The Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan is the only officially recognized, faith-based party in Central Asia. But Tajik President Imomali Rahmon’s administration appears to be taking aim at the party as part of a general crackdown against Islamic extremism.
Pressure on the IRPT began in the fall, amid a resurgence of Islamic militant activity in the Rasht Valley, south of the Tajik capital Dushanbe. An effective information blackout surrounded government counter-insurgency operations in the valley. Meanwhile, authorities implemented an array of measures, including mass arrests, designed to contain the spread of radical Islamic beliefs.
In October, police raided the IRPT headquarters, disrupting Friday prayers and seizing computer discs and literature. This was followed by a mysterious fire at the party’s cultural center, commonly known as the “women’s mosque.” And in early 2011, Suhrob Sharipov, director of the Center for Strategic Research, a think-tank linked to the president’s office, complained that the IRPT benefited from too much media attention.
Party members are expressing concern that they are being unfairly linked by members of security services to Islamic militants. Comments by officials do nothing to dispel such impressions. An Interior Ministry source, speaking on condition of anonymity, told EurasiaNet.org that members of the security services are intent on protecting the secular state from the IRPT’s “minority of radical people.”
“The IRPT are fundamentalists,” the Interior Ministry official stated. “While they appear to be democratic and liberal, this is all a facade. They want to turn Tajikistan into an Islamic state. With more and more people choosing the radical path, they are gaining support. … We do not bully the opposition. We only ensure they act within the laws of the country.”
IRPT Chairman Muhiddin Kabiri insists that the party, which has over 40,000 members, represents a loyal opposition to the government. “We want a democratic, secular state with the rule of law,” Kabiri told EurasiaNet.org, adding that the IRPT is “trying to operate within the framework of the law and not be involved in any provocative situations.”
Kabiri also contends that restrictive government policies concerning religious expression are driving young people in the direction of radicalization.
Of late, the party has struggled to counter a perception that it is a tool of foreign interests. “It is common knowledge that the party draws funding from Islamic charities in the Middle East, from places like Saudi Arabia,” said the Interior Ministry source. Kabiri asserted that over 80 percent of the party’s funding comes from members who pay between one somoni ($0.23) and 100 somoni ($23) per month in dues.
Born out of the armed opposition in Tajikistan’s 1992-97 civil war, the peace deal that ended the fighting allotted the IRPT a 30-percent share of governmental posts. Since the signing of the peace pact in 1997, however, Rahmon’s administration has steadily pushed IRPT members out of positions of power. Today the party holds no ministerial portfolios, and controls just two of the 63 seats in parliament.
While the government may be keen on neutralizing the IRPT, disbanding the party is not in the authorities’ interest, argued Adeeb Khalid, an expert on religion in Central Asia and author of the acclaimed book, Islam after Communism. “The most important thing about the IRPT is that it exists,” Khalid told EurasiaNet.org. The Tajik government has an interest in the continued existence of the IRPT, he believes, to demonstrate that it is tolerant.
Under the present, adverse conditions, Kabiri continues to advocate gradual change, certain he has time on his side and the support of the younger generation. “We are the only party that listens to people’s problems,” he reasoned.
Commenting on the recent upheaval in Tunisia and Egypt, Kabiri said he didn’t expect anything similar to occur in Tajikistan. However, the protests in North Africa are “a signal for governments that people want change. Governments need to lead reform themselves. Change should not come from the streets.”