Transforming Tajikistan: how the Rahmon regime turned religion into a site of struggle

This new book focuses on Tajik society’s turn to Islam as a means of coping with disorder.

Edward Lemon
4 September 2018

A mosque under construction in southern Tajikistan. CC BY-NC 2.0: Rohan Shenhav / Flickr. Some rights reserved.

A review of Transforming Tajikistan: State-building and Islam in Post-Soviet Central Asia by Helene Thibault.

Back in 2011, I met Mahmadali, a 38-year-old truck driver, on the outskirts of Dushanbe. He sported a clean-shaven face. Shortly after returning from Russia to his dingy Soviet-era apartment in Tajikistan’s capital city a few days earlier, Mahmadali had been stopped by police, taken to the local station, accused of being a “Wahhabi” (read: extremist) and threatened with repercussions if he did not shave off his beard. He duly went to the barber the next day. At that time, these were some of the first reports of such behaviour by Tajik police in the name of countering extremism. But in the years since, the practice has become more widespread. In 2016, for example, the chief of police in Khatlon region claimed to have “encouraged” 13,000 men to shave. Religion, for the government, is an essential part of national identity.

Over 98% of Tajiks are nominally Muslim, in other words not of Slavic origin. The government regularly invokes the country’s Islamic heritage and contribution to Islamic civilisation through the work of Bukharan-born polymath Avicenna (also known as Ibn Sina) and ninth century Islamic scholar Imam al-Bukhari. According to President Emomali Rahmon, state-sanctioned Islam is “the religion of justice, peace, security, and morality, and condemns any kind of destructive acts and violence.” But it is also a potentially dangerous force that threatens the regime. While certain forms of state-sanctioned Islam are promoted by the government, the regime has taken measures to curtail “foreign” forms of worship, such as growing beards or wearing hijabs.

These policies form part of a broader crackdown on independent voices within the country over the past decade, which culminated in the banning of the country’s leading opposition group, the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRPT) in 2015. Hundreds of academics, journalists, opposition activists and religious believers have been arrested or fled the country. At the same time, President Rahmon, who has ruled the country since 1992, has strengthened his family’s dominance over the economy and politics, being declared “Leader of the Nation” and cementing his position for life in 2016. This process of state management of religion and authoritarian consolidation forms the backdrop to Helene Thibault’s Transforming Tajikistan: State-building and Islam in Post-Soviet Central Asia.

As the Rahmon regime consolidated its power, the president gradually removed, arrested and exiled those who were incorporated into the government after the war

Tajikistan has always been considered the poor cousin of its neighbours in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan when it comes to academic studies. But recent years have seen the publication of excellent works on Tajikistan’s formation in the 1920s (Bergne, Kassymbekova), its post-war development (Kalinovsky), the late Soviet period (Bleuer and Nourzhanov), civil war (Epkenhans) and establishment of peace (Heathershaw, Driscoll, Markowitz). Thibault’s book builds on these other works and examines developments in the country up to the banning of the IRPT in 2015.

Thibault conducted fieldwork for the book between 2010 and 2011. This was arguably the time at which Tajikistan’s post-civil war consensus was starting to unravel. Following the peace accord signed between the government and opposition in 1997, the opposition was allocated 30% of government posts. But as the Rahmon regime consolidated its power, the president gradually removed, arrested and exiled those who were incorporated into the government after the war. Although the IRPT kept its two seats in Tajikistan’s lower house until 2015, the party came under increasing pressure, having its offices raided by police in October 2010 and its women’s centre destroyed by an arson attack.

At the same time, the government took steps to tighten its control of religion. In 2009, it passed a new “Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organisations”, which placed restrictions over which religious organisations could register to operate in the country. Rahmon called on the estimated 2,500 Tajik citizens studying Islam abroad to return home in October 2010, arguing they were becoming “terrorists.” And the 2011 “Law on Parental Responsibility” banned under 18s from praying in mosques with the exception of funerals. Within this context of creeping authoritarianism, Thibault examines the “place of religion in society in contemporary Tajikistan”, blending analyses of these political developments with rich ethnographic vignettes illustrating how they are affecting citizens living in the country’s second largest city, Khujand.

Following a brief introduction, in Chapter One Thibault expounds on her approach, which she terms “neo-institutional ethnography,” and which combines a recognition of the continued “legacy of Soviet secularization” in the way the state approaches Islam with an examination of how Islam is lived and experienced by citizens. Chapter Two takes the reader through 70 years of Soviet secularisation, as Thibault explores debates within the Communist Party around the nature of scientific atheism and how the Soviet Union tried to manage religion in Central Asia. She examines how the Soviet authorities, having failed to eradicate religion, increasingly institutionalised it following World War II, rendering it subordinate to the state and making it an integral part of national identity, a topic discussed at greater length in a recent book by Eren Tasar.

Chapter Three takes the reader through the political history of post-independence Tajikistan from the civil war to the proclamation of Rahmon as “Leader of the Nation” in 2016. Thibault pays particular attention to the demise of the IRPT, illustrating its value to the local population through examples from her numerous visits to the party’s office in Khujand. The following chapter covers the various laws and institutions governing Islam in Tajikistan, as well as the government’s struggle to regulate the visual signs of piety in the country: beards and hijabs. The final chapter examines the impact this is having on the local population through examples from the lives of what the author calls “born-again” Muslims, individuals who have rediscovered their faith having been brought up in “secular” families. Through these examples, Thibault illustrates how Islam offers believers a moral guideline and way to cope with post-Soviet disorder characterised by a repressive regime, corruption and limited economic opportunities.

Rather than just looking at state policy or the way in which people have come to understand the world through Islam, Thibault’s book’s chief strength is its innovative approach – “institutional ethnography” – which draws attention to the interaction between the state and the population. She emphasises the way state secular policies are translated into local contexts, as well as how they are unevenly enforced and resisted by local people.

It is the state that usually politicises Islam, framing everyday expressions of piety as signs of radicalisation and transforming Islam into something in need of management

By understanding religion as a way to cope with post-Soviet disorder, Thibault’s book is a welcome riposte to alarmist accounts that view rising levels of religiosity as dangerous and potentially destabilising to the region. As the author notes: “Islamic values are sometimes seen as a way to find justice in the absence of a legitimate channel for expressing discontent.” Societal Islamisation is not the same as (violent) political radicalisation. For many, religion is part of daily life but lacks “any strong connection to political aspirations”. Instead it is the state that usually politicises Islam, framing everyday expressions of piety as signs of radicalisation and transforming Islam into something in need of management.

Transforming Tajikistan offers a snapshot of the period when the country was still transitioning to a more authoritarian regime, with repercussions on the space and possibility to conduct research on sensitive topics. The arrest of PhD student Alexander Sodiqov, from the University of Toronto, in June 2014 in Khorog on espionage charges sent out a clear warning signal to academics. Although some researchers have managed to continue to conduct research on everyday Islam in Tajikistan, replicating Thibault’s research with IRPT activists is now no longer a possibility.

Due to the prioritisation of depth over breadth inherent to the use of ethnography, a number of further questions for future research emerge from Thibault’s book. The author’s ethnography focuses on “strict believers,” individuals who pray five times a day, have been on the hajj, fast during the Holy Month of Ramadan and keep halal. Such individuals remain in a minority in Tajikistan, where most people claim to be Muslim but do not actively practice the religion on a daily basis. Survey data from the time of Thibault’s study indicated that 39% of Tajiks prayed five times a day, which is likely an overestimation.

What do these less religious individuals think of state policies to manage religion? How successful has the state campaign to shape secular citizens through education and the state media been? Why are certain individuals targeted with repressive measures and others allowed to live visibly pious lives? Such questions address how the authoritarian state operates and how effectively it exercises power. Unfortunately, research on such topics has become increasingly difficult in authoritarian Tajikistan and researchers have come under greater scrutiny from the authorities. Researched at a time when such data collection was easier, Thibault’s book is accessible, concise and offers a fantastic entry-point for those interested in knowing more about what is happening in this oft-misunderstood Central Asian republic.


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