Eastern Tajikistan’s Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region—comprising more than half of the historical mountainous region of Badakhshan, which it shares with northern Afghanistan—is one of the most isolated, impoverished and unsettled places in Central Asia. Gorno-Badakhshan was a center of resistance to Dushanbe during the civil war in the 1990s, and the central government has since worked hard to try to bring it to heel, alternating threats of a military crackdown with expanded economic assistance (see EDM, October 18, 2018; Ozodandishon, October 23, 2018). Dushanbe adopted this strategy in part to limit the influx of influence from its southern neighbors, fearful that they could trigger a local secessionist threat. But it has faced obstacles other than geography, economics and the porosity of the Tajikistani-Afghan border: namely, the population of Gorno-Badakhshan is incredibly ethnically and religiously diverse. Its people are not only divided between Tajiks, Kyrgyz and Pamiris but also between Sunni Muslims and the Ismailis—locally, the religious majority, whose members follow the Aga Khan but who view themselves and are perceived by others as part of the Shia Islam tradition, centered on Iran.
The demographic and socio-political situation in eastern Tajikistan is particularly complex because the region’s ethnic and religious cleavages do not perfectly coincide, and the Pamiris, who form a majority of Gorno-Badakhshan’s 200,000 people, have historically looked to Shia Iran despite their specifically Ismaili religious orientation. Consequently, Dushanbe has stepped up its efforts to integrate the Ismailis into Tajik society lest they become a Trojan horse for outside influences, Afghani or Iranian. To date, the central government has not achieved much in its campaign to encourage a common Tajikistani identity regardless of religion by, for example, promoting intermarriage; but it has managed to foster tolerance to the point that the two groups recognize each other’s religion as legitimately Islamic, allow children of the few mixed marriages to freely choose their faith and, perhaps most importantly, bury their dead in the same cemeteries (Cabar.asia, April 24).
The authorities have had this success because Soviet anti-religious policies mean that even today, the Pamiri Ismailis, like their Sunni Tajik and Kyrgyz neighbors, are not actually particularly religious in their everyday lives. Issues of belief that might divide people elsewhere matter little to most locals, who do not know the details of their faith especially well; as a result, there has been far less religious conflict compared to the number and size of ethnic disputes, a pattern that has helped convince Dushanbe that working to integrate the Ismailis has a good chance of success at least at present (Cabar.asia, April 24). The government’s actions now may also reflect fears that the Internet, which has finally begun to penetrate the area, could increase religious awareness and thus the salience of religious divides that might ultimately be exploited by antagonistic groups in Afghanistan and Iran.
But another reason for this integration drive is that earlier efforts to isolate the Ismailis of Gorno-Badakhshan did not work. Indeed, they may have made the Aga Khan even more popular than he was earlier. On his first visit to the region in 1995, he was welcomed by the population. But in the years since, the Ismaili leader has had to walk a fine line between supporting his followers, who often have taken part in anti-Dushanbe resistance, and preserving his access to them. On the one hand, the Aga Khan’s generous aid projects are collectively the largest single employer in Gorno-Badakhshan; but on the other hand, he continues to depend on the good graces of officials in the national capital to continue his operations (Al Jazeera, August 31, 2013). While Tajikistan, itself one of the poorest countries in the region, cannot afford to cut off the Aga Khan’s largesse, it certainly does not want to see the rise of Ismaili identity overwhelm a loyalty to the state.
How much of a danger do the Ismailis in Gorno-Badakhshan present now and in the future? That depends on how successful Tajikistan’s authorities are in promoting a common Tajikistani political identity among them. If Dushanbe succeeds, neither the Afghans nor the Iranians are likely to be able to use the Pamiri Ismailis against Tajikistan. But if in promoting tolerance, the government also allows the Pamir Ismailis to increase their attachment to their distinctive faith, two possible challenges may arise.
First, the Ismaili faith could turn out to be the basis for strengthening a cross-border identity among the Pamiris—which Afghan Islamists would likely be in a position to exploit. Indeed, at least some groups in Afghanistan would see the heightened religious faith of people who live on both sides of the border as the basis for an irredentist or separatist challenge.
Second, there is the risk that intensified Ismailism among the Pamiris could turn out to be a bridge to Shiism, with its adherents ultimately deciding that their basic religious and thus political identity lies with Shia Islam and Iran. While ethnic Tajiks speak a language closely related to Persian—so similar that they often use the same textbooks in schools—Tajik identity is ultimately linked to Sunni Islam. Indeed, that is the main dividing line between them and the Iranians. If the Pamiri Ismailis do move in the direction of Shiism, such a shift could give Iran an opening and threaten the territorial integrity of Tajikistan, even though the Pamirs are not directly opposite the Iranian border.
Consequently, what may seem to be a minor issue in a distant place could become a geopolitical flashpoint in the future.