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Meet Tajikistan’s embattled Islamists

Tajikistan is trying to persecute what was once Central Asia’s only legal Islamist party out of existence. But is this really about countering terrorism, or just cracking down on dissent in any form?

A campaign poster from the Islamic Renaissance Party for Tajikistan’s 2015 parliamentary elections. Ten of the party leaders depicted here are currently behind bars.

On a rainy day in March, I met Ilhomjon Yaqubov in a town I will not name. In a nondescript socialist-era apartment block, we drank tea from ceramic bowls, and ate dried fruits.

Two years ago, Ilhomjon was detained by the Tajik authorities, beaten, and made to renounce his membership of the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT) on camera. Yaqubov is a prominent member of the party and use to lead its branch in Sughd, Tajikistan’s northernmost province. For more than six hours, his captors forced him to literally swallow articles he had written against Tajikistan’s authoritarian regime. 

Since 2015, party members have begun to flee to Europe after IPRT, the sole legally operating Islamist party in Central Asia, was banned as an “extremist organisation” by the Tajik authorities. In September that year, the authorities received the perfect pretext: Tajikistan’s former deputy defence minister Abdulhalim Nazarzoda broke ranks and staged an attack on a police station in the Vahdat region. Blame fell on the IRPT, and the authorities arrested 13 high-ranking party functionaries and detained over 150 ordinary members. Dushanbe accused the IRPT of plotting a terrorist coup, and of links to so-called Islamic State.

After torture, Ilhomjon Yaqubov is made to renounce his membership of the IRPT in this video circulated by Tajikistan’s authorities. Image still via YouTube / Human Rights Watch. Some rights reserved.The Nazarzoda affair was the tip of the iceberg. Tajikistan is facing one of the worst crackdowns on dissent since independence. Emomali Rahmon has ruled the place since 1994, and thanks to constitutional amendments last year, he can run for as many presidential terms as he pleases. 

Fears over terrorism both globally and in the region has put Central Asia's Islamist parties in the security spotlight. But Islamism is a broad school of thought, and its causal links to violent extremism are far from established.

Under cover of counter-terrorism, the Tajik authorities have cracked down on the country’s most potent opposition force — and they’ve gotten away with it.

Blessed are the peacebuilders 

You can’t understand the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan without the country’s brutal civil war, perhaps the most forgotten post-Soviet conflict. This year marks the twentieth anniversary of the signing of Tajikistan’s peace accords in 1997. The agreement ended a conflict which led to as many as 157,000 deaths and 1.5m people being displaced in their own country alone. 

The IRPT played a key role in the United Tajik Opposition (UTO), a motley alliance of democrats and Islamists from the central and eastern regions of the country. They faced off against the Popular Front, an alliance of former Communist apparatchiks who tacitly enjoyed Russian and Uzbek support. 

The peace accords guaranteed the IRPT a presence in Tajikistan’s public life, providing an outlet for the more conservative-minded, at first mostly rural electorate. It became the country’s go-to opposition force. But as Rahmon started to renege on his commitments to the peace accords, the IRPT came into the authorities’ crosshairs. In September 2010, a group of militants unaffiliated with the IRPT attacked government soldiers in the Kamarob Gorge. Tajikistan’s authorities cracked down hard, introducing a whole raft of anti-religious laws.

Emomali Rahmon and Abdullo Nuri of the UTO and IRPT sign the peace accords which ended Tajikistan’s bloody civil war, December 1996. Photo (c): Alexander Makarov / RIA Novosti. All rights reserved.

In early 2012, talk of a certain Protocol 32-20 arose online — allegedly an order to Tajikistan’s security services to put pressure on IRPT members to leave the party, offering financial incentives if necessary. Tajik state media soon launched a hate campaign against the party. “State newspapers even declared that 60% of all Tajik ISIS fighters had once been members of the IRPT,” sighs Yaqubov. 

Despite rising harassment, in March 2015, the IRPT was the largest opposition party in parliament, counting over 40,000 members. The party received 8.2% of the vote in the rigged 2010 elections (Rahmon’s rubber-stamp People’s Democratic Party won 71%), and just 1.6% in the even more outrageously rigged 2015 elections, losing its only two seats in Tajikistan’s parliament. IRPT politicians insisted to me that their share of the vote in 2015 was significantly higher. 

It’s difficult to emphasise quite how widely this hunt for dissent has spread. Even the legal profession is not immune: in October 2016, two lawyers representing IRPT members in court were sentenced to 23 and 21 years’ imprisonment respectively (one of them now faces an extended sentence). One of the charges is “supporting extremist activity.”

You say you want a renaissance

Islamism is an elastic term, with wide-ranging applications and understandings. The IRPT’s version has a post-Soviet pedigree, tracing its lineage to the Revival of Islamic Youth of Tajikistan, founded in 1972 as an underground organisation in the Tajik SSR.

Two key Islamic scholars at the time of the Soviet collapse were Muhamadsharif Himatzoda and Abdullo Nuri. Like many people of faith in Soviet Central Asia, they chose to pursue law or technical sciences, using their free time to attend clandestine Islamic study circles under the tutelage of Hanafi Islamic scholar, Muhammadjon Hindustoni. For Hindustoni, the Soviet repression of religion was a test to be solved with fortitude and patience, rather than political violence.

Indeed, Nuri and his comrades took inspiration from the the Jadid movement during the waning years of Tsarist rule, and saw the Islamic reformist movement as an indigenous liberalising tradition rudely interrupted by the Soviet experiment. In 1986, he was imprisoned for “spreading religious propaganda”, and later led the IRPT through the Tajik civil war. Muhiddin Kabiri succeeded Nuri as leader in 2000, and his leadership marked a more liberal shift of IRPT policy, which was met with strong scepticism by some more conservative party members. The death of the revered Abdullo Nuri also emboldened president Rahmon, who now faced a younger competitor. 

The party’s level of organisation, rather than its Islamist teachings, made it a threat to Emomali Rahmon’s regime

Reading through a Russian translation of the party’s most recent (2015) manifesto, I found many policy proposals fairly social democratic in origin. Its populist language denounces elite-level corruption and decries the “moral decay” it brings. The document describes Islam as the catalyst for the party’s policies, but also stresses its commitment to parliamentary democracy and freedom of expression. Even the IRPT’s first manifesto in 1991 speaks more strongly of anti-colonial Tajik nationalism than of strident Islamism. When interviewed for this article, Tajikistan scholars such as Edward Lemon and Human Rights Watch’s Steve Swerdlow do not doubt the party’s commitment to democratic and pluralist values, seeing the crackdown as expressly political in nature.

Kabiri’s liberal shift brought a move toward gender equality, too. In 2013, the IRPT put its support behind a female presidential candidate, lawyer Oynihol Bobonazarova, in conjunction with the Social Democratic Party of Tajikistan (under the Alliance of Reformist Forces of Tajikistan). 

Central square in Khujand, Tajikistan, 2008. Photo CC BY-NC 2.0: Steve James / Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Indeed, increased political repression led to an unexpectedly greater representation of women in the IRPT. As one exiled Tajik journalist told me on condition of anonymity, an estimated 45-50% of all party members are women. It’s partly a tactical approach, which allows some families to continue their party links without fathers and husbands putting their careers in jeopardy. 

Abdullo Nuri advocated making Tajikistan an Islamic state, albeit within the framework of the country’s secular constitution and “in accordance with popular wishes.” As one party member recalled to me, in a telling but perhaps apocryphal quote that hints at the country’s fragile peace, “Ustod Nuri famously said that he didn’t want to create an Islamic state on a cemetery.” Exiled party leader Muhiddin Kabiri expanded on Nuri’s vision in an interview earlier this year. “After many years of study,” began the IRPT leader, “I concluded that the idea of an Islamic State is a modern phenomenon — many parties across the Islamic world have declared their support for one, but never explained exactly what that meant. It’s not an idea with solid religious justification — religion should play an important role in society, but government should be technocratic and non-ideological. Islam doesn’t demand state-building on its own behalf, but to build a society where people are fulfilled and free.”

“After all,” he continued “how can there be an Islamic state without an Islamic society?”

In the service of the motherland

Millions of Muslims find themselves living under secular nationalist dictatorships, and Central Asia is no exception. The war on terror was a boon for the region’s autocracies. By 2005, US embassy cables from Dushanbe already 2005 described Kabiri as “walking a tightrope” — Rahmon wanted to marginalise him, and the more traditionalist Islamist wing in his party distrusted him.

Kabiri, who fled Tajikistan in March 2015 in anticipation of the crackdown, described the president’s Machiavellian reasoning. The IRPT, he told me, became Rahmon’s “pro-democracy business card” in meetings with western officials — a token gesture to political pluralism. In response, the party began to consider rebranding itself as early as 2004. Leaders even proposed removing “Islamic” from its title, though Rahmon himself allegedly advised Nuri against doing so. A more official move to “de-Islamise” the party in late September 2015 was also stymied by Tajikistan’s authorities. 

A legal Islamist party of any shade was of great political use to Rahmon. As his regime began violating the 1997 accords with impunity, Tajikistan’s authorities began a smear campaign against the IRPT. Rahmon was able to hold up the spectre of the Taliban across the border in Afghanistan (not to mention Tajikistan’s own brutal civil war) in order to smear the opposition. The fact that elements of the IRPT leadership had sought safety in Afghanistan during the civil war (albeit with ethnic Tajik anti-Taliban fighter Ahmad Shah Massoud) hardly helped the perception. 

“Thank you for our country’s independence!” reads this billboard depicting president Emomali Rahmon in Nurek, Tajikistan. Photo CC BY 2.0: Prince Roy / Flickr. Some rights reserved.

“We were being presented as a ‘radical’ party — so I asked people in the government what we could do to comply with their wishes, to ‘deradicalise.’ But they just told me it would be worse for me if we changed the party’s name” - recalls Kabiri. 

Members stuck by their party. As exiled IRPT members in the EU told me, the party simply represented an alternative. Tajik citizen Massud fled to Russia in 2015 after after heavy fines and harassment by the police on various pretexts. He’s an elderly, intellectual type, and joined the IRPT in 1999, and is eager to tell me why. “I knew something wasn’t right in the Soviet period, when students had to be sent into the fields to collect cotton rather than study, and were told to shut up when they complained.” 

 “The IRPT was the only party which really talked seriously about corruption and social inequality. The attraction wasn’t strictly because it was Muslim”

While he was never the most pious Muslim, says Massud, the IRPT told the truth about the corruption ravaging the country. “When I noticed that all the other deputies appeared to hate them, I was intrigued. So I joined — simple as that.” 

Rostam, a small business owner, is another IRPT party member who entered the EU via Ukraine in 2015. He’s a man of fewer words, punctuated by sighs, but says much the same: “The IRPT was the only party which really talked seriously about corruption and social inequality,” he tells me. “For me, the attraction wasn’t strictly because it was Muslim.”

Ilhomjon Yaqubov makes the same argument. Simply put: the party’s level of organisation, rather than its Islamist teachings, made it a threat to Emomali Rahmon’s regime. 

Crackdowns driving radicalisation?

Emomali Rahmon’s Tajikistan presents its citizens with a loaded choice; better the devil you know than the Wahhabi fundamentalists you don’t. As bloodshed continues in the Middle East, that binary has left little room for the IRPT.

These days, Dushanbe seems terrified of any overt signs of religiosity. In July, the government established a commission to combat “improper clothing” (the country’s relentless anti-hijab campaign has continued for two years.) But religious men aren’t off the hook — last January, Tajik police boasted that they had shaved 13,000 beards across the country “to combat radicalism.” 

Kabiri despairs of these moves, arguing that their motivation cannot solely be anti-extremist. “The authorities in Tajikistan are not interested in promoting any ‘good’ form of Islam. It’s not even about Islam per se: they’re not interested in any strong opposition or autonomous social movement, whether secular or religious!” he exclaims. 

Party spokesman Mahmudjon Faizrahmonov and Muhammadjon Kabirov, head of the IRPT’s mass media department and cousin of Muhiddin Kabiri, are convinced that the ban of their party has led to an increase in radicalisation among young Tajik Muslims. “When the party was active, the youth had a chance to use their religious insight for social and political activities. But now, young people don’t even believe in elections anymore,” Faizrahmonov tells me. “Just look at the numbers: before 2015, there were around 250 Tajik ISIS fighters. Now, it’s over 1,000.”

It’s understandable why the Tajik authorities are worried. But employing ham-fisted methods at home can hardly help social stability

Indeed, Faizrahmonov fears it is political nihilism, not religious piety, that will breed violence in Tajikistan. An increasing body of research on countering violent extremism, whether from the US military or European scholars of Islam such as Olivier Roy, bears this out — many ISIS recruits from overseas are hardly pious in their former lives, having superficial religious knowledge.

However, the IRPT’s view of radicalisation may be missing something. While the Islamic State’s threat to Central Asia itself has been massively overstated in English-language media, Tajiks are by and large not actually radicalised in Tajikistan. Instead, most people from Tajikistan who join terrorist organisations were radicalised while working as labour migrants in Russia, where they live in precarious and often denigrating conditions.

It’s understandable why the Tajik authorities are worried. That said, employing ham-fisted methods at home can hardly help social stability — especially when some Tajik migrants began to return home from Russia after the crash of 2008.

One grund for concern is the fact that Tajik militants have found their way to Iraq and Syria, where they’ve risen quickly up IS’ ranks. Among their number was Gulmorod Halimov, a former Tajik security forces chief who had even received counter-terrorism training in the USA. Once the terrorist organisation’s commander in Mosul, Halimov then came to serve as IS “Minister of War”. Halimov’s death has been reported on several occasions, but his influence on IS military strategy is undoubtable. A report in February found that last year that Tajiks were disproportionately represented on the among IS’ suicide bombers — likely Halimov’s doing. 

Gulmorod Halimov, IS “Minister of War” (right), was once a high-ranking official in Tajikistan’s security forces who received counter-terrorism training in the USA. Image still: CATV News / YouTube. Some rights reserved.

Reliable figures on Tajiks in IS ranks are scarce, though the country’s Interior Ministry told RFE/RL that 1,141 Tajik nationals had gone to fight in Syria and Iraq. As the tide has turned against ISIS in Iraq, around a hundred of these Tajik militants have returned home. Half of them have been pardoned, though they still face suspicion. IRPT members have not failed to notice the bitter irony, given that they must still conduct party activities from abroad, or clandestinely at home. 

Kabirov shares another bitter irony: during the final years of the IRPT’s legal existence in Tajikistan, state media lowered its bar to surprising depths in its search for anti-IRPT guest speakers. They allege that these broadcasts even included hardline Salafis who denounced the party for participating in a formally democratic system. 

There’s a logic here, too: while they may be intolerant and fundamentally opposed to democracy, Salafists are not necessarily violent extremists — many are quietists, and see the political oppression of Muslims as divine punishment for their sins. In this worldview, austere piety unsullied by politicking is the path to salvation. From the perspective of a post-Soviet autocrat, one might even see them as useful bedfellows. 

In 2014, Tajikistan’s chief mufti issued a fatwa against criticising president Emomali Rahmon

It’s maybe unsurprising that, as Central Asia scholar Tim Epkenhans wrote, Tajikistan’s state-sanctioned Islam “embraces an idea of Islam that almost resembles a Salafi interpretation, excluding Muslims who follow a broader Islamic tradition or emphasise the political relevance of Islamic thought.”

In 2014, Tajikistan’s chief mufti Saidmukarram Abdulkodirzoda even issued a fatwa against criticising president Emomali Rahmon and his regime. The government’s Islamic Centre has imposed its own examinations on all imams, which highlight regime loyalty. Tellingly, it issued a Friday khutba (sermon) the day before the 2015 elections arguing that “Islam is no political party, and if Islam needed a party, the Prophet Muhammad would have established one.” It was a veiled, but pointed reference to the IRPT. 

Making a run for it

The IRPT members interviewed for this article live in a number of countries across the European Union. Kabiri estimates that there are round 500-600 IRPT members living in Europe, around 80 to 100 of which have received political asylum.

Poland is the most accessible EU state, a point of access for Tajik and Chechen refugees crossing from Belarus. But now, asylum seekers are encountering more problems entering the country and having their claims heard. 

Slowly but surely, the road to Europe is closing. Many post-Soviet states are not safe for Central Asian political exiles. According to IRPT members, Rahmon has ordered his team to try and sign an separate extradition treaty with Ukraine as soon as possible — perhaps spurred on by Kyiv’s refusal to extradite former prime minister Abdumalik Abdullajanov in 2013.

On 22 September 2016, over 200 people protested outside the home of Ilhomjon Yaqubov’s mother in Khujand, Tajikistan, chanting “Ilhomjon is a traitor”. The act was possibly in retaliation for Yaqubov’s presence at the OSCE’s HDIM meeting in Warsaw. Photo courtesy of Ilhomjon Yaqubov.

With its large number of Tajik migrant labourers, Russia is the most obvious destination. But it’s more dangerous for other Tajik opposition groups than for the IRPT, says Faizrahmonov. Many are well aware of the close cooperation of the Russian and Tajik security services — even dissidents holding Russian passports such as Maksud Ibragimov have been spirited back home by the FSB. Understandably, many would rather not take the risk.

Many Central Asian political exiles have long called Turkey home, though an increasingly unsafe one. In 2015, Umarali Kuvvatov, leader of Group 24 (another Tajik opposition group), was shot dead in downtown Istanbul. Indeed, amid Ankara’s own human rights crackdown, the situation for IRPT members has rapidly deteriorated.

In October last year, the Istanbul offices of Payom, an IRPT-affiliated publication, were closed down by the Turkish authorities at the request of Dushanbe. The party’s council members conclude that an informal was reached on the sidelines of the Turkish deputy prime minister’s visit to Dushanbe in February.

Wherever they run, Tajikistan’s authorities have another way of getting at critics — namely, their families. After senior opposition activists including Muhiddin Kabiri spoke at a conference in Dortmund last month, a new round of intimidation began against the participants’ relatives back home.

This has become standard practice for Tajikistan’s authorities — and was last deployed on this scale following speeches by Tajik dissidents at the OSCE’s HDIM conference in Warsaw last September. This year’s conference ended last week — though the Tajik government never sent a delegation. Safar Kabirov, father of Muhammadjon, was detained and tortured by Tajik authorities on 6 September, threatened with imprisonment if his son attends. Dushanbe has even threatened to expel the OSCE mission in Tajikistan (the largest in Central Asia) should IRPT members speak up.

But Tajik dissidents have done more than speak up — in an open letter with 23 NGOs including Human Rights Watch, they’ve requested that Rustam Inoyatov and Saymumin Yatimov, heads of the security services of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, be added to the USA’s Global Magnitsky List.

The number of imprisoned IRPT members across Tajikistan is unknown. Last June, the 13 high-ranking party officials arrested in September 2015 received prison sentences ranging from two to 28 years. Four months later Zarafo Rahmoni, the only woman among the 13, received a presidential pardon. IRPT deputy chairman Mahmadali Hayit remains behind bars amid rumours of rapidly deteriorating health. Faizrahmonov says that as remaining IRPT members in the country fear pervasive surveillance, it’s difficult to get reliable information on his condition and that of other political prisoners.

The IRPT’s story reminds us that, far from being a product of isolation, Tajikistan’s authoritarianism is deeply globalised. As John Heathershaw and Alexander Cooley have written, Central Asian rulers launder their money in western offshores, fight their legal battles in western courts, and use Interpol arrest warrants to pursue critics (Muhiddin Kabiri remains on an Interpol wanted list to this day). It should also remind us, in the current political climate, to be more discerning in how we understand Islamism and those who, however elastically, adhere to that set of beliefs.

Those like Shamsuddin Saidov, an exiled member of IRPT’s supreme council. For a short while, Saidov was the youngest political prisoner in the Soviet Union, and was freed shortly before its collapse. We drink tea, from cups and saucers, with Janatulloh Komilov, a party organiser in Germany. Saidov knows all one would want to know (at least, Komilov’s polite silence seems to suggest so).

He tells me about the days of Nuri, the exile in Afghanistan, and what Europe really doesn’t get (and ought) about the Islamic world and democracy. About the west and the rest.

To sum it all up, he adds, with palms aloft: “We can rule. We could even implement the secular constitution — a hundred times better than Emomali Rahmon.”

Editor's note: Pseudonyms have been used in this article to protect identities.

About the author

Maxim Edwards is Commissioning Editor at oDR. He writes on nationalism, migration, minorities and memory, with a focus on post-Soviet countries. His articles have appeared in Al-Jazeera, Al Monitor, EurasiaNet and the Forward among other publications. Follow him on Twitter at @MaximEdwards.


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