Political Islam in Tajikistan
What follows is one part of a cross-blog initiative, which takes the role of Islam in Central Asia and the Caucasus as its central theme:
Tajikistans relationship with political Islam is perhaps the most volatile, diverse, and complicated in Central Asia. Tajikistan is home to various strains of Islam, with the silent majority favoring a more informal, non-institutionalized, traditional strain of Islam, but stricter, foreign-influenced Islam is on the rise. Roughly 5% of the population ascribes to Ismailism, one of the few pockets of Shiism in a Sunni-dominated region. Most of the rest are Sunni Muslims of the Hanafi school, a tolerant variety of Islam known for the ease with which it assimilates pre-Islamic beliefs and practices.
The Tajik Civil War
Political Islam in Tajikistan cannot be understood outside of the destructive Tajik Civil War, fought from 1992 to 1997. It is remembered simplistically as a war between pro-Moscow, secular forces, and religious extremists. While there is truth to this characterization, it was also largely an ethnic conflict between the north and the south.
Because Karategin (a province in southern Tajikistan, also written as Garm-Kartogin, and referred to as the Gharmis) had put up the stiffest resistance to Soviet rule, they had largely been left out of the government in favor of northern elites (the Kulabis). Nevertheless, a significant portion of Karategin society managed to amass economic clout, which set the stage for their seizing power in 1992, along with a diverse coalition of Islamic groups, Islamists, Pamiris and democrats. Their rule was short-lived as the communist party struck back and retook control of the country later that same year, even though the war raged on sporadically until peace in 1997.
Outside forces played key roles throughout. Russian troops covertly backed the northern forces, as did Uzbekistan. The Taliban backed southern forces, and current Tajik President Rakhmonovs hometown became a major supply point for Afghan forces opposed to the Taliban.
With the conclusion of the civil war, large numbers of opposition forces fled into Afghanistan.
Politics after the Peace
Despite the fact that Tajiks arguably have more reason than any to oppose radical Islam, Islam enjoys more tolerance than other Central Asian republics. The civil war seems to have a silver lining to it, as Tajikistan is one of the only Central Asian countries to allow Islamic parties in its opposition.
The Islamic Revival Party of Tajikistan (IRPT) is probably the best organized of these groups. Of all the legalized Islamic parties in Central Asia, only the Islamic Revival Party has taken part in actual elections. The party was represented in the National Reconciliation Commission that marked the end of the civil war. Per the agreement, the IRPT is represented in all levels of Tajik government, despite its relatively weak popularity.
One can certainly go to far in painting a rosy, tolerant picture of political Islam in Tajikistan. Since the civil war, the government has assumed control of religion in the country much like other rulers in the region. The government dissolved the Muftiate to replace it with a government-controlled body and enacted legislation stating that political parties could not act in a religious capacity. The opposition could do little about it, as it is fractured and divided.
Beyond the usual suspects like the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and the Hizb ut Tahrir, recent reports have indicated the presence of a new group known as the Bayat. There is currently little information on this shadowy organization, and some have questioned its existence.
President Rakhmonov will be up for reelection in November, 2006. The outcome is already a foregone conclusion, and he has engaged in a lot of chicanery far in advance that is completely unnecessary to ensure his victory. After his reelection, Rakhmonov would do well to preserve and expand upon Tajikistan’s relatively tolerant political environment. Tajikistan is geographically he first stop for any foreign Islamists, and its porous borders make it easy to infiltrate. It is therefore more important in Tajikistan than anywhere else in Central Asia to keep the political space as open as possible, and convince those that might be otherwise persuaded that there is a viable alternative in a functioning, moderate state.