Tajikistan’s government is cracking down on the main opposition party, the Islamist IRPT. Some say this is just part of a pre-election campaign (the country is to elect its president in November); others see longer-term implications that could jeopardise the 1997 peace agreement that still shapes the country’s political reality. The IRPT – the only legal Islamic party in any Central Asian country outside Afghanistan – has, remarkably, confirmed that it views itself within the current system which the constitution has defined as secular. AAN’s Thomas Ruttig continues his reporting from beyond the northern shore of the Amu Darya, the river marking the Tajik-Afghan border.In power. The gigantic poster at the Nurek power plant in Tajikistan shows the Tajik president Rahmon. With the presidential election coming up in November, he has started a campaign against the main opposition party, the Islamist IRPT. Photo: Thomas Ruttig
Sayed Ibrahim Nazar, member of the Political Council of the Islamic Revival Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), was clearly concerned when he went down a list of incidents which indicated that the Tajik government under President Emom Ali Rahmon has been making concerted efforts to put more pressure on his party, ahead of the presidential elections on 6 November. “A few weeks ago, the Procurator-General visited my office and saw me praying there”, Nazar said when he met the author in his office. “He told me he should open a case against me, for violating the secular character of the state – prayers should not be performed at the work place(1). But he said he would refrain from punishing me. I also cannot send my son to the mosque to get an Islamic education.”
Nazar was referring to a law on ‘parental responsibility’ passed by the Tajik parliament in May 2011 that bans under-18 year olds from attending prayers in mosques, and, as the Daily Telegraph reported, may also allow the authorities to stop parents giving Arabic names to their children. In 2010, President Rahmon had already urged Tajik parents with children studying at madrassas or Islamic universities abroad to call them back because they were “all becoming terrorists and extremists”. According to the same report, some 2,000 Tajiks were then officially “studying at religious schools in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Iran and Pakistan, though the actual number is thought to be higher” (see also here). There are reportedly also some Tajik students in Afghanistan.
The IRPT was founded in 1990 as the Tajikistan section of a then Soviet Union-wide party, the Party of Islamic Renaissance(2). But it traces its roots further back, to 1973 when – as Nazar told AAN – a clandestine political organisation was founded, called the Islamic Youth Movement of Tajikistan (Nohzat-e Jawonon-e Islomi-ye Tojikistan, with the acronym Nejot, meaning salvation – which also became the name of the party’s armed wing during the civil war and is the title of the party’s current newspaper). According to the Pakistani journalist, Ahmad Rashid, some leaders of Nejot and of the later IRPT were students of a Tajik graduate of the Dar ul-Ulum of Deoband, the Islamic ‘university’ in India whom, he said, had “opened a clandestine madrassa in Dushanbe in the 1970s”. Since the late 1960s, a similar movement, the Jawanan-e Muslimin (Muslim Youth) existed in Afghanistan (it would eventually give birth to Islamist groups which became some of the most well known mujahedin groups – more detail here, p 10). Earlier this year, the IRPT celebrated its 40th founding anniversary.
In the 1992-97 civil war, the IRPT became the strongest force in an armed anti-government alliance, the United Tajik Opposition (UTO). In 1991, when the Soviet Union was dissolved and Tajikistan got its independence, tensions broke out over presidential elections which the opposition considered rigged. Pro- and anti-government forces organised mass demonstrations in Dushanbe. Both sides set up armed militias and the conflict descended into open civil war that raged from 1992 to 1997 and cost up to 100,000 people their lives.
After the party was declared illegal by the government in 1993 and was outgunned by pro-government militias, most of its leadership(3) and some 6,000 fighters went to Afghanistan from where they operated with the support of the Northern Alliance, then led by Ustad Burhanuddin Rabbani and commander, Ahmad Shah Massud. According to the Institute for the Study of War, Rabbani and Massud’s Jamiat and Shura-ye Nazar forces allowed the IPRT leadership “to operate and launch attacks [against] Rahmonov’s government in Dushanbe from bases in northern Afghanistan and provided them with arms and training”. In 1996, however, the Northern Alliance gave the IPRT leaders six months to quit Afghanistan because of its need to have a free hand against the onslaught of the emerging Taleban who had occupied Kabul in that year and of pressure by Russia which wanted the Tajik civil war to end. (Russia was then supporting the Northern Alliance’s fight against the Taleban.)
As a result of a peace process supported by Russia, Iran, Uzbekistan and Afghanistan, a peace agreement was signed in Moscow in 1997 which ended the Tajikistan civil war. The parties forming the United Tajik Opposition were legalised again and a power-sharing deal gave them 30 per cent of all government posts(4), making Tajikistan the only one of the five Central Asian republics that has a legal Islamist party.(5) In 1999, the party proclaimed that its political aim was establishing a “free, democratic state based on the rule of law”.(6) After its founder and leader, Sayed Abdullo Nuri, died in 2006, the party has been led by another moderate, the Russian-educated former diplomat, Muhiddin Kabiri.
Returning to 2013, the list of incidents currently targeting the IRPT is not restricted to a ban on praying at work. On 15 August, as Nazar told AAN in Dushanbe, “Our representatives went to organise a conference in Khorog and were beaten up there.” A similar case had occurred in April this year in Dushanbe when “unknown assailants” attacked IRPT vice-chairman, Muhammad Ali Hayit, right in front of the party’s main office. In Khorog, a former head of the IPRT office in the capital of the Gorno (Mountainous) Badakhshan Autonomous Area, a thinly populated area that covers the eastern half of the country, was killed during local unrest in 2012 (AAN reported this here and here; his predecessor had quit the party under government pressure. On 10 August 2012, unidentified individuals tried to burn down the party’s office in Wahdat district by dousing the building with gasoline and setting it on fire.
Nazar also told AAN about an intensified media campaign against his party: “Every day, we see programmes against the IRPT on TV, saying, ‘Why do we need such a party?’” He also claims party members have come to him reporting pressure on relatives, including threats of losing their government jobs if they do not distance themselves from the party. Finally, he points to the latest Tajik movie that had just opened, on 26 August, titled Marg-e Be-Gunoh (Innocent Death) which tells a civil war story in which, he said, “we are unilaterally identified as the culprits.”
Tajiks and foreigners based in the country have confirmed that there has been a series of TV programmes where former IPRT members have publicly declared they had quit the party and that they regretted ever having been a member. The already mentioned former head of the IRPT office in Khorog was one member who did just this. This has recently been followed by a number of statements by conservative clerics who were, until recently, targets of government persecution themselves. In late August, Qari Domullo Hekmatullo, a leading conservative alem demanded that the IRPT deleted the term ‘Islamic’ from its name because Islam “does not know parties”. Mullo Serojiddin, the leader of the country’s still banned Salafiyya party who was recently released from jail in a government about-face, told the Tajik media (7), that the use of the word “Islam” in the name of a party was “botel” (impermissible), implying that an Islamic party was un-Islamic. Both were quoted in the independent Dushanbe weekly, Faraj, on 21 August.
The anti-IRPT campaign was triggered by a high-profile speech by President Rahmon broadcast live on TV on 4 July this year which addressed 1,400 community representatives, including religious scholars. During this meeting – as various people who watched the programme confirmed – Rahmon turned to someone in the audience demanding a statement on the IPRT and, when the person started stuttering, helped him out with the suggestion that he obviously meant to say the Islamic party was against the “national interest” (the full speech is here, but without this conversation). One of the participants also raised the accusation that IRPT members have pressured people into joining the party, telling them that if they refused to join the party, they were not “true Muslims”. Rahmon also announced on the same occasion that, for the first time, mullas and imam-khatebs (prayer leaders) would soon receive government salaries, for the first time since independence. This is seen by local observers as another step to tie the Islamic clergy closer to the government. Through the Committee for Religious Affairs – its chairman has cabinet rank -, the government in Dushanbe already sets the themes for the Friday sermons in the country’s mosques, as the Ministry of Education monitors the curricula of the madrassas.
The party claims the campaign of pressure and intimidation was a strategy decided upon during a secret session of the government in autumn 2012 and resulting in the so-called “Protocol 32-20”.(8) “We are concerned about the new fashion to talk about Islamic radicalisation,” said Nazar, “We have agreed to the secular character of the state but now there is a secular radical tendency emerging.” He concludes with a vague hope, saying: “Maybe, it is just pre-election propaganda.”
Other political opposition groups have also been targeted. Zayd Saidov, a businessman and former minister, was arrested in May 2013, one month after he set up a new, still unregistered party, New Tajikistan, on what many in Dushanbe believe were trumped up charges, including corruption and rape. The government also moved against another opposition politician who had indicated he might run against the incumbent in November. Self-exiled businessman, Umarali Quvvatov, who had set up an anti-corruption group, Group 24, in Moscow, had to flee after charges of business malpractice were brought against him on the initiative of Dushanbe; he now fights his extradition from Dubai. Earlier, the government managed to split at least two of the smaller legal opposition parties, the Socialist Party and the Democratic Party, registering pro-government factions and practically banning the dissident wings; the Socialist Party was an allied of the IRPT during the civil war.
Indeed, the government’s campaign coincides with the establishment of a new opposition front, the Reformist Forces for Democratic Elections, that united the IPRT, several small opposition parties and, remarkably, a few well-known former government associates such as Prof Ibrohim Usmonov, a former presidential advisor, as well as civil society activists like Oynihol Bobonazarova (amendment 10/9/2013: who has been nominated as their presidential candidate on 10 September). This front wants to field a single candidate in the coming elections and has announced that it would change the constitution, abolishing the current two seven-year terms for the president and switching to two shorter, four-year terms. (Rahmon is officially in his first term, but has been head of state since 1992).(9) If it wins, it promises its candidate will preside over a four-year transition period only, without running again and that power will be more evenly balanced between the president, prime minister and the rather powerless parliament, the Majlis-e Oli. Since the previous parliamentary election in 2010 – which the opposition says was rigged (read here) -, the IRPT has only held two seats. It lost a third seat when its former spiritual leader, Muhammad Sharif Himmatzade, stepped down shortly before he died.
Although Nazar called the President’s 4 July remarks “anti-constitutional – [because] he has questioned religiously-based political parties’ right to exist which is fixed in constitution”, he is unambiguous in his position of sticking to the 1997 peace agreement. “I want to see my state democratic, but for us it is important that we can live like Muslims in it.”
During the civil war, the IRPT had aimed at making the country an ‘Islamic state’ but, as a result of the peace process, modified its position towards accepting a secular state order, working politically for establishing an Islamic society in the long term instead. “But the Tajik government did not recognise the positive transformation of the IPRT, said Arne Seifert, a former GDR (East German) Ambassador and later senior member of the OSCE mission in Tajikistan. He also said it rejected the concept of cooperation on which the peace agreement had been based, and, “after strengthening its own position, adopted a mono-centrist concept of power.” One result of this course of action is the latest crackdown on the IRPT that followed the removal of many opposition leaders from their government positions for alleged corruption or ineffectiveness – a charge, Dushanbe-based analysts say, that is not often brought against supporters of the president.
Seifert speaks of a “dilemma of mistrust” between the two main forces that concluded the 1997 Tajik peace agreement, the secular-minded government and the Islamist IRPT. The IPRT thinks, facing the government’s current campaign, that the government might try to get rid of it for good. The government – and many ordinary Tajiks who live a relatively liberal life without much pressure from Islamic conservatives (see part 1 of our dispatch here) – mistrust the IPRT’s endorsement of the secular state, assuming this might possibly be a mid-term strategy only. In 1992, immediately after the outbreak of the civil war, one of the leading Tajik ulema, the later the opposition’s chief negotiator, Haji Akbar Turajonzade (he is not a IPRT member) said that “[n]o one is talking of making Tajikistan an Islamic state. We hope it will happen in 40 years, but that’s for Allah to decide”.
This mutual mistrust between the two strongest political forces in Tajikistan has lead to a political polarisation not dissimilar to the current situation in Egypt where society is polarised after the military coup and following violent crackdown by the army on the Muslim Brotherhood. The IRPT leaders are following the events in Egypt with particular alertness. President Rahmon in his 4 July speech also pointed to outside parallels some spill-over to Tajikistan – “an increasing politicisation of Islam and ignition of the flames of historical and religious conflict in some Islamic countries” and “an influence of the … extremist movements on the minds of some of our uninformed young people via the Internet and other media sources”, with 32 cases of extremism and terrorism recorded in the country during the first five months of 2013. He continued by saying that “extremism, fanaticism, superstition, sowing the seeds of religious and sectarian enmity, hatred and discord, religious suicide actions and sacrifices and the abuse of Islam for the promotion of personal and group political interests and other negative actions that are now becoming a dangerous trend, [are] forcing us to take decisive steps and actions in this direction.”
Although Seifert says that “no one knows how strong the Islamist underground in Central Asia [including Tajikistan] is” the threat of Islamist terrorism evoked by the government seems to be exaggerated. The Jamestown Institute, a US-based think tank, speaks of only a “small number of militants active in Tajikistan” who do not “pose an existential threat to the nation, as some have suggested. They have little influence outside the Rasht Valley and do not enjoy the levels of popular support the armed opposition had in the 1990s.” Seifert, who sees a “politicisation” of what he calls “the Islamic factor” says, however, that, “this is not the result of internal or external agitation,” but of social problems. Jobs are scarce in the country and between one and two million Tajiks are working in Russia, Kazakhstan and elsewhere. According to the US Embassy, their remittances amounted to more than 50 per cent of the country’s GDP in 2008 (with a drop of 34 per cent in 2009) and that these “literally keep rural communities alive” (read a wiki-leaked US Embassy cable here). Sophie Roche and John Heathershaw, among the most reliable analysts of Tajikistan, write that, “[t]he war may have ended, but the post-war consolidation process has spawned occasional violent political conflicts”.
The mutual mistrust and the government campaign against the IRPT are, according to analysts in the country, jeopardising the outcome of the post-civil war Tajik peace process if it has not, as one of them put it, “already been dead for a long while.” In its February 2010 cable, the US Embassy assessed that, “[s]ince the end of the war, Rahmon gradually has reneged on this deal and forced nearly all oppositionists out of government — some are in prison, some left the country, and others died mysteriously.” Dushanbe-based Ozodegan weekly even asked in its 21 August 2013 issue: “Will 1992 [the year civil war broke out] come back again?”. It is also worried about where the pressure on the IRPT could lead.
This might be too alarmist, however. The IRPT leadership insists it is committed to the peace agreement and the current political set-up of the country. It also seems to be too weak to take up arms again, after many of its former commanders have been either killed, disarmed or sidelined. But this might just make the government confident that it can continue its anti-IRPT course. Ozodegon’s question on the return of war mainly got negative responses from several leading politicians of all sides.
Both the IRPT’s Nazar and the former presidential advisor, Professor Usmonov, when addressing a group of Central Asian and Afghan students in Dushanbe in August, still saw room to rescue the peace agreement to which both had contributed, Nazar as assistant to IRPT leader, Nuri, and Usmonov on the government’s side. Usmonov spoke of three principles that needed to be heeded by both sides in the conflict: “Engage in permanent dialogue and recognise it as the only legitimate way for dispute resolution; put the national interest [ie peace] above all and categorically exclude use of violence.” Nazar recalled what late Ustad Rabbani, from Afghanistan, had told them: “Go for the peace process and don’t become like us.”
The current crisis in Tajikistan contains some lessons, including for Afghanistan, although a sincere peace process has not even started there, yet. The main lesson is: it might already be very complicated to get a peace process started and it helps if both sides see the war as a mistake. This is not yet given in Afghanistan. However, the other lesson is that a conflict is not over when a peace agreement is signed – implementing such an agreement may turn out to be at least as complicated as agreeing to one. Successful implementation needs mutual trust between the signatories and maintaining this trust even when the balance of power shifts. Previous power-sharing agreements between different Afghan mujahedin factions, as the 1992 Peshawar Accord and the 1993 Islamabad Accord, as well as the 1993 Shura-ye Hal o-Aqd in Kabul (see here and here), failed because some parties to them decided to, or were accused by other parties, of monopolising power.
Under such circumstances, all sides involved must refrain from trying to get the upper hand at the expense of others. Inclusiveness and genuinely free elections are essential, and those can only be achieved when there is rule of law, with a judiciary and electoral institutions beyond the shadow of a doubt when it comes to their impartiality.
The experience of Tajikistan, although a small and peripheral Muslim country, also shows that an Islamist party can integrate into a pluralist and multi-party political system and identify with it.(7) This is so, even if one might argue that, in this case, the Islamists are clearly in a minority position in society and state, unlike in Egypt where they won the last elections and Afghanistan where they ended up in power as part of the currently ruling informal alliance after the United States won the war for them.
In Tajikistan, the cases of the imprisoned party leader, Saidov, the businessman-turned-opposition politician Quwwatov and others seem to indicate that there are still serious institutional challenges. And there are plenty of people able to put themselves above the law, as the nightly races of the sons of the nomenklatura in their tinted-windowed SUVs on Dushanbe’s kilometres-long plane-shaded main streets show, when sometimes drunken chaps hang out of the windows, yell violently at passers-by and no policeman dares to stop them. One precondition for successfully overcoming Tajikistan’s current political crisis would be that the international community takes more interest in this poor mountainous country, beyond a securitised and one-sided support of the regime(10) and despite the current disengagement from neighbouring Afghanistan. What haunts Tajikistan in the current situation is less a threatening ‘Islamic factor’ than the authoritarian factor.
(1) A similar ban has been in force in Kazakhstan since 2011. Amendment 13 September 2013: According to a US government report, in Tajikistan law restricts the rights of Muslims to pray to only four locations: a mosque (there is only one Friday mosque allowed per district), a cemetery, at home, and at a holy shrine; women are prohibited, by a 2004 fatwa of the Ulama Council, from attending prayers in mosques, and teachers under 50 years of age banned since 2009 from weating beards by the Ministry of Education.
(2) The Party of Islamic Renaissance was founded in June 1990 by the Congress of Muslims of the USSR. The IRPT’s name (Hezb-e Nohzat-e Islami in Tajik) is sometime translated this way, too. This party continues to exist in Russia, but all other chapters in the other former Soviet republics have been closed down – with the exception of Tajikistan (read more here and here). The 1990 Congress, itself, tried to pick up the traditions of political parties that emerged in pre-Soviet revolutionary times covering also the non-Russian parts of the Empire. In January 1906, a Union of Muslims (Ittifaq al-Muslimin) of Russia was created at the Second All-Russian Muslim Congress in St Petersburg which included Volga-Russian, Crimean, Azeri and Central Asians. The party was “moderately pan-Islamic and pan-Turkish and moderately opposed to czarism”, had 25 deputies in the Russian parliament, the Duma, and was allied there with the faction of the liberal Russian Constitutional-Democratic Party. In 1908 the party disbanded, as a result of the increasingly anti-minority policy of the government. All-Muslim Congresses held in May 1917 in Moscow and in July 1917 in Kazan attempted to bring together all Muslim political groups of the Russian Empire but, as a the result of the 1917 October revolution, they ended up on different (‘red’ and ‘white’) sides of the 1918-20 Russian Civil War. Source: Alexandre A. Bennigsen and S. Enders Wimbush, Muslim National Communism in the Soviet Union, Chicago and London, 1979.
(3) Some IRPT leaders went to Iran, others to Pakistan, but returned to Tajikistan in the wake of the peace process. Among those in Pakistan was Muhammad Sharif Hemmatzade, the leader of the IRPT’s armed wing, Nejot-e Melli (National Liberation).
(4) The United Tajikistan Opposition was given 39 government posts, including two vice prime-ministerial ones, five ministerial, nine deputy ministerial and ten chairs over quasi-ministerial state committees. The alliance consisted of the IRPT as its by far strongest force, the liberal-secular Democratic Party (now fragmented into several factions), Rastokhez (Renaissance), a popular front-style movement as it emerged in many Soviet republics under Gorbachov), and Lal-e Badakhshan (“Ruby of Badakhshan”), the autonomist movement of the Gorno Badakhshan region, the eastern but very thinly populated half of Tajikistan; the latter two are not in existence anymore.
(5) When the Tajik parliament was to pass the Political Parties Law after the peace agreement, the majority of its members – linked with President Rahmon’s ruling party, the United Tajikistan Opposition’s former opponents – voted down a provision that would have allowed parties based on religion. The UTO then boycotted the peace process (the following was corected on 13 September 2013) and the National Reconciliation Commission, established as a result of the 1997 peace agreement, according to Usmonov, “needed a series of 52 sessions” to alter the law again. A resulting document on Confidence-Building Measures, “that both sides respect each other,” and which guaranteed, “absolute freedom of religion” was never signed by the President. Therefore, also the measures included, like the establishment of a consultative body “under the President” that would support – and, in case of need, mediate between the parties – were never implemented.
(6) Quoted in Arne Seifert’s contribution to the “Friedensgutachten” of the main German peace research institutes (2010), p 93.
(7) The Salafiyya refers not to an organised, political movement but rather a tendency in Islam. Nevertheless, the Tajik government included it in its list of eleven banned terrorist organisations that, among others, include the Taleban, Lashkar-e Tayba and the Muslim Brotherhood (read an OSCE report here). More about this issue in part 3 of our current Tajik series.
(8) Also reported by: Awaz Yuldashev, “PIVT sayavlyaet o prodolzhayushchikhsya provokatsiyakh vlastey [IRPT complains about continued provocations by the powerholders]”, weekly Asia Plus, Dushanbe, 15 August 2013, p 2.
(9) Rahmon became head of government when, in 1992, the position of President of Tajikistan was abolished. When the position was re-instated in 1994, he won the election for it. After a change of the constitution in 1999, he was re-elected for a seven-year term. In June 2003, however, he won a referendum that allowed him to run for two more consecutive seven-year terms after his term expired in 2006. He was promptly re-elected.
(10) There has been massive international assistance to the Tajik government since the launching of the anti-terrorist coalition in the aftermath of 11 September 2001: the EU finances a Border Management in Central Asia program (BOMCA) where Afghan border guards are also trained and US Special Forces troops more discretely train some Tajik elite units (read more here). Behind these programs, there is a strong interest in making sure that the so-called northern distribution network (more in our dossier here), is also guaranteed. For more detail and sources, see our previous blog on Tajikistan, here).
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020