Integrating Political Islam in Central Asia: the Tajik Experience

Tajikistan has undergone the most painful state building of all the former Soviet republics of Central Asia. Beginning in 1991, the country experienced a rapid rise in political activism, followed by civil war, an internationally led peace process, the integration of opposition forces into government, disarmament of former combatants, and redistribution of power among warring political factions. In general, Tajikistan is widely considered an important success story of internationally supported peace building. Today this country is ready to pay a robust price to avoid further violence after the 1992-1997 conflict that resulted in an estimated 50,000 dead and disappeared.[i] The implications for integrating political Islam into a pluralist system, however, have been more mixed.

Integrating Islamic Political Activism into Government

The most valuable and instructive part of the Tajik experience relates to the search for the most effective formula for dealing with religion-based political activism. Various international centers of power are primarily concerned with the practical implications of the issue: should they support local, secular post-Communist elites that have taken steps to strengthen their defenses combating Islamists? Is the best solution to encourage those governments who strive to “domesticate” Islam within the limits of their respective countries and subjugate it to national projects? Another may advocate an “ideal” solution and include Islamists in legal politics. Does the Tajik model of inclusion represent a positive example of de-militarization of Muslim politics?

Tajikistan is the only state in the region where an Islamic movement, after ten years of open confrontation, opted to participate in the political process legally, within quasi-democratic structures.  Proclaimed Islamist ideals notwithstanding, the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT) from its inception has been closely attached to ethnic nationalism and to the Tajik state building mission. Since the first days of independence, it created a coalition, which included official clergy, newborn nationalist-minded democrats, and a non-Sunni (Shi’a Ismaili) minority against the Communist party candidate in the presidential election of 1991. After independence in 1991, through the civil war in 1992-1996, the peace process in 1994-1997 and the integration into government in 1999-2000, Tajik Islamists and the nationalist-democratic movement were part of a unified political front based on common Tajik nationalism, which appeared to be unexpectedly strong. During the UN-sponsored peace process in 1999, under the pressure of international guarantors of Tajik peace, changes in the constitution were made, and the IRPT, which constituted a core of the United Tajik Opposition (UTO), was legalized.

The fortune of Tajik Islamists sharply differs from their Uzbek co-religionists.  The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) started as a relatively peaceful Islamic movement, but by 1992-1993, it had taken steps to forcibly introduce an Islamic state in Ferghana. Persecuted by the Uzbek regime, most of its activists left Uzbekistan for Tajikistan where they fought alongside the Tajik Islamists against the secular Tajik government in 1992-1996. This Islamist alliance of Tajiks and Uzbeks was ruined in 1996, however, in favor of ethnic nationalism. The rise of the Pushtun-dominated Taliban in Afghanistan heralded the end of the Tajik civil war.  Reluctance to support the Taliban led the Tajik opposition and the government to the UN-sponsored negotiating table in 1994. Afghanistan’s President Burhanuddin Rabbani, an ethnic Tajik, was one of the peace brokers for the Tajik reconciliation, and Tajik Islamists from both banks of the Amu River regarded the late Ahmad Shah Masud as a national hero. The Taliban’s capture of Kabul in September 1996 provided further incentive for the Tajik peace process. As a result, the religious coalition of Uzbek and Tajik Islamists split. The IRPT rejected a pro-Taliban course in favor of Tajik nationalism, while the IMU, being deprived of political participation in Uzbekistan and finding no place in reconciled Tajikistan, joined the regional geopolitical terrorist network, that is the Taliban and the bin Laden group. In spring 2001, the IMU changed its name to the Islamic Movement of Turkestan (the imagined “Land of Turks”), in an attempt to follow the Tajik example of “Islamic nationalism,” but the bid came too late; the IMU was placed on the list of American terrorist targets in the war on terrorism after September 11, 2001.

Islam and Political Pluralism

Tajikistan did not successfully solve the tension between Islam and political pluralism, however. The tension between the secular-oriented post-Communist elites and the Islamic opposition involved cruel open civil warfare that took thousands of lives. The problem of relations between the secular state and Islamism in Tajikistan was not discussed at all. Instead, the issue was resolved in the context of the power-sharing dispute during the UN-sponsored implementation of the General Peace Accord in 1997-2000. The Islamic Renaissance Party was legalized, while secularism remained central to Tajikistan’s constitution. Unfortunately, it meant that the important dilemma of secularism versus Islamism remains unresolved in Tajik politics in the long-term. The Tajikistani formula of dealing with political Islam can hardly serve as an ideal example for other Central Asian countries not only because the inclusion was induced, forced from outside, but also because the very peace process itself was not open and transparent to the Tajik public. Despite the relative success of the Tajik peace process, there was no open political debate in Tajik politics.  The legal Islamic opposition remains non-transparent and often unnamed and appears radical and hostile in the eyes of outside observers and most Tajikistanis.

The failure of openness and non-confrontation to become a regular feature of Tajik policy occurred for several reasons.  First, the weak Tajik regime possesses limited resources and an insufficient level of political institutionalization to adopt the UN-supported multiparty system.  Additionally, the Tajik elites that appeared more than ten years ago—the Kulabi dominated secular government and IRPT-dominated United Tajik Opposition (UTO)—have secured and maintained their positions by violent means, through civil war. They are inclined to choose violent responses for future challenges. As well, the IRPT and other Central Asian parties emerged from the Soviet past, with no tradition of democratic development and political dialogue. Furthermore, the party of Tajik Islamists is built on the model of Muslim Brotherhood, based on loyalty to the leader and does not yet function as a modern political party.  Finally, limited public knowledge of the tenets of Islam due to the regional isolation from the Muslim world and restrictions on religious education also hampers a public Islam-related dialogue.

The international community’s effort to push the Tajik society towards democracy notwithstanding, Tajikistan failed to become a pluralistic quasi-democratic state with an open arena of political competition, an unfettered media, an independent judiciary and a market economy. For many Tajiks, the IRPT is a regionalist group of Gharmis that formerly were underrepresented in government and recently came to power through violence. The ideals of  to mentionome localism ando hamperregion from the Muslim worldpolitical inclusion and institutionalization have been subverted and undermined by the political players.  Today the IRPT functions as merely a potential opponent of the ruling elite, rather than as an Islamic (ideological) party and/or political institute. Marginalized and deprived from principal decision-making, it nevertheless enjoys access to state resources for personal enrichment and illicit activities. In its relations with the government, it has a powerful tool, that is a mechanism of social mobilization through Ishan-Murid groupings, the Sufi network, and Islamic movements, capable of providing destructive mass-involvement, rapid breakdown of civil-military relations and hazardous destabilization of the system as occurred in the first half of the 1990s. In case of social unrest, the government may rely exclusively on external, notably Russian, support.  The few Tajik institutions that could theoretically play a mediating role—opposition political parties, independent media, an effective judiciary, active civil society—either do not exist or lack capacity. So far, the government and opposition are in relative harmony. Both support a need to avoid violent conflict and the necessity of protecting national state building, but neither has created the necessary institutional framework for a more pluralistic democracy.

Is Islam a Political Threat?

Central Asian authoritarian regimes and some Western governments tend to see Islamists as marginalized terrorist radicals rejected by the populace. The main threat to Central Asian security, however, is not radicalization of Muslim policies but is the general failure of political and economic transformation, as well as the rise in authoritarianism and widespread corruption. Lack of cooperation between Central Asian governments and rapid militarization of the region further deteriorates the situation. Local regimes and their close non-Muslim neighbors—China and Russia—identify radical Islamist mobilization as a threat to national security interests. A consequence of this is a rapid, burdensome, and dangerous militarization of the region. Governments have chosen repression as the only response to any kind of dissent. This concentration of fear, violence, mistrust, and mismanagement is the most alarming problem of the region.

Uzbekistan has a sad reputation as a forerunner of the militarization of Central Asia. The Tashkent regime strives to become a regional “superpower,” the strongest among the weak. Some regard Uzbekistan as the US’s closest regional ally in the war on terrorism. Uzbekistan has the region’s strongest and largest army, trained to resist Islamic terrorists in any part of the region. Yet no one forecast the political consequences of ‘anti-terrorist’ operations of Uzbek commandos in the Tajik mountains, for instance. Uzbekistan is unilaterally fixing national boundaries, harming national interests of all its neighbors. On the pretext of defense from Islamists, Tashkent mines pre-frontier territory of Tajikistan, and this has taken about 60 lives of innocent Tajik citizens.

On the pretext of fighting Islamic terrorists, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan have also rashly strengthened their defense and security bodies.  Not capable to resolve problems arising from Islamist mobilization and driven by Soviet-time authoritarian impulses Central Asian governments call for external support receiving millions of dollars from the US to suppress Islamic dissent. Sadly, in the aftermath of September 11, Central Asian governments have begun to apply the rhetoric of the “war on terror” to justify their pressure on opposition. Tajikistan is another source of instability, because the military elite is comprised of former adversaries—hardened militias from pro-Communist Popular Front and United Tajik Opposition—and most gunmen are independent from the state, remaining loyal to regional political entrepreneurs and field commanders who control the remote regions, “protect” the Tajik-Afghan border and are heavily involved in illegal trafficking. In reaction to governmental moves against real and imagined Islamic militants, youth in particular risk hardening their positions, and turning to the extreme forms of dissent associated with Hizb-ut-Tahrir and IMU. This occurs most frequently among hundreds of thousands of Tajik and Uzbek youth who are illegal migrants, returning from Russia where they may have been the victims of anti-Muslim racism.

Political Inclusion

Despite its numerous shortcomings, the Tajik model of inclusion seems preferable and a more promising form of dealing with Muslim policies in Central Asia compared to the ‘combat/control’ model proposed by Tashkent. The severe repression of opposition, instead of weakening the Islamist militancy, has strengthened and radicalized the Islamist groups in Uzbekistan. In comparison, the Tajik case has been an encouraging example of successful bargaining of the government and Muslim militants. It illustrates that Muslim politics is not inevitably and hopelessly radical and anti-systemic. So far, the inclusion of Islamic policies has not led to clericalization and a clash with secularism in Tajikistan. Dialogue and inclusion are unlikely to help Islamists come to power in Tajikistan or in any other Central Asian states. Instead, inclusion depends mostly on the efficiency of secular regimes and their ability to intercept the initiative from Islamists in an open and democratic environment.  To avoid a slide back to militancy, there is a need, in addition to the supporting national economic development, to provide advocacy to all political movements committed to acting legally. For international centers of powers, it means changing attitudes to repressive Uzbekistan politics and growing attention to the Tajik model of inclusion.

One can argue Tajikistan cannot serve as a worthy example to follow. This is true. Today the government controls barely 10% of the economy, giving up the rest to shadow economics, drag dealing, and theft. The state is weak, has no ability to rule effectively, regulate the economy, or protect the citizens. Although the surprising openness of the society is mostly a result of the weakness rather than strength of the government, the possibility of “Tajikbashi,” or Karmov-style authoritarianism is undesirable in Tajikistan. Inclusion may not solve all problems in Central Asian governments, but it remains preferable to the model of repression.

[i] See: Kamoludin Abdullaev, Catherine Barnes eds. Politics of Compromise: The Tajikistan Peace Process. London: Conciliation Recourses, 2001.



Table 1

Profile of Today’s Political Islam in Central Asia

Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan Hizb ut-Tahrir (Uzbek section)
Formed in 1990 1996 1996
Centered in Central and Southern, but from 2000 also Northern Tajikistan Uzbek part of the Ferghana valley Ferghana valley (mostly Uzbek, but also Tajik and Kyrgyz parts)
Nature Sunni Islamist movement Sunni Islamist militant movement Supra-national Islamic movement
Aim Islamic State Islamic State Islamic State
to be achieved by the way of… Militant jihad     against Tajik regime (in 1991-1997) Gradual introduction of basic Islamic principles by the way of participating in legal politics  (since 1999) Militant jihad against Uzbek regime Non- violent jihad in three stages: clandestine indoctrination open public campaign taking over power
Targeted against Christians/Jews? No No Yes
Legal Status Legal in 1991- 1993 and since the end of 1999 Illegal, under severe repression, leaders sentenced to death in absentia Illegal, clandestine, under severe repression
Attachment  to ethic nationalism Close Moderate None
Today it… integrated into national politics joined regional geo-politics (al-Qaeda and the Taliban) and most likely defeated In spite of severe repression has a tendency to rise in secrecy

Published in Rouben Azizian and Elizabeth Van Wie Davis (eds.). Islam, Oil, and Geopolitics. Central Asia after September 11. Lanham Maryland : Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2006, 61-77.

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4 thoughts on “Integrating Political Islam in Central Asia: the Tajik Experience

  1. Скажите пожалуйста, электронная версия этой книги имеется? С амазона мне не очень удобно заказывать.

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  4. Салом, дӯсти азиз!

    Муддатест пайваста аз торнигори Шумо дидан мекунем ва матолиби онро бо шавқи зиёд мехонему гоҳе сари онҳо баҳс мекунем. Хеле хуб аст, ки Шумо бо ҳузур ва фаъолияти хеш олами блоги тоҷикӣ ва ба ин васила фазои иттилоотиро дар шабакаи ҷаҳони интернет рангин мекунед. Дар ин ҷода бароятон устуворӣ ва комёбиҳо орзумандем.

    Агар огаҳӣ доред, хуб, вагарна бо ин нома ба таваҷҷӯҳи Шумо мерасонем, ки дар торнамои Радиои Озодӣ гӯшаи “Блогистон” таъсис шудааст, ки беҳтарин матолиби блогнависонро ба забонҳои тоҷикӣ ва русӣ мунташир карда, дар муаррифии ин блогҳо ва афзоиши теъдоди хонандагони онҳо саҳм мегирад.

    Ҳоло мехоҳем, Шуморо ба ширкат дар кори ин гӯшаи торнамои Озодӣ ҷалб намоем. Хоҳиши мо ин аст, ки агар имкон доред, ҳар моҳ яке аз навиштаҳои худро ҳамроҳ бо акси дилхоҳи хеш ва линки блоги худ ба гӯшаи “Блогистон”-и Озодӣ бифиристед. Мо матлаби Шуморо нашр мекунем.

    Ҳамчунин метавонем дар ҳамкорӣ Шуморо ба таҳияи видео-блогҳо даъват кунем, ки вақт ва нерӯи камтаре мегиранд. Агар компютери Шумо дурбин дорад, метавонем бо ҳам дар тамос шавем ва видео-блоги Шуморо мустақиман забту дар Блогистони Озодӣ пахш кунем.

    Шумо аз ҷумлаи пешгомони фанновариҳои нави иттилоотӣ ҳастед. Биёед бо ҳам ин пешсафиро идома диҳем ва блогосфераи тоҷикро ба сатҳи болотаре бардошта, ба доираҳои фарохтар муаррифӣ кунем.

    Бо дуруд ва эҳтиром
    Соҷидаи Мирзо,
    мудири Бахши Тоҷикии
    Радиои Озодӣ

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