Tajikistan Steps up Pressure on Islamic Opposition in Preparation for 2013 Elections

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 9 Issue: 127

Poster of President Emomali Rahmon in Dushanbe (Source: AFP)

Recently Tajikistan’s government passed several amendments aimed at curbing radical Islam and the threat of terrorism. Among them are amendments to the law “On Combating Terrorism,” which were approved by the parliament. These amendments expand the already considerable powers of the State Committee for National Security (SCNS, formerly known as the KGB) in investigating and prosecuting terror cases. According to Prosecutor-General Sherkhon Salimzoda, the changes to the law would, among other things, allow the SCNS to seize assets of those accused of being members of banned Islamic groups (Ozodi.org, June 20).

Muhiddin Kabiri, the Islamic Revival Party (IRPT) leader, led a group of politicians who raised concerns about the new legislation, noting that under the current law the Muslim Brotherhood is among the 14 banned Islamic groups. “Tomorrow, for example, suppose that the leadership of our country were to meet with the presidents of Egypt or Tunisia, or that an ambassador or minister were to visit. How could an official of the Tajik government meet with a representative of this organization when it, according to Tajikistan’s Supreme Court, is designated as a terrorist organization?” (Ozodi.org, June 20). Given the rampant corruption in the security apparatus, it is also feared that the power to seize assets of the accused would add further financial incentive (to the already considerable political incentive) for the government to seek prosecutions.

Additionally, the parliament recently passed amendments to the “Code of Administrative Offenses” that would fine citizens 2,000 to 4,000 Somoni ($420-840) for “violation of the rules of getting religious education abroad” and would also fine Tajikistan’s religious organizations 1,200 to 1,600 Somoni ($250-335) “for maintaining international relations with foreign religious organizations without notifying related national structures” (Asia Plus, June 6). Opposition parties were quick to criticize the amendments, citing the vague language and sweeping mandate of the legislation. They also complained of a dearth of religious education opportunities in the country and the over-regulation of existing state approved madrassas.

While these new amendments were ostensibly passed to help combat the spread of radicalism in the country, many local analysts consider them to be pretexts for marginalizing the IRPT and other opposition groups. According to IRPT vice chairman Said Umar Husseini, the government has recently increased pressure on their party including recent reports that pilgrims intending to go on the Hajj were prevented from doing so based on party affiliation (Ozodi.org June, 25).

While the threat of Islamic extremism in Tajikistan is real and presents the state with serious challenges, the government’s continued campaign against radicalization must be understood in the broader context of two key events: namely, the 2013 presidential elections and the 2014 NATO pullout from Afghanistan. Ever since the end of the civil war in 1996, President Emomali Rahmon has been consolidating power and neutralizing rivals both in and out of government. Since coming to power in 1992, he has been reelected three times in elections that were widely viewed to be fraudulent (Ozodi.org April 30). The last presidential election was in 2006, and given the subsequent events such as the “Arab Spring”, Iran’s 2009 election, the 2010 coup in Kyrgyzstan and Vladimir Putin’s recent controversial return to the Kremlin, Rahmon is likely nervous about his prospects of staying in power.

In order to sideline potential rivals, Rahmon has clamped down on opposition groups under the guise of waging a war against radicalism. The “Islamic opposition” in Tajikistan can roughly be broken down into four categories: 1) Armed terrorist groups such as the IMU and Jamaat Ansarullah who are committed to the violent overthrow of the state; 2) the remnants of civil war era armed opposition groups primarily in the Rasht Valley whose affiliation with terrorism is often alleged, but whose relationship with political Islam is not well understood; 3) banned, professedly non-violent Islamic groups who seek the establishment of an Islamic state through political means such as Hizb ut-Tahrir (HuT), Al Salafiyya, and Jamaat Tablighi; 4) and the moderate, officially tolerated IRPT who seeks political power but not the establishment of an Islamic State.

Broadly put, the government’s strategy for clamping down on these groups entails attempting to conflate the first three groups while steadily eroding the political rights of the IRPT. For example, earlier this year, Tajikistan’s state-run “Council of the Ulema” censured cleric and leading opposition figure Hoji Akbar Turajonzoda and his brothers (see EDM, January 12). Likewise, last year, a Tajikistani court found BBC journalist Urunboy Usmonov guilty of associating with the HuT. Usmonov claimed, however, that he was merely conducting interviews with alleged members in order to shed light on the group’s allegations of wrongful imprisonment (Ozodagon, June 16, 2011).

Many Western experts and officials have expressed concern about the 2014 NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan and the possible domino effect of a Taliban-styled insurgency spreading across Central Asia. In both the domestic and international arena, Rahmon brands himself as a guarantor of stability and a hedge against the sort of nihilistic violence that wrecked the country after independence. However, for those who wish to predict the stability of Tajikistan after NATO’s exit from Afghanistan, it is worth keeping in mind that Tajikistan’s worst years of instability in the 1990s coincided with the Afghan civil war and the rise of the Taliban. In the worst years of Tajikistan’s civil war, tens of thousands of Tajiks sought refuge in northern Afghanistan, even as war was raging in that country, as well (https://www.unhcr.org/refworld/country,,HRW,,AFG,,45c9a5272,0.html).

It is impossible to predict what will happen in Afghanistan after 2014. However, given the relative strength of former Northern Alliance elements in power, the presence of US Special Operations units, and the collective interest of Russia, Iran and Central Asian states in maintaining the Afghan north as a buffer zone, it seems unlikely that the situation in Afghanistan will become more dire than it was pre-2001. Therefore, when evaluating the Tajikistani government’s implicit claim that a measure of draconian pragmatism is necessary to preserve stability, the presuppositions of its claims must be questioned and understood in the domestic, political context.