Volume 22 Issue 4, April 2018

Tajikistan, a small land-locked country in Central Asia with a population of nine million, has drawn criticism from a few Muslim countries of late. Snuggled between Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and China, Tajikistan became an independent state in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet empire. This tiny nation’s modern-day history, however, has been shaped by a civil war lasting close to five years (1992-1997). Currently characterized as a presidential republic, Tajikistan’s President Emomali Rahmon has been criticized for entrenching an authoritarian dictatorship with widespread corruption, human rights violations and lack of religious freedom.

While constitutionally Tajikistan is a secular state, an overwhelming 98% of its population subscribe to Islam as a practicing religion. The constitution provides for the right, individually or jointly with others, to adhere to any religion or to no religion at all, and to participate in religious customs and ceremonies. It also states that religious organizations shall be separate from the state and “shall not interfere in state affairs.” However, President Rahmon’s government has cracked down brutally on what it sees as “extremism.”

In 2015, officials in one region of Tajikistan forcibly removed the beards of 13,000 men. In 2016, state authorities raided numerous shops and stalls, closing down those that sold “non-traditional” Tajik clothing. The move was seen as directly and specifically targeting shops selling hijabs, with 160 of such shops closed in 2016. Authorities forced thousands of women to remove their hijabs and comply with the law on traditions. The government Committee on Religious Affairs (CRA) controls all aspects of religious life, including approving registration of religious associations, construction of centres of worship, participation of children in religious education and the dissemination of religious literature. Later in the year, authorities imposed fines on those who refused to abide by regulations. It also outlawed Arabic sounding names.

The country hosts close to 3,700 mosques. In 2018, the CRA boasted that it had shut-down 1000 “illegal” mosques and prayer rooms and converted them into cultural and entertainment centres such as tea rooms, clinics, hairdressing salons, kindergartens and day care centres.

Emboldened by its ever expansive purview, the CRA has also exploited its authority to harass numerous NGOs working on humanitarian issues and on freedom of speech in the country. Organizations continue to be subjected to raids, surveillance and, in some cases, forced closure. Women are prohibited from praying at mosques and citizens under the age of 18 are barred from participating in public religious activity. The CRA also announced educational courses for imams to educate them on “behaviour of potential extremists” and keeps a close eye and ear on Friday sermons, many of which are regulated and pre-ordained by authorities. Applying for pilgrimage to Mecca or opening a religious organization cannot only be an arduous, but at times, a deadly task. In 2016, Tajikistan had 19 registered madrassahs and hundreds of unregistered ones. The last known madrassah was closed in 2017 withan order was passed according 12 years of imprisonment to anyone who chose


to impart religious education.

Unique amongst former Soviet republics, Tajikistan had allowed an Islamist party, the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), to form the opposition following the result of a peace deal which ended a five-year long civil war. However, in 2015 President Rahmon reneged on the deal and banned the IRPT.

The government’s crackdown on Muslim communities under the garb of “curbing religious extremism and radicalization” has led to severe frustration and anger throughout the country. Many view this move as the government’s authoritarian attempts to increase control over society. While greater state vigilance and basic monitoring of unchecked religious activity may be helpful in stemming radicalization and identifying extremist elements within vulnerable societies, blanket approaches (such as those currently exercised in Tajikistan) can have inadvertent effects. Close to 3,000 young men have fled Tajikistan to attend madrassahs in neighbouring Afghanistan and Pakistan and in Egypt and other countries.

One of the key drivers of radicalization is exclusion, whether political, social, or economical. What President Rahmon may end up achieving through his authoritarian rule is a society steeped heavily in extremism, frustration and a propensity to violence. Stagnant economic growth, a lack of employment opportunities and strict monitoring of youth activities create a volatile environment, ready to bubble over into uncontrollable rage and violence. While data provided by the Agency of Statistics under the President of the Republic of Tajikistan placed the unemployment rate at 2.20% in October 2017, unofficial estimates suggest unemployment to be as high as 15%. As more and more young men travel abroad in search of religious education or jobs, many are likely to be radicalized along the way. While the government may have arrested some 100 young men suspected of joining Daesh or harbouring “extremist thought,” little due process, public trial or evidence of accountability points to gross human rights violations and concerns that the numbers of those arrested may be severely under-reported.

State authorities continue to impose sweeping restrictions on freedom of expression, dissent and access to information/media. Journalists are regularly intimidated and harassed. As recently as May 2017, authorities unblocked access to some social media sites including Facebook and YouTube. However, media such as BBC and CNN remain blocked due to their nature of “promoting extremism.” The UN Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom of opinion and expression noted in his June report that since his 2016 visit to Tajikistan, the “draconian restrictions on opposition voices and the squeezing of civil society” had continued to worsen. He concluded that “the Government is obliged under human rights law to reconsider its entire approach to restricting the opposition, the media, the Internet, and civil society as a whole.” Tajikistan ranks 149/179 on the 2017 World Press Freedom index.

By invoking national security issues to justify harsher restrictions on dissent or religious practices, Tajik authorities and President Rahmon are creating not only a dangerous environment for young Tajiks but also writing their own eventually violent demise.

The writer is a Islamabad based free-lance journalist covering international subjects.

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