Blinkered View of Islam Nudges Tajikistan Toward Confrontation

Authorities in Tajikistan seem bent on a confrontation with followers of Islam. 

President Imomali Rakhmon has said his country has too many unregistered mosques. They are “propagating extremism” with foreign funding, “attracting youth to radical groups” and should be closed, he said at a February 10 meeting of his Security Council.

The comments came days after the spokesman of the opposition Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), Hikmatulloh Saifullohzoda, was brutally beaten outside his Dushanbe home. In response to the high-profile attack, the embattled party slammed Rakhmon for presiding over an authoritarian, corrupt regime and said someone had tried to assassinate Saifullohzoda.  

This is hardly Rakhmon’s first public lashing of Islam. Recent moves have included shutting down independent mosques and police harassment of men with beards. While his country crumbles, its burdensome Soviet legacy exacerbated by ineptitude and greed, the president uses fears of Islamic extremism to stigmatize any enemy or challenger.

Is it possible that some of the 1250 unregistered mosques really are fanning the flames of extremism? Certainly. But the work of determining that with any degree of confidence is drastically complicated by the government’s perpetual exaggerations and non-transparency. Events in Rasht last fall demonstrate Dushanbe’s unwillingness or inability to present coherent evidence of its fight with alleged radical Islamists: Hundreds of people died; the media was silenced; what transpired and who’s to blame remains unclear.

With their ham-fisted policies, the authorities can’t seem to identify genuine threats to security. When officials do speak publicly on the topic, legitimate concerns are often so heavily laced with untruth that their claims elicit little trust. In this environment, even in the absence of outright deceit, there is chronic suspicion, and very little proper investigative work. 

Comments released from the Security Council meeting did not include a discussion of Saifullohzoda or the anger his beating has caused among the IRPT’s 40,000-odd members, some of whom, the party’s leadership fears, are looking abroad for inspiration. 

Dushanbe isn’t Cairo. But the police-state parallels will not be lost on those yet to suffer the next stage of the crackdown. 

In his comments, Rakhmon added that the State National Security Committee, Tajikistan’s KGB successor, has not done enough to prevent the spread of militant Islam and must “purge its ranks of random people who discredit the honor of their service.”
The president’s words sound like a threat: Intelligence officials who don’t see the street his way risk losing their jobs. This won’t ensure Tajikistan’s stability. It may usher in new witch hunts against men with beards or women wearing headscarves. And it all but guarantees that Rakhmon’s myopia will spread, pushing his people ever closer to confrontation.

Blinkered View of Islam Nudges Tajikistan Toward Confrontation

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