Magazine Article - Far Eastern Economic Review

Tajiks Wrestle with Identity and Islam

| October 2007

When asked about the greatest difference between Muslims in Tajikistan and Muslims in other countries, Davlatmo Ismailova — or “Fatima,” as she prefers to be called—tells me that other Muslims have more freedom. Fatima would know. She is suing Tajikistan’s Ministry of Education for not allowing her to wear the hijab to her university classes.

It wasn’t always like this. Before the Soviets arrived to this part of Central Asia, sedentary women often wore the paranja robe that covered a woman’s entire body and face, leaving just a small opening for the eyes. Soviet officials forced women to remove this covering in the 1920s, and since then, the “traditional” Tajik dress has included a scarf, or platok (a Russian word), which women wear loosely on their heads. Unlike the platok, the hijab covers a woman’s entire head and neck. Today, more and more young women from mainstream society are opting to wear the latter. When Fatima decided to wear the hijab a few years ago, her parents initially advised against it. But Fatima pressed ahead with her decision — one that she believes should not be forced on any woman.

Soon after the government issued a regulation banning hijab at universities in April 2007, Fatima approached several lawyers when she was barred from classes. Shuhrat Kudratov took her case not because he supported establishing Islamic law in Tajikistan, but because he believed Fatima’s human rights were being violated. Although a judge threw out the case this past July, both Fatima and Mr. Kudratov vow to keep appealing.

The controversy surrounding Fatima’s case highlights a much larger social debate taking place in Tajikistan that touches on the themes of Islam, extremism and Tajik identity. Those who are suspicious view women who wear the hijab as attempting to spread an extremist ideology. Others point to the hijab as an example of Arab culture that has no place in Tajik society. There is even some skepticism about the sincerity of hijab-wearing women. One woman told me that young women in Dushanbe, the nation’s capital, wear the hijab only because it became fashionable after a popular Moroccan soap opera depicted beautiful women wearing headscarves.

The wearing of hijab should not be a cause for concern on its own. But when interest in Islam rises in Tajikistan, a country that not only has endured a bloody civil war itself but also borders volatile Afghanistan, government officials in Tajikistan begin to worry whether Islam will become more politicized. In fact, all the Central Asian governments have viewed warily the potential of Islam to threaten their authority and legitimacy. Notwithstanding the increased visibility of Islam recently, there has been little indication that people in Tajikistan want to incorporate it into the political system. However, through its overbearing attempts to control the debate on Islam, the Tajik government is alienating Tajik citizens and possibly even fueling what it deems illegal Islamic activity. As Tajikistanis begin to place importance on religion in their lives, the gulf between Tajikistan’s religious believers and secular government could become even wider.

In the Shadow of Somoni

About seven million people live in Tajikistan, a small, mountainous country in Central Asia. The country’s official language is Tajik, a language mutually intelligible with Iranian Persian. In Dushanbe, an enormous statue of Ismoil-i Somoni, the founder of the Samanid Dynasty, looms over the central square, reminding passers-by of the once great empire that spanned the region. According to the government’s version of history, the Tajik nation was born under the Samanids, who ruled a territory much larger than present-day Tajikistan from 819-999 A.D. During this period, the cities of Bukhara, Samarqand, and Herat were great centers of Islamic art and Persian language and literature.

After the Samanid Dynasty disintegrated, the Islamic-Persian culture of the Samanids survived over the centuries as various Turkic ruling dynasties vied for power in Central Asia, adopting and adapting the Samanids’ military and political traditions. Present-day Tajiks are taught in school that the Samanids were “Aryans” (that is, not Turks), whose glorious conquests were never repeated by another Persian dynasty in Central Asia. Despite the government’s propaganda, the cultural connection between present-day Tajiks and the Samanids is tenuous.

Tajikistan, as we know it today, has only existed since the Bolsheviks unilaterally demarcated its borders in the 1920s. Although the Soviets conceived of Tajikistan as the “homeland of the Tajiks,” the ancient Persian cities of Samarqand and Bukhara were conspicuously missing from Tajikistan’s territory, and many non-Tajiks called Tajikistan home. Tajikistan was the poorest and least developed Soviet republic.

Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost encouraged Soviet citizens to express their political views in the late 1980s. The Islamic Revival Party of the Soviet Union, formed in 1990, sought to increase the role of Islam in the politics of the republics. When the U.S.S.R. fell apart, Tajikistan’s local branch, the Islamic Revival Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), joined other pro-democracy parties to oppose the communist elite.

In the spring of 1992, demonstrations against the dubious results of Tajikistan’s first presidential election turned violent, and President Rahmon Nabiev lost control as Tajikistan descended into a brutal civil war that killed between 50,000-100,000 people. By the end of 1992, a new president from the city of Kulob, Emomali Rahmon, consolidated power in Dushanbe. The IRPT established the United Tajik Opposition (UTO) with other democratic and antigovernment forces against the new government, often using the territory of Afghanistan as a launching base for attacks on rivals in Tajikistan. Tajikistan’s civil war did not pit secularists against Islamists, as some have claimed. Regional competition, warlord ambitions, personal vendettas, and the intervention of Uzbekistan and Russia all played a part.

This past summer Tajikistan marked the 10th year anniversary of the 1997 peace agreement that officially ended the civil war. The peace agreement held promise for democracy. The UTO was slated 30% of senior government positions, with the majority going to the IRPT, the only legal Islamic party in Central Asia. Since then, however, President Rahmon has increased his authority through constitutional amendments and referenda, harassment and persecution of the opposition, and elimination of former allies who represented potential threats.

The U.S.S.R.’s demise and the Tajik civil war devastated Tajikistan’s economy. With the help of international assistance after 1997, and some reforms, the economy has expanded since 2000. The country’s GDP grew 9.6% from 2000-04, and the forecast for 2007-09 predicts continued moderate growth. Yet these improvements have not significantly enhanced the daily lives of average Tajikistanis. The majority lives in wretched poverty, with limited supplies of running water and electricity, while the gap between the rich and the poor continues to grow. Even worse, corruption is rampant, and the black market is flourishing from Afghan drug trafficking.

“Islamization” of Tajikistan?

Analysts often describe changes occurring in Muslim countries as an Islamic “revival” or “Islamization.” To describe what is happening in Tajikistan as an Islamic “revival” would assume that Islamic belief did not exist previously. True, the heavily secular nature of Tajikistan’s Soviet era meant that Islamic behavior was not conspicuous, but that does not mean it was not present. “Islamization,” on the other hand, assumes the role of religion in politics, and this is not the case in Tajikistan. If one defines “Islamization” as the increasingly overt display of religiosity, these assumptions can be avoided, and one can conclude that Islamization is taking place in Tajikistan.

Besides the wearing of hijab, other signs indicate an increased interest in Islam. While just a few years ago the sale of any kind of printed publication was almost nonexistent, Islamic literature now abounds at bazaars, small shops, underpasses, and outside Dushanbe’s main mosque. Islamic cassettes of unknown origin broadcast how women should behave according to the rules of Islam at bazaar stalls and in widely used public minivans. Finally, every Friday afternoon men crowd the buses to rush to the capital city’s main mosque, where attendance has visibly swelled.

Many are returning to religion because they can. The atheist Soviet regime closed down mosques, repressed religious leaders, and prohibited Islam from playing an important role in society. Participation in the hajj was restricted, circumcisions had to be performed secretly, and fasting and praying were all but abandoned. With independence and the end of the civil war, people are no longer reluctant to express their religiosity.

The U.S.S.R.’s collapse also ended Tajikistan’s isolation from the rest of the Muslim world, especially in the capital city. Satellite dishes receiving Iranian and Arabic channels crowd the rooftops, while Internet cafes are sprouting up throughout the entire city. Students are studying abroad in places like Turkey, Egypt, and Iran, and pilgrims are traveling to Mecca. As people learn more about Islam, many are trying to incorporate their newfound knowledge into their lives. The return to traditional values and Islam is also seen as a way to combat the escalation of social problems, such as alcoholism, heroin abuse, and prostitution. Many believe Islam can provide the needed comfort and strength to rescue someone from such social ills, especially when the government appears unable to provide solutions.

The rising visibility of Islam on the streets has provoked a social debate which reflects disagreement about religion’s appropriate role. Above all, many worry that an exaggerated emphasis on religion could instigate another conflict. The civil war is still fresh in the public mindset, and President Rahmon’s government often reminds Tajikistan’s citizens of the danger of extremism and the role of religion in politics. One scholar commented to me that as people are returning from trips to other Muslim countries with different interpretations of Islam, the relative unity of belief that previously existed is being threatened by competing Islamic ideologies. He noted the attractiveness of Salafism (a Sunni school of Islamic thought) among young people, though it is difficult to measure the extent of this fundamentalist ideology’s popularity. Regardless, his perception indicates that the very definition of Islam is being contested by Tajik society.

The turn to Islam is also perceived as a challenge to Tajik identity, as elements of Islam that are foreign to “traditional Tajik Islam,” such as the hijab, are introduced. The fall of the Soviet Union finally allowed Tajiks to celebrate their Muslim heritage, but this heritage has been affected by centuries of Russian and Soviet rule. As a result, the opinion that Tajiks are “traditionally” moderate Muslims who support the separation of religion and state is quite widespread. Some contrast Tajikistan with its more “extremist” neighbors of Afghanistan and Uzbekistan, for example.

Finally, there is skepticism about how deep the public embrace of Islam goes. Several interviewees observe that so-called believers are not acting as Muslims should. They point to young girls who wear hijab but still act inappropriately. Some believe that community leaders interpret Islam to aggrandize their own personal positions.

The sincerity of belief should not be dismissed so easily. Many, like Fatima, are wholeheartedly turning to religion. Despite the attention to Islam, however, a clear political message has not accompanied the Islamization of Tajikistan’s society. The interest in Western culture and values is also growing. Some young people want to live in a democratic and secular Tajikistan. Others long to wear “European clothing” and emulate Hollywood stars. Indeed, the number of women wearing hijab is increasing alongside the number of women wearing pants and skirts. It is difficult to tell whether the values of Islam or the West are prevailing, but Fatima’s case shows that one individual can embody both.

Stifling the Debate

Instead of playing a constructive role in this discussion, the government has decided to control and censor the public debate about Islam. Over the past 10 years, the government has attempted to ensure that Islam does not impact the political process. The 1994 Law on Religion and Religious Organizations outlines the rights of religious organizations and their activities, while the State Committee on Religious Affairs is responsible for implementing this law. Imams cannot participate in politics, nor can they issue fatwas. All religious organizations and their activities must be registered. The government has closed hundreds of unregistered mosques, trying to keep the number of mosques under a certain quota ‐ one per 15,000 residents. The heads of mosques are appointed, guaranteeing that Friday sermons adhere to the government line. Other restrictions ban the call to prayer using a loudspeaker and proscribe the use of Arabic script in public and Arabic language instruction. An even more restrictive law on religion will most likely be passed by the end of 2007. One of the new clauses bans the formation of religious parties, in effect criminalizing the IRPT.

The IRPT has been unable or unwilling to confront the government’s anti-Islamic regulations, further preventing Islam from playing a role in Tajikistan’s politics. Although in the 1990s the IRPT espoused political Islam and fought against the government, it toned down its rhetoric and accepted the secular nature of the state in order to participate in politics. Regardless, the government has attempted to undermine the IRPT by linking it to extremist and illegal activity. In 2002, President Rahmon implied in a speech that two Tajik prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay were connected to the IRPT, while in 2003 two IRPT senior leaders were convicted of murder and rape. The IRPT has refrained from strong protest. The recently deceased chairman of the IRPT, Said Abdullo Nuri, even praised President Rahmon for achieving peace and stability in Tajikistan. As a result, many view the party as having been co-opted by the government. With Nuri’s death, divisions between modernizers and traditionalists within the party have become more prominent, making it increasingly difficult for the IRPT to function effectively.

As a result of the government’s crackdown on religious activity and the IRPT’s ineffectiveness, many people are disenchanted with the country’s official politics. Their apathy sometimes causes them to turn to illegal organizations that critique the government and offer solutions that correspond more to their own beliefs. Several analysts have noted the increasing appeal of Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT), a worldwide political party that aims to establish a caliphate through nonviolent means. In Tajikistan the party portrays itself as one that can solve the country’s political, economic, and social problems by institutionalizing Islamic law and creating an Islamic state. But unlike, for instance, Hamas or Hizbullah, HT does not have the resources to provide direct social services to the poor. The government’s severity in dealing with HT supposed members has increased since the party was banned in 1999. This has resulted in growing public sympathy toward the organization.

It is encouraging that society’s Islamization has provoked a healthy debate about what role Islam should play in Tajikistan. For many like Fatima, it is an issue of human rights and freedom of religion. In simply censuring Islam, the government is missing out on an opportunity to play a constructive role in shaping the way Islam develops within its borders. Moreover, the government is only increasing the perception that it is out of step with Tajik society by attempting to control the debate on Islam, marginalize the IRPT, and crackdown on “terrorist” groups. At some point in the future, this tension may become unmanageable. Given Fatima’s failed lawsuit, the outlook isn’t promising.

Ms. Sypko is a research assistant at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University. A Title VIII U.S. State Department grant from the International Research & Exchanges Board Scholar Support Fund provided research support for this article. The views expressed are the author’s own.

For more information on this publication: Please contact the Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Sypko, Susan. “Tajiks Wrestle with Identity and Islam.” Far Eastern Economic Review, no. October 2007. October 2007,
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