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Tajikistan: The fight on Islamic piety that fuels nihilist extremism

The president of Tajikistan likes to wrap himself in the robes of Islam.

Literally, in some cases. 

In January 2016, Emomali Rahmon performed a pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca, and took several members of his family along too. His office documented the event by releasing images of the leader covered only in the seamless white garment that must be worn by Muslims performing this rite.

The pictures were doubly striking since the Tajik authorities had for many years been actively repressing pious Muslims. They continue to do so today.

This plays out in absurd ways. From time to time, police will go on the hunt for young men with beards, carting them off to the nearest barber for a shave. Women are chided for wearing the hijab on the grounds that it is not a traditionally Tajik form of dress.

It feels like a paradox for this to be happening in a country where the vast majority of people self-describe as Sunni Muslims. But it isn’t.

What Rahmon’s corrupt and authoritarian regime wants is an antiseptic and lightly worn form of Islam. One that promotes folkish conservatism, compliance and consensus. People may by all means pray and believe, but those things should be confined solely to the mosque. 

And not any mosque at that. In the years after Rahmon paid his visit to Mecca, the government forced the closure of thousands of informally run and unregulated neighborhood mini-mosques dotted around the country. The only permitted places of worship operate under the close scrutiny of the government. State-appointed imams up and down Tajikistan deliver dull, facsimile sermons.

And the regime systematically worked to dilute incoming generations’ familiarity with their own faith.

From 2010, the government started forcing young people studying at Islamic places of learning abroad to return home. Rahmon argued that Tajiks going to foreign Islamic schools, or madrasas, were “not becoming mullahs, but terrorists.”

In 2016, the authorities introduced a ban on private religious schools. Two years after that, it became illegal for children to study the principles of Islam in either mosques or madrasas. The job of teaching about religion was accordingly transferred to state educational institutions. But poorly funded Tajik schools and teachers are ill-equipped to provide basic instruction in subjects like maths and science, let alone religion.

And then, in 2021, the government introduced severe penalties for teaching religion via the internet.

Nusratullo Mirzoyev, the first deputy chairman of the State Committee for National Security (GKNB), justified this cascade of clampdowns as precautionary measures.

“According to studies, 95 percent of young people who joined radical groups and movements got their primary education in private religious schools,” he said.

Even studying the Arabic language was for a time rendered difficult by an informal prohibition

The result is a country increasingly populated by the religiously semi-literate. Tajiks are told from birth that they are Muslims, but then purposely denied the right or ability to make sense of that identity.

Conditions could not be more ideal for recruiters from militant organizations like the Islamic State. A 2008 analysis by Britain’s domestic intelligence agency, MI5, concluded that “far from being religious zealots, a large number of those involved in terrorism do not practise their faith regularly.”

“Many lack religious literacy and could actually be regarded as religious novices. Very few have been brought up in strongly religious households,” the analysis argued.

The authors had extremist recruits in the West in mind when they wrote those words. But they are just as valid in Tajikistan, whose government has added a few push factors of its own for good measure.

Anywhere north of 1.3 million Tajiks, mostly men, have been compelled by lack of opportunity in their home country to relocate to Russia. Once there, they endure a life of financial privation and routine humiliations at the hands of police and unscrupulous employers. Their dwellings are typically crowded apartments, hostels and dormitories, or even the very same building sites where they work.

Away from the family unit and shorn of the solidarity provided by tight-knit communities, some vulnerable men in those circumstances – and it should be stressed that the numbers are small in relative terms – are ripe for recruitment. Ample research points to how extremist groups use social networks, personal relationships, and specific sentiments of perceived deprivation or grievances when identifying and enlisting members. 

The Crocus City Hall massacre will not, however, give the Tajik government any pause for thought.

In a speech to mark the Nowruz spring equinox holiday, President Rahmon said that what happened last week was a warning to “all of us, especially parents, to once again devote even more serious attention to the education of children.”

“We should protect teenagers and young people from the influence of such destructive and terrifying groups and movements, and we should not allow our children to harm the good name of the Tajik nation,” he said.

What he means by devoting greater attention to education is not teaching Tajik young people more about Islam. Quite the opposite.

Source: Sub Stack