Police in Tajikistan have reportedly arrested Salafist leader Muhammadi Rahmatullo in what appears on first sight to be an extension of the extensive crackdown against the country’s devout Muslims.
Some aspects of Rahmatullo’s activities, however, hint at a slightly less straightforward story.
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Tajik service, Ozodi, reported on February 11 that Rahmatullo, who is better known as Mullah Muhammadi, faces three charges, including one for allegedly inciting religious tensions.
Not much is known about Rahmatullo.
In January 2015, local media cited his relatives as saying that he had been detained by police, but the Interior Ministry later denied the report.
Some time later, weekly newspaper Faraj published an article under Rahmatullo’s byline in which the writer condemned the opposition Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), which has since been banned and designated a terrorist organization.
In the piece, Rahmatullo claimed that the IRPT was financed by “foreign governments” and argued that Tajikistan had no need for such parties.
He further stated that the IRPT was to blame for the devastating civil war of the 1990s and said the party had links to Iran. He suggested that the IRPT should be disbanded.
Despite being a member of a group also designated as an extremist organization, Rahmatullo had his piece published in several other publications, including ones owned by the government, as well as on the site of the ruling National Democratic Party of Tajikistan.
Another Salafist, Eshoni Sirojiddin, was also enlisted to smear the IRPT. Sirojiddin was jailed in 2009 along with his son, but was later released in an amnesty. He is still believed to be out of prison.
Last year, Rahmatullo condemned the Islamic State group as “the house of the devil” and called members of the terrorist organization “non-Muslims.” He also excoriated Tajik youths joining the ranks of the Islamic State, which he dubbed a “product of Israel” and “puppet of the Mossad.”
Rahmatullo’s arrest at this stage appears to suggest that having successfully been used as a tool to discredit the IRPT, he can now be dispensed with.
Some local observers have speculated that a new wave of repression may have been initiated against the Salafists out of spite following President Emomali Rahmon’s failure to secure more generous financial aid from Saudi Arabia during a recent visit to the country.
Salafism is held up by its followers as an adherence to an unsullied form of Islam. While ostensibly 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.
Believers in Salafism do not acknowledge the legitimacy of other forms of Islamic worship, including Shi'ism and Sufism. The current first appeared in Tajikistan in the early 2000s, having been brought back to the country by Tajiks that had taken refuge in Pakistan during the civil war.
The movement was banned after a wave of mysterious blasts in Dushanbe in 2009. The Supreme Court decision banning the activities of the Salafist movement led to a sudden drop in the organization’s public profile. The movement was designated as extremist in 2014.
Curiously, it has long been gossiped, including by figures as senior as the chairman of the government-sponsored Council of Ulema, that Salafists have pursued a strategy of positioning its members within the government as part of designs to seize power.
Speaking in April 2014, chief mufti Saidmukarram Abdulkodirzoda said at a public event in the city of Kulyab that Salafists were actively propagating their beliefs in the halls of power and urged his listeners to curtail the spread of “alien and unhealthy ideas.” Abdulkodirzoda refrained from identifying any particular individuals.