearing the hijab. Cases have been reported in which young men with beards have had their driver’s documents confiscated or been refused entrance to the airport.

During fieldwork in and around Dushanbe this autumn, Roche observed that many observant Muslims were too exhausted and lacking any hope to resist these measures. Many people were not able to plan more than a day in advance. They were neither saving for nor imagining a future. Yet in this environment, Islam seemed to have become more important in daily life. Some reported that regular prayers were the only motivation to get up in the morning.

The campaign against Islamic education

As the environment for public religious expression beyond state-sanctioned Hanafi Islam has become restricted, confessants of other Islamic persuasions have taken steps to avoid drawing attention to themselves.  Religious activists move fast and remain watchful, knowing the risk to be arrested any time. As one young Salafi told Roche, “I know they will arrest me sooner or later, but this doesn’t bother me so much. What does worry me is the reason they might invent to imprison me, as I have never done anything bad”. Most Mullahs have stopped their teaching programmes, leaving thousands of young motivated people insecure about their future.

Islamic education may provide the most important source of teaching and knowledge in today’s Tajikistan. Unlike state education, religious schools are usually free of charge and represent a much more open educational system than secular schools. (An exception is the official Islamic university, which is very expensive for average people.)

"Islamic education is perhaps the most important source of teaching and knowledge in today’s Tajikistan. Unlike state education, religious schools are usually free of charge and represent a much more open educational system than secular schools."

Sophie Roche and John Heathershaw

At the same time, underpaid teachers, a shortage of teachers and corruption within the education system have run down most state schools so they stand as symbols of the weak state. The discrepancy between a discourse, which places high value in education, and the practice of an impoverished educational system increases every year. As a consequence of this decline, many young people have come to recognize in Islam a source of knowledge less susceptible to the corruption found in state schools and profit-making of expensive private lyceums.

In fear of this expansion of religious schooling, secular and nominally Muslim state authorities have rushed to suppress opportunities for Islamic education, especially overseas.  In recent weeks, hundreds of scholars studying in various Muslim countries have been called back under the pretext that they were studying in illegal religious institutions. They were portrayed as potential terrorists “in need of special supervision” on the national TV airwaves. 

Recent research on Central Asian students in the Middle East has demonstrated that in fact they travel abroad for a complex mixture of reasons, many of which have nothing to do with radicalisation.  It is not known how many of these international students have been arrested and how many are controlled 24 hours a day. But we can certainly say that such a campaign will have ramifications. It will make people try to avoid official authorities as much as possible; potentially, it could lead to resistance. 

The campaign against the IRP 

On Friday November 26, Muhiddin Kabiri, the Chairman of the Islamic Rebirth Party, announced that the party will no longer be able to invite citizens to Friday prayer.  This move followed Government demands to close down the party’s mosque. Despite this, Kabiri remained steadfast in a refusal to support the Mujaheds.  For all his his moderate tones and compromise in the face of repression, the official response has been further intimidation, including public chastisement from the speaker of parliament for Kabiri’s “frequent overseas trips”.

Meanwhile, while the IRP continues to retain good relations with Western governments, these same governments have not spoken out against the Tajik Governments scapegoat targeting of “unofficial” Islam and subsequent repression. 

The campaign against the IRP in particular has repercussions for the future of inclusive, less patriarchal modes of Islam and Islamic expression. The IRP is one of a small number of Islamic bodies that has lobbied for greater integration of women into Islamic society. The party, for example, founded a women’s mosque, where women were free to discuss, learn and pray.  Fifty-six percent of IRP members are women and the party provides far more scope for female involvement than most of the official and highly patriarchal Islamic bodies and mosques in Tajikistan.

This is in contrast to modern Tajikistan, where women have generally not been allowed to attend prayer in the mosque. In the capital Dushanbe, two mosques allow women to pray and have reserved a space for them, but in rural areas this is rejected completely by the majority of men. While well educated religious scholars claim that Islam does allow women to attend mosques, the majority of often poorly educated mullahs reject this idea.

The Women’s Mosque

Roche had the chance to visit the IRP’s women’s mosque on 16 October last year. She saw more than fifty women attentively listening to a teacher, who was explaining the meaning of the Koran. Many of them were elderly women or young women who had recently completed secondary school.  Many had no scope to continue higher education in a state run institution due to the ban of hijab in secular education, the high fees at the Islamic University or the lack of permission from their families.

Burned mosque Dushanbe

The building, adjacent to Islamic Renaissance Party’s headquarters and its main prayer hall, was almost completely destroyed by fire on the afternoon of October 23 (photo RFERL)

After the lesson, they sat together and discussed what they had just heard. Roche was impressed by the openness and freedom to express ideas and knowledge independent of age. It turned out that several young women were well educated and contributed substantively to the discussion. Some women have been active in women’s Islamic education for more than 12 years, almost the entire period since the 1997 peace agreement.

On Saturday October 23, their mosque and cultural centre was burned down. The building was new and the burning is considered by members to be an attack on the party by forces unknown.  A day before the alleged arson, the IRP building was raided by security forces interrupting Friday prayer and confiscating literature, audio and video material and computers. The very same day one of them warned that ‘more things may happen, if they did not stop prayer within the party’s building’.  It is highly unlikely that the arsonist and the forces behind him will ever be found.

"The campaign against the Islamic Rebirth Party has repercussions for the future of inclusive, less patriarchal modes of Islam and Islamic expression. The IRP is one of a small number of Islamic bodies that has lobbied for greater integration of women into Islamic society."

Sophie Roche and John Heathershaw


The religious education initiatives of the IRP have become a particular target of the government campaign against Islam. However, attacks on the IRP have political as well as religious ramifications. Islam, in the minds of the Party’s leaders and most of its members is not a system of control but a moral base for social interaction; a way to create trust between rulers and ruled, and the basis for a proper rule of law.

Some have interpreted the burning-down of the mosque as a political fight between the government and the opposition.  However, the burning of the mosque is much more than a primitive form of political struggle – it has stifled the gradual emergence of a female religious elite. For the women, the burning of the mosque once again demonstrates a patriarchal society that claims Islam to be the domain of men alone.

For men, and particularly young men, the attack on their opportunities for religious education and expression seems to confirm the critique of the secular state which is advanced by their more militant friends and teachers.  The Government of Tajikistan, under the influence of militant secularism, fails to understand the durability of Islam as a social and political critique of government corruption and the inequalities and perceived immoralities generated by market forces. 

The long-term ramifications of this divide between a religiously observant society and a state class which arbitrarily and instrumentally uses and abuses Islam are quite profound.  The repression of the IRP undermines the one outlet for public expression of political Islam in Tajikistan. 

The military conflict in Rasht may now have ended.  But it cannot and should not be fully explained in terms of militant Islam. It has complex roots in Tajikistan’s political and economic struggles. What is more, the Government’s response to the conflict may increase the likelihood of outbreaks of Islamic militancy in the longer term.     


Sophie Roche is a post-doctoral research fellow at Zentrum Moderner Orient, Berlin. She studies Islamism among young Tajik men and has spent more than a year living and working in the Kamarob gorge since 2002.

John Heathershaw is a Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Exeter.  He is the author of Post-Conflict Tajikistan (Routledge 2009) and from 2004-2007 spent several months conducting research in the Rasht valley.

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