A court in Tajikistan has sentenced the leader of an ultraconservative Islamic Salafist movement to eight years in prison on charges of membership in an extremist organization.
As RFE/RL’s Tajik service, Radio Ozodi, reported on July 19, Muhammadi Rahmatullo’s case has been shrouded in secrecy and marked as classified information, so few details are known. This is not so unusual in Tajikistan of late as the government has become increasingly opaque about the multitude of criminal cases it pursues against its real and perceived opponents.
Not much is known about Rahmatullo.
He first emerged as a self-described Salafist in the early 2000s, when the current first established itself in the country, having been brought back by Tajiks that had taken refuge in Pakistan during the civil war. In 2008, Rahmatullo claimed in an interview that his movement counted 20,000 Tajik citizens.
The movement was banned by a Supreme Court decision after a wave of mysterious blasts in Dushanbe in 2009. Rahmatullo fell out of public view around that time. During that time, it is believed he busied himself converting migrants working outside Tajikistan, particularly in the regions of Russia, and studying at the Faculty of Shariah and Law of the International Islamic University in Islamabad, Pakistan. According to Radio Ozodi, Rahmatullo returned to Tajikistan in 2011, but what he got up is not a matter of public record.
The Salafist movement was designated as extremist in 2014. Salafism is held up by its followers as an adherence to an unsullied form of Islam. While rejecting the established doctrinal schools, they arguably relate most closely to the Hanbali system that prevails in Saudi Arabia, as opposed to the more moderate Hanafi recognized by most Muslims in Central Asia. In Tajikistan and elsewhere, they are popularly conflated with conservative Wahhabi strain practiced by Saudis, although the association is anathema to strict Salafists. Adherents in Tajikistan have typically been distinguished by their dress and public exhortations for the destruction of shrines, which many Salafists deem to be un-Islamic.
In January 2015, local media carried reports based on information supplied by Rahmatullo’s family that the religious leader had been detained by the authorities. Interior Minister Ramazon Rahimzoda swiftly denied those reports, however.
Some time later, weekly newspaper Farazh published an article under Rahmatullo’s byline that roundly condemned the opposition Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan, or IRPT, and alleged it was funded by “foreign governments.” He called the IRPT, which had most of its leadership jailed for lengthy prison terms earlier this summer, the cause of the civil war that started in 1992 and described it as a puppet of the Iranian government. Accordingly, the party should be disbanded, Rahmatullo argued in the piece.
The article has raised suspicion in some quarters that Rahmatullo might have agreed to joined forces with the government in condemning IRPT in return for favorable treatment. Even if true, that rumored collaboration bought Rahmatullo little grace since he was arrested in February, after which there was a wave of arrests of alleged Salafists.
Avesta news agency reported on July 19 that in the southern Khatlon region alone around 110 suspected Salafists have been detained since the start of the year.
Some local observers have speculated that the sudden animus against the Salafists may have been sparked by the failure of President Emomali Rahmon’s overtures to oil-rich nations in the Middle East, like the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, both of which he visited earlier this year on begging tours.
Then again, Tajikistan’s government hardly needs an excuse to clamp down on devout Muslims and has been doing so actively for several years now. In all mosques, specially ordained commissions closely monitor whether congregants are praying suitably, in line with the traditions of the orthodox and officially approved Hanafi school. The government’s religious committee has justified this scrutiny by arguing it will promote unity, as opposed to ultra-conservative strains of Islam, which it warns will sow discord in society.