Playing with Fire

1st Jul 2011

Government: “an institution which prevents injustice other than such as it commits itself.”—Ibn Khaldun, 1377

In my relatively short career as a journalist, I’ve been on the receiving end of some nasty ad hominem attacks. That’s the price you pay for writing about politics and foreign affairs, a rather meager one, at least in my estimation. By far the most bewildering of these attacks arrived recently in the form of a series of bromides published by a government-sponsored newspaper in Tajikistan following a reporting trip I made to that mountainous, landlocked country this past November.

The articles were rambling, vindictive and lacked specific points of contention, but it was clear that the author (or, more likely, authors) were disappointed with the reporting a Tajik colleague and I had done for our employer, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the congressionally financed broadcaster. We had visited the country to investigate the Tajik government’s recent launch of a major military operation to hunt down Islamic extremists, a campaign that they were being quite cagey about. The stories we published were not sensational, though we did raise questions about the government’s secrecy, quoting several Tajiks (some anonymously) who expressed similar concerns.

“If you are not a traitor, Radio Ozodi is not for you”, the paper declared with characteristic subtlety (ozodi is the Tajik word for “liberty”). The article went on to list some of my Tajik colleagues by name, accusing them of penning “inflammatory articles in the Civil War years” and “playing roles in the division of society.” The author accused RFE of being a “headquarters for the devil.” Tellingly, the paper attacked our “spread[ing] positive information about colored revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt”, which failed to “talk about the murder of 300 citizens of Egypt” and was “silent about the looting of historic sites of this country.” These rhetorical flourishes, however, were not nearly as original as the epithet printed by another pro-government commentator who had referred to us as “liberty slaves.”

As the “Arab Spring” marches onward, (though where to no one really knows), it’s not difficult to see why the government of Tajikistan—sclerotic, disorganized and hopelessly corrupt—would be sensitive to criticism. A former Soviet republic, Tajikistan is the poorest and least urbanized country in Central Asia. An estimated one million of its 7.5 million citizens work elsewhere in the former Soviet Union, and remittances are a crucial part of its economy. It lacks the abundant natural gas that blesses neighboring Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Less than a year after having independence thrust in its lap in late 1991, the country fell into the depths of a destructive civil war pitting a coalition of liberals and Islamists—what came to be known as the United Tajik Opposition (UTO)—against the remnant of Communist officials, based in the capital, Dushanbe, who took over after independence. The conflict attracted regional actors, with both Russia and Uzbekistan supporting the government.

The war ended in 1997, having produced more than a million refugees and more than 50,000 deaths (the highest number of casualties per capita of any civil war in the past half-century, according to Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid). The government maintained its grip on power, though it negotiated an agreement by which UTO fighters would be gradually integrated into the armed forces. It also promised the opening of a democratic space in which political parties could develop and free elections could be held. The majority of the country’s ethnic Russian population, however, which had formed the backbone of its educated elite, had left, as had most of the country’s native intelligentsia.

Nearly 15 years later, with stringent restrictions on the media and freedom of association, rampant corruption, nepotism, perpetually rigged elections and a judiciary that is neither independent nor qualified, Tajikistan is far from being a democracy. The country’s political culture was aptly summarized in a diplomatic cable publicized by Wikileaks, in which an official from the U.S. Embassy in Dushanbe reported, “From the President down to the policeman on the street, government is characterized by cronyism and corruption. [President Emomali] Rahmon and his family control the country’s major businesses, including the largest bank, and they play hardball to protect their business interests, no matter the cost to the economy writ large. And its gradual expulsion of former opposition members from government posts has disrupted the early promise of reconciliation. It is, however, the only country in Central Asia to allow an officially registered Islamic political party; the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRP) serves as the country’s main opposition. This is no small thing, given the ways in which the other post-Soviet Central Asian regimes have capitalized on the threat of militant Islam to clamp down on political freedom and wring support from the West. While not nearly as brutal as the regime of the President of Uzbekistan, Islam Karimov, Rahmon’s government consistently earns low marks from human rights monitors; he has served since 1994 and forced through constitutional amendments in 2003 allowing him to stay in office until 2020. Nonetheless, given its 700-mile long southern border with Afghanistan, Tajikstan has won an increasing amount of American security aid over the past decade.

To be sure, the end of the civil war did not bring about the end of Islamic militancy in Tajikistan. Armed resistance persists in the form of former UTO fighters who balked at the 1997 peace deal, as well as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, an al-Qaeda-inspired militant organization founded in the late 1990s and believed to be operating within Tajik territory. The IMU seeks to overthrow the ardently secular Central Asian regimes and replace them with Islamic states. In recent years, too, Taliban fighters have been suspected of using southern Tajikistan as a sanctuary from the battle in Afghanistan. The government’s ability to confront these insurgents is made all the more difficult given Dushanbe’s inability to exert authority over large swaths of its territory, 93 percent of which is mountainous. The regime has taken measures to combat that threat, however, that seem to go well beyond its stated goals of eliminating terrorist cells and reducing the conditions of radicalization. Indeed, some of its actions may be exacerbating the problem.


To get to the Tajik village of Chorkuh, or Four Mountains, in the northern district of Isfara, one must pass through neighboring Kyrgyzstan multiple times. There are few if any border demarcations; the only way I could tell I wasn’t in Tajikistan at any given moment was by the giant political party billboards advertising the parliamentary elections that had taken place in Kyrgyzstan the previous month. Isfara is located in the Fergana Valley, a broad, fertile expanse shared by Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Thanks to deliberately divisive Stalin-era boundary markings, the region is a flashpoint for disputes between the three states. It doesn’t help that 300 miles’ worth of border—more than twenty years after the collapse of the Soviet Union—is not even officially demarcated.

The situation has deteriorated dramatically over the past year. In April, clashes broke out when a group of Kyrgyz citizens closed a road passing through their village to a Tajik enclave surrounded by Kyrgyz territory. The month prior, Kyrgyz border guards allegedly burned down hundreds of apricot trees that were the property of a Tajik family.

These border disputes have taken place amid an atmosphere of increasing regional instability and Islamic terrorism. In April 2010, an angry mob forced the authoritarian Kyrgyz President Kurmanbeck Bakiyev from power, five years after the “Tulip Revolution” had ousted his predecessor Askar Akayev, a similarly corrupt and nepotistic ruler. Two months later, massive riots engulfed the southern Kyrgyz cities of Osh and Jalalabad, with ethnic Uzbeks bearing the brunt of the violence from their Kyrgyz neighbors. Hundreds were killed and an estimated 400,000 people fled.

In August, more than two dozen prisoners, many with suspected links to the IMU, escaped from a jail in central Dushanbe, just a stone’s throw from the president’s office. The following month, a previously unknown group called Jamaat Ansarullah claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing on a police station in the northern Tajik provincial capital of Khujand. Several weeks later, the IMU attacked a convoy of Tajik soldiers in the eastern Rasht valley, killing dozens and warning that it had more such “plans.” In late October, police raided a house in the village of Chorkuh that they claimed was housing terrorists; three alleged militants were killed in the operation. And a few days later, the wife of an alleged regional leader of the IMU blew herself up with a grenade following a shoot-out with police in the nearby village of Childukhtaron, earning the dubious distinction of becoming Tajikistan’s first female suicide bomber.

The government intimated that the upsurge in violence was being orchestrated by Abdullo Hakimov, also known as Mullo Abdullo, a former member of the United Tajik Opposition who rejected the 1997 peace agreement and joined the IMU. Tajikistan’s most wanted man, Abdullo allegedly fled to Afghanistan in 2000 but was rumored to have returned in 2009 as part of a broader retreat of Central Asian militants spurred on by increased American drone attacks. According to a Taliban intelligence officer interviewed late last year by Newsweek, between “100 and 150 IMU jihadists have made the trip” to Tajikistan. (Jihadists aren’t the only contraband crossing the mountainous, sparsely guarded Tajik-Afghan border; an estimated 30 percent of all Afghan heroin makes its way through Tajikistan to Russia and Europe.) Abdullo has never made a public statement or given a media interview. The only physical evidence of his existence is a grainy, old photograph on a “WANTED” poster.

The Isfara district is noticeably more religious than the rest of Tajikistan. Despite the official ban of the hijab, nearly all of the women here wear some sort of headcovering. The IRP claims to have at least 4,500 members in Isfara, more than any other region in the country. Local media have dubbed the region, which borders both Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, the “Islamic Triangle.” Yet in Dushanbe, the American Ambassador Kenneth E. Gross told me that while he has noticed that “people are becoming more Islamic” throughout the country, he “can’t say [Isfara] is a hotbed of anti-government or Islamic radicals.” Having served earlier as Deputy Chief of Mission in Tajikistan from 2002–04, Gross spoke with the advantage of some perspective. It is not entirely clear whose impressions of Isfara are most accurate.

Those Tajik Muslims who are visible in the practice of their faith do so in increasing defiance of the government. All mosques and imams must be registered with the state. President Rahmon has recently claimed that there are 1,250 “illegal mosques across the country”, meaning that they are operating without state approval. The government compels students to seek official permission before studying at overseas madrasas, where, it claims (not without reason, particularly in the case of Arab countries and Pakistan), they are being inculcated with extremist ideas. Last August, Rahmon implored parents with children studying at foreign madrasas to bring them home. “The majority of them [will] turn into extremists and terrorists in five, ten years time”, he said in a state television address. “They don’t only study religion there. They will come back and create problems for the nation and government.” After forcing these students to return, however, the government did not provide them with alternative educational activities in Tajikistan, essentially creating a pool of idle men susceptible to the enticements of jihadist recruiters. The IRP, which like Islamic parties across the Muslim world has begun to take up social work as a key element of its electoral strategy, has openly criticized this policy.


Rashidkhon Saidmuhammadov is the gentle-voiced imam of Chorkuh’s Hoji Haidarkhon Ibn Mirzojura Grand Mosque, located a few blocks from the alleged terrorist headquarters that police had firebombed just days earlier. He has preached here for nearly two decades. “Authorities exaggerate the risk of militancy in Isfara”, he tells me, sitting on the floor of the prayer room. He is suspicious of the government’s allegations about the men it has killed or arrested, not only because authorities claimed to have conveniently found a list of IRP members in the burned-down house but also because “such an incident has never happened here before.” (Searching the remains of the house, I found a handful of conspicuously placed condoms still in their packages, which may have belonged to the home’s erstwhile occupants, or, as I suspect, were placed there by authorities to discredit the ostensibly chaste, pious Muslim inhabitants.)

In Saidmuhammadov’s telling, the vast majority of Tajik Muslims are peaceful and law-abiding. Those who do not fit this description are driven to their radicalism by their understandable aversion to the government’s “fight against Islam.” He points to parts of that “fight” that indeed seem meddlesome: laws prohibiting men from growing long beards, from praying during work hours, and recently-imposed limits on the amount of money individuals can spend on religious ceremonies such as weddings, funerals or celebrations of the prophet Muhammad’s birthday. And he draws a line connecting what he considers to be aggressive actions “against Islam”—like the American-led wars against Saddam Hussein and the Taliban—to Tajik government policies. “It is the case everywhere in the world, not only in this small village”, he says. “The wrong policies create Islamic extremism.”

That said, Saidmuhammadov has no sympathy for the tactics or rationales of Islamists. He tells me it is haram (forbidden) “to impose Islam on somebody else.” Faithful Muslims in Tajikistan can join the IRP “if they want to serve Islam”, and he gives rare credit to the Tajik government, in contrast to the others in Central Asia, for allowing “more religious freedom to people” by permitting such a party to exist. “Islam itself is a moderate religion; it is flexible, adaptable in whatever way you want to live. It finds solutions, as opposed to what extremists say.”


Akbar Turajonzoda, a Senator in the Tajik Assembly, used to be the highest Muslim authority in the land and was a leader of the UTO during the civil war. He says that the government is using Abdullo as a “pretext” for keeping the populace on edge. Abdullo, he tells me, “has become some kind of ghost, like bin Laden.” Asked about the term “Islamic Triangle” to describe Isfara, he says, “I am sure that if governments in the region are planning to turn Isfara into such a triangle, yes, it’s definitely going to happen.” He condemns both the Iranian government and the Taliban for forcing women to wear the hijab, yet says that is no better than Tajikistan’s banning it. And he extols America as an exemplar of religious freedom. “We want a secular country, like America or India, all religions are free there. Unfortunately, we have secular extremism in our country.” I began to feel that the regime’s depiction of him as some sort of radical is not accurate.

In his travels to the United States, Turajonzoda says, he has told American lawmakers that “if you don’t want to see Tajikistan turn into Afghanistan and Iraq, try to make sure that Tajikistan becomes a democratic country.” India, he tells me, has a huge Muslim minority, but no Islamic extremism. Why? “Because it is a democratic country. Those Muslims have no reason to be extremists.” While Islamic militancy does indeed exist in Tajikistan and Central Asia more broadly, he says, its scale is exaggerated “to strengthen autocratic regimes in the region and suppress opposition. . . . When you follow Tajik state media . . . you would feel that the government wants to spread some message that right now democracy is not important.”

That incrementalist view is widespread. Jumaboi Sanginov, a Tajik parliamentarian and member of the governing People’s Democratic Party, told me that the “Tajik mentality” is an “eastern mentality”, which is difficult for Westerners like me to understand. A doctor by profession, Sanginov waded into phrenology, stating, “even by anthropology, the skulls of eastern people are different from those of Westerners.” Tajikistan is “definitely going to be a democratic society”, but it will “take many things, financial, economic development” being chief among them, for these changes to take effect. “You cannot change people’s mentality overnight.”

Sanginov’s explanation for his country’s predicament would find favor with many, if not most, Tajiks. It would be wrong to characterize Tajikistan as a place where a despised dictator rules over an oppressed and restive populace, as was the case in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and some of the other Middle Eastern states that have recently experienced revolutionary turbulence. By most accounts, Rahmon is popular, credited for rescuing the country from the depths of civil war. (“He brought peace. He’s a great man”, a woman in Khujand told me, specifically praising Rahmon for the women’s empowerment programs that allowed her to become the head of a silk factory.) Unlike neighboring Kyrgyzstan, with its large Uzbek minority, Tajikistan is mostly homogenous. And given the memory of Taliban rule in neighboring Afghanistan and the carnage that continues to take place there, Rahmon’s policies toward the practice of Islam and tough approach to dealing with militants are not altogether unpopular.

In Chorkuh, I had lunch with an elderly man who, in between shedding tears over his recently deceased wife, let me know what he thought about the presence of suspected Islamic extremists in his village. “I don’t believe that Muslims, Christians, Jews should be separate”, he told me, explaining that there are just “two categories” of people, “good and bad.” Hizb ut-Tahrir, a pan-Islamic organization that seeks the restoration of a global caliphate and is banned throughout Central Asia, should be re-named “Hizb ut-evil.”

In his view, indeed, the Tajik government, far from being too repressive, is too feeble. “The reason for this militancy is that the government is not strict enough”, he tells me. During the years of Soviet rule in Tajikistan, he says, “Prisons were bad. Prisoners there were tortured. Now this government has turned the prison into a spa”, referring to the massive jailbreak in Dushanbe two months prior. Having worked as a food supplier for Soviet-era prisons, he has little sympathy for the alleged Islamic militants that the regime routinely jails. “Why do they need food?” he asks. “Just shoot them.”

The Tajik government’s response to the conundrum of Islamic militancy is schizophrenic. On the one hand, it claims that the domestic situation is highly dangerous, that the threat of militant Islam is rising and thus its increasingly harsh measures are justified (though, as a Foreign Ministry spokesman was quick to assure me, “In Tajikistan, there is no pressure on Islam”). On the other hand, when presented with questions about why there have been so many attacks by militants, attacks that have incurred huge casualties on the government side (at least eighty soldiers died in last year’s Rasht operation, and according to the International Crisis Group, the assault has left the country’s counterterrorism unit with just over thirty men), the government insists that it “is in control of the situation”, as the same spokesman told me.

Underlying this dual narrative is the regime’s lack of transparency. State media barely reports on military operations, except when the regime manages to kill this or that militant commander, as the Interior Ministry did this past April in claiming that it had killed Abdullo. President Rahmon’s white whale had finally been bagged in the Rasht valley, the government announced, along with ten other insurgents.

Islamic militants do not pose an existential threat to the Tajik state. And the memories of the civil war, still fresh nearly 15 years after its conclusion, augur against Tajikistan’s experiencing the sort of unrest that has taken place in the Middle East. What the regime’s Islamic opponents do, however, is provide a useful foil for a corrupt government, which, like the Arab despotisms that have already been overthrown or are in deep trouble, holds up the specter of Islamism as an excuse for its continued authoritarianism.

While I obviously do not wish to see Islamist movements gain greater influence in Central Asia, nor do I want the region’s police states to harden further. I am thus left pondering the parting words of Imam Saidmuhammadov, who ominously warns that Tajikistan’s attempt to dampen the flame of the rising appeal of Islam is sure to backfire: “Islam is like a small fire. If you don’t touch it, it stays there like it is. When you want to move it, it spreads everywhere. And when fires go everywhere, they burn everything.”

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