In our reporting of various regions especially in Central Asia, we have always identified Tajikistan as a special place in the former Soviet Union (FSU) where an Islamic socio-political movement could establish a viable governing system. Our optimism is not only derived from the fact that it is the only Central Asian country with an officially registered Islamic party (Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan, IRPT) that played a role in the government, but also from the fact that it was the first place in the FSU region where an Islamic socio-political movement led by the ‘ulama offered sacrifices for Tajikistan’s independence and the current political setup.
This might appear familiar background for many Islamic movements worldwide, but for the FSU region this aspect is especially significant as after 75 years of Russian colonialism masked as communism, most Muslims in the Caucasus and Central Asia almost completely lost their Islamic identity. For a movement like the IRPT to emerge in 1989 as a leading socio-political force, is a clear sign that the Tajik society has a special relationship with Islam. Unlike their brethren in the rest of Central Asia and the Caucasus, the Tajiks somehow managed to maintain their Islamic consciousness throughout Soviet rule.
The UN-brokered peace agreement of June 27, 1997, promised the United Tajik Opposition (UTO) where the IRPT played a leading role, 30% of government positions. This promise, however, was never kept and today the IRPT faces severe repression.
News from Tajikistan over the last two years and particularly during the past several months has turned Tajikistan from a potential role model, to one of a case study for Islamic movements about what mistakes must not to be made in order to avoid failure.
In May 2015 the failure of the IRPT reached a degree where according to Eurasianet.org, Tajikistan’s unelected regime was “considering a bill that would forbid the Justice Ministry from registering names it thinks sound too Arabic.” In June 2015, the IRPT leader Muhiddin Kabiri announced to Eura-sianet.org that he was embarking on a period of self-imposed exile in Moscow over fears that the government planned to jail him on fabricated charges. Was this a wise or appropriate move?
How did the IRPT, a grassroots Islamic socio-political movement with 40,000 official members and a potent military force sink to this level of impotence? There are four basic responses to this question:
a. IRPT embroiled itself in the artificial and illegitimate socio-political process outlined by the autocratic regime;
b. it embarked on the disarmament process hastily and in a very naive manner;
c. the ‘ulama stopped being the main vanguard of leadership; and
d. the IRPT failed to see that the presence of Russian military bases in the country would be used as a military and political leverage by Emomali Rahmonov’s regime against it.
Under the present circumstances, it appears that the IRPT can do little to regenerate itself and restore its socio-political standing among the masses. Emergence of the NATO facilitated takfir-oriented groups in Tajikistan is further complicating the situation for the IRPT.
There are two options that might propel the IRPT back into high-gear politics. The first would be to restart a civil war that would erupt primarily due to the regime’s political repression; this is not likely to happen anytime soon as Rahmonov’s regime tightly controls the Tajik society and enjoys strong backing from Moscow. Second, the IRPT’s regeneration might come from Afgha-nistan. This is a long-term possibility. The Tajik minority in Afghanistan plays a prominent role in Afghanistan’s political, economic and military establishment. Like most people in Afgha-nistan, many Tajiks are Islamic minded and have sympathy for the IRPT.
Sympathy and political connections between the IRPT and the Tajiks in Afghanistan date back to the civil war years of the 1990s and can turn into an opportunity for the IRPT once NATO-Russian tensions in Ukraine reverberate in Central Asia. The Tajiks in Afgha-nistan are free from Rahmonov’s repressive political machinery and possess financial resources beyond the reach of the dictator in Dushanbe. If the Afghan Tajiks decide to enter the political landscape of their historic homeland, the IRPT would be their natural ally. For this to happen though, events in Afghanistan must necessitate the Afghan Tajiks’ entry into Tajikistan politics. But what would trigger this scenario is the million dollar question. Rising NATO-Russia tensions could certainly be one of the possibilities.
Challenges can be turned into opportunities provided the IRPT plays its role properly. The starting point would be to revive the trust of the people by showing leadership and giving them a directional course. Abandoning the field may not be the wisest course since it would give the oppressors a free hand to do what they like. Islam does not encourage its followers to abandon the struggle, leaving transformative change to the next generation. Sacrifices are a natural part of any struggle without which little is achieved. The IRPT leadership must re-evaluate its strategy and formulate policies accordingly. Tajikistan is much too important a country to be left in the hands of tyrants and oppressors.