Government tries to clamp down as Islam’s influence builds
By Igor Rotar
Citing a potential security threat posed by Islamic radicalism, Tajik officials have acted aggressively in recent weeks to close down mosques and remove imams in the northern Isfara District. Government critics say the moves were motivated by President Imomali Rahmonov’s desire to reduce the influence of his main rival for power, the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRP). The discontent generated by the crackdown adds a new element of instability to an already tense region.
Rahmonov laid the groundwork for the clampdown during a July speech, in which he said three suspected terrorists held by the United States at the Guantanamo Bay naval base hailed from the area. Rahmonov went on to express concern about possible radical-motivated civil strife in northern Soghd Province.
Since the address, at least 33 of the Isfara District’s 152 mosques have been closed down. In justifying their actions, officials explained that the area had an excess of mosques, and that some had not been properly registered. Authorities also ordered the removal of over one-fifth of the district’s imams for their supposed involvement in politics. The government reportedly acted on the belief that the sacked imams were IRP adherents.
IRP representatives argue that mosques do not require registration under Tajikistan’s legislation concerning religious worship. They add that the sacked imams had cut their ties to the party before the government removed them. IRP leaders insisted the government’s action was politically motivated, designed to reassert official influence over an area in which a growing number of residents follow conservative religious traditions. Indeed, alcoholic beverages are banned in many villages within the Isfara District, and many women can be seen wear a hijab in public.
Dodojon Yakubov, a top IRP representative in Soghd, suggested Rahmonov’s aim was to blur the lines between Islamic radicals and moderate IRP loyalists in the hopes of eroding the party’s influence in the area. Concurrent with the mosque closures and imam bans, officials have expressed alarm about the growing influence of the radical underground Hizb-ut-Tahrir movement.
The IRP is the only Islamic-based political party to participate openly in the political life of a Central Asian state. The IRP formed the backbone of anti-government forces during Tajikistan’s 1992-97 civil war. The peace deal that ended that conflict established an uneasy power-sharing arrangement in which several IRP leaders joined the government. Though part of the government, the IRP and Rahmonov’s People’s Democratic Party (PDP) have considered each other to be adversaries.
“Both members of the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan and ordinary believers are a united force and the government is trying to divide us,” Yakubov said. “I assume official Dushanbe has already started a campaign for elections of 2005.”
In Tajikistan’s 2000 parliamentary elections, the IRP won a large majority in and around Isfara District. In the village of Chorku, for example, the IRP garnered 93 percent of the vote.
Rahmonov’s electoral intentions may have been on display during a by-election in the 23rd electoral district, which covers the Istaravshan constituency in Soghd Province. In that vote, the Rahmonov-backed PDP candidate received 86 percent of the vote to 9 percent for the IRP candidate. The IRP blasted the October 27 voting results, saying local authorities hindered the Islamic party candidate from campaigning. “The by-election was … undemocratic, unfair and not free. It [the IRP] therefore does not recognize the results of the elections,” a party statement said.
The Isfara District is situated near two neighbouring states: Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. A scarcity of water has caused tension among the three states. A Tajik-Kyrgyz water distribution dispute erupted in conflict in 1989. After that, the two then-Soviet republics established armed checkpoints at the water-distribution sluices. At present, the situation remains unstable. Portions of the Kyrgyz-Tajik border in the area have not been delimited. At the moment, the Kyrgyz army controls some of the water-distribution sluices located on Tajik territory.
In addition to inter-state tension, Islamic radicalism poses a security threat. In 1999 and 2000, militants from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) were active in the area adjacent to Isfara. IMU fighters are said to have obtained food from some villages in the Isfara District, and reportedly made a good impression on local residents.
The IMU’s supposed popularity helped raise the government’s suspicion about religious expression in northern Tajikistan. Some observers say that officials intend to clampdown on Islamists not only in the Isfara District, but throughout Soghd Province. Negmatullo Mirsaidov, editor-in-chief of the Varorud Information Agency, told EurasiaNet; “attempts to close mosques and certificate imams have also been made in other parts of northern Tajikistan.”
Soghd Province is separated from the rest of the country by high mountains. The area is economically, and, to a certain extent culturally, closer to neighboring Uzbekistan than to central and southern parts of Tajikistan. During the Soviet era, northern Tajiks dominated the republic’s government. However, northerners lost much of their political influence following the Tajik civil war.
According to Mukhiddin Kabiri, IRP Deputy Chairman, northern Tajiks’ dissatisfaction with the post-civil war-balance of power “is turning this once most secularised parts of Tajikistan into a new Islamist center.” —EurasiaNet