Friday 29 March 2013

The 'problem' of Islam in Central Asia: Tajikistan

Tajikistan has always been the odd one out among the former Soviet central Asian countries, and this is certainly true in relation to Islam. After the Civil War (1992-1997), a deal was signed which granted the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRP) legitimization. The party, linked to islamists who fought in the war, remains as the only legal political organization of its kind with legal status in Central Asia (in theory, an excellent example of political tolerance). Nevertheless, developments in recent years make it clear that its existence as a relevant political player is under increased pressure from President Emomali Rakhmon, which certainly leave the door open for more violence in the country.

I travelled through Tajikistan in September 2012, visiting the Northern province of Sughd, the capital, Dushanbe, and the Gorno Badakhstan Autonomous Oblast (GBAO), in the Pamirs. It was a difficult period to be a tourist in the country: back in July, a conflict had erupted between local militia in Badakhstan and government troops, send to Badakhstan after a local authority was killed. Many analysts believe that the conflict was basically a move by Rakhmon to re-establish control over the region, which has by and large operated with autonomy from Dushanbe ever since the end of the Civil War. Other saw it as a move by Dushanbe to establish control over lucrative drug trafficking routes in the porous Tajik-Afghan border in the GBAO, which were under control of local leaders. Regardless of that, it was clear that the clashes in July were directly linked to a legacy of the civil war rather than to any sort of Islamic militancy.

But, interestingly, during the conflict, one of the leaders of IRP in the GBAO disappeared and, days later, was found dead. Up until now, there are no news about an investigation on this murder. Actually, this is not the first time that the IRP has been target of attacks that clearly have a political motivation. In the last years, the government has been keen on associating the IRP with political extremism, especially since the last wave of Islamist attacks in Tajikistan, in 2010. Some members of the government have even said that the IRP is “fundamentalist”. This is strikingly at odds with what the party claims about itself. Its leader, Muhiddin Kabiri, which graduated in a secular university, wear ties and likes a good shave. He and his supporters have repeated time and time again that what the IRP wants is a country ruled with Islamic values in mind (among them, peace, tolerance, justice) – which is the natural order of things in a country where almost everybody are muslins. There is no talk of creating a caliphate. Or Wahhabism. Actually, Kabiri's critis say he is too soft and accomodating in his dealings with the Government. Despite its lack of radicalism, the party not only has been subject to lies spread by those linked to Rakhmon, but also to arson attacks and other crimes, such as the murder of its leader in GBAO in July. Maybe Rakhmon does not realise that there attacks might even be increasing the clout of the IRP. The party has tried to reach the voters through social projects, helping people that the authorities in Dushanbe have not being able to assist. This people could decide to increase its support to the party if realises it is the target of a clear campaign of intimidation.

Nevertheless, the pressure over the IRP will probably increase until November, together with moves to control and supress any sort of opposition that could remotely be a threat to Rakhmon. In November, the country is holding Presidential elections, and Rakhmon is widely expected to win by a landslide. In the last months, a number of opposition figures have been arrested or murdered abroad (read some examples: here, here and here). There is no doubt at all about who is behind that. But even these pre-emptive strikes are not bound to guarantee a peaceful future for Rakhmon, and I am pretty sure he knows that. During my trip in the country, I was amazed to realize, talking to local people, how the locals disliked their own president. One friend in Khojand clearly stated that the people there hated Rakhmon, which has financed a huge cult of personality – his photo is there, in public buildings, in outdoors; his speeches are broadcast unedited on state TV every night. In the Pamirs, the hatred towards Rakhmon is even worse, especially after the bloodshed in July. But the president insists in keeping real power to itself and his entourage, who are linked to the city of Kulob, in the South. Other regions of the country have been marginalized under his rule: the Pamiris, the Khojandis (who ruled the country for decades under Soviet rule), the Uzbeks (an important minority). Suspicious of these groups’ intentions, Rakhmon has reacted by embracing his authoritarianism: there is no space for opposition or power sharing, only the elites who side with him have space in the government. All others should and are being suppressed.

To put in a nutshell, there is still a lot of regional tension, of the same kind that created the Civil War. In this current context, religion also plays a role, although a subdued one. Since the IRP has embraced a moderate tone which has guaranteed support by many Tajiks, the more conservative inside the party have become alienated. With time, if there are no changes to Rakhmon policies and the country continues to drown in poverty and inequality, there are grounds for a renewal of Islamic militancy, particularly in the Garm Valley (historically a more conservative region of the country, where islamists where based during the civil war). Rakhmon needs the IRP to keep those groups under control and avoid a return to full-blown conflict. This accounts for the fact that, amazingly, Rakhmon has not tried so far to ban the IRL or find an excuse to arrest Kabiri ahead of the November polls. But will the IRL still be a relevant force in the months and years ahead if it still agrees to be a systemic force in a regime where there is no space for a real political process? I am very pessimistic after what I saw in Tajikistan, and believe that regional tension tends to rise, creating an environment in which Islamist militancy can thrive. This, even though most of Tajiks are moderate and peaceful. Let’s hope that this tragic predictions turn to be false.

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