The government in Dushanbe has said that three citizens of Tajikistan were recently killed fighting on the side of the rebels in Syria. Also according to Dushanbe, 11 Tajikistani fighters were killed in Afghanistan and Pakistan during the last several years. Tajikistan’s State Committee for National Security spokesman Emom Melikov also noted that authorities have managed in recent years to bring back some 2,000 Tajik youths who were studying in Islamic schools abroad. But about 1,000 Tajik students have remained outside Tajikistan despite the authorities’ efforts (Rosbalt, May 24).
At the beginning of the 1990s, many independent Islamic schools functioned right in Tajikistan. But after the end of the Civil War (1992–1997), the anti-Islamic coalition, which won, tried to assert its control over all Islamic schools in the republic. As early as 1994, the Spiritual Administration of Muslims in Tajikistan was disbanded because the leaders of this agency had taken an active role in the civil war on the side of the opposition. The government later handed the Administration’s former powers to the Council of Ulems. The Council of Ulems, which is made up of 27 clergy members, has sweeping powers over individual Muslim communities, often working hand in glove with the authorities (Forum-18, June 8, 2006). “The government’s control over the religious life of Muslims has been dramatically increasing from the beginning of the 2000s. Formally, individual imams are chosen by congregations, and the candidates they select are approved by the Council. However, in practice, the Council of Ulems receives its instructions from the authorities and an unsuitable imam is quickly removed. The Council of Ulems also chooses all teachers for Islamic schools and approves the [educational] program there,” Dr. Sergei Abashin, the chief of the Central Asia department of the Russian Ethnology Institute told Jamestown (Author’s interview, June 24).
However, according to Tajikistan’s Ministry of Internal Affairs, underground Islamic schools are still illegally operating in the republic. For example, several underground religious schools whose students had earlier been kidnapped from their parents were exposed in Tajikistan, according to reports from the interior ministry’s press service on June 17. Two such schools were discovered in the Hisor and Shahrinav districts—located 20 and 40 kilometers from Dushanbe, respectively (Interfax, June 17).
Nonetheless, many experts and politicians are skeptical of such information. “I am sure that this information is fake. Yes, there are some underground Islamic schools in the republic [of Tajikistan]. But nobody kidnaps children. This is foolish. I believe that the authorities specifically distribute this fake news to discredit religious education that is independent of the government,” Hikmatullo Saifulzoda, a member of the Council of the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRP) of Tajikistan and the chief editor of the party newspaper Nachot, said in an interview with Jamestown (Author’s interview, June 22).
As Saifulzoda believes, on the eve of the presidential election, which will be held this fall, the authorities have been trying to stop any activities by Tajikistan’s Muslims. According to IRP head Muhiddin Kabiry, as the election draws nearer, his party, in particular, has been subjected to dramatic pressure from the government. For example, Kabiry pointed to the recent beating of his deputy, Mahmadali Hayit. On the evening of April 19, Hayit was kicked and beaten by several unidentified attackers outside his home and was taken to a hospital after sustaining moderate and severe injuries (fergananews.com, June 20).
However, rather than removing the political challenge posed by Muslim groups in Tajikistan, “the repressions by the authorities against Muslims cause [the] opposite effect” IRP Council member Saifulzoda argues. “Muslims are starting to radicalize. The government really cannot control whether citizens of Tajikistan study in Islamic schools abroad or not. Tajikistani youth see the repression against religion and conclude that only struggle with a gun can save Muslims.”
Moreover, according to Saifulzoda, the authorities’ actions are actually contributing to the spread of radicalization and violence beyond Tajikistan’s borders. He added, “Muslims are real internationalists. It is not important to them where to defend the rights of Muslims, so more and more young Tajik radicals are involved in the conflicts in different parts of the world. The government repressions against Muslims are dangerous not only for Tajikistan, but for other part of the world” (Author’s interview, June 22).
The details are difficult to verify. Nevertheless, if arguments such as that by Saifulzoda are true, the domestic political campaign in Tajikistan is potentially having unintended consequences on a conflict thousands of miles away in Syria.