The Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), the second-largest political party in the country and the only Islamic political party legally registered in Central Asia, is days away from being closed down.
According to an August 28 order from Tajikistan's Justice Ministry, the IRPT must cease all its activities by September 7, two days before Tajikistan's Independence Day.
Many, including the IRPT, accuse Tajik President Emomali Rahmon of orchestrating a protected campaign to remove the IRPT as a political force in the country's politics. If that is true then Rahmon appears to have succeeded, but there will likely be some consequences from the IRPT's closure.
Why the Tajik government would want to close down the IRPT, why it is happening now, and what happens next were the topics of a panel discussion organized by RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk.
(NOTE: This podcast was recorded on September 2, two days before the violence near Dushanbe that Tajik authorities allege involved at least one former opposition field commander.)
Azatlyk director Mohammad Tahir moderated the discussion. Participating were Habibullo Kurbon, editor at the independent Tajik newspaper Nigoh (View), and Edward Lemon, a doctoral candidate at the U.K.'s University of Exeter who lived in Tajikistan and continues to keep close watch on events there. I, as always, said some things as well.
The IRPT was once the main partner in an alliance that fought against government forces during the 1992-97 Tajik civil war. The IRPT and its allies signed a peace agreement with the government in June 1997. The unique peace deal legalized the wartime opponents' political parties and granted them 30 percent of places in government at all levels from village to ministerial.
The opposition's share in government has gradually been eroded since then and following this year's parliamentary elections in March, no opposition politicians remain in any branch of Tajikistan's national government.
Lemon called the August 28 order from the Justice Ministry "quite a surprising move because the Islamic Renaissance Party was always in a way a useful tool for the government in terms of its international relations with other Islamic countries, in terms of giving an impression that the country is in some way democratic."
Kurbon said the IRPT's popularity has been growing for years. "This party has the backing of society," he said, adding that in Tajikistan, where a post-Soviet religious revival in well under way, "the word ‘Islam' helps this party to involve more and more supporters."
But Lemon said it had been clear for some time that Rahmon's government was moving to eventually neutralize the IRPT. "Since the end of the civil war in 1997 the regime has arrested, exiled and sometimes killed its major opponents and I guess people in Dushanbe in the regime have got to the point where they believe that the party is no longer a useful tool," Lemon explained.
Lemon said the regime seemed to feel secure enough now to take this final step to eliminate the IRPT, and some reasons for this feeling of security were mentioned in the discussion.
Also mentioned was the growing economic trouble in Tajikistan (and throughout Central Asia) and that the Tajik government might wish at this time to silence any potential domestic sources of criticism as the country enters a trying and uncertain period.
It was also noted that growing global concern about Islamic extremist groups helped pave the way for Tajik authorities to allege the IRPT provided a "gateway" of sorts for recruiting. In recent days some in the Tajik government have made clumsy attempts to connect the IRPT and the Islamic State (IS) militant group in Iraq and Syria.
Kurbon rejected that connection, saying, "The chairman of the party, [Muhiddin] Kabiri, several times stressed that their party is against this Islamic State and the Islamic State also several times announced that Kabiri would be killed, they sentenced him to death."
Such an allegation by Tajik authorities could also be seen as an attempt to distract attention from the fact that the best-known citizen of Tajikistan fighting in the ranks of IS is Gulmurod Halimov, who was previously a commander of Tajikistan's Interior Ministry troops.
It was generally agreed there is little the IRPT can do to prevent its activities from being banned. "The Tajik opposition has no tribune to raise their voice," Kurbon said, and Lemon pointed out that "in June, Jumhuriyat, the state-controlled paper, published an article alleging that Muhiddin Kabiri, the party leader, was involved in fraudulent property transactions and now he's in self-imposed exile."
Both Kurbon and Lemon believe the authorities will not pursue any campaign against IRPT members after the party is officially disbanded and both also said there was little likelihood that IRPT members would now seek to create problems inside Tajikistan or go abroad to join radical Islamic groups.
"Most of the young supporters among the IRPT, most of them although they are religious and believe religion should play some sort of a role in politics they often do not agree with the very extremist, jihadist views of groups like [IS] so I don't think that risk is too great," Lemon said.
Kurbon said, "There are also voices [favoring] opening a new party...but they know that in Tajikistan it is almost impossible to register a new party, political party, it is very, very difficult if you are an opponent of the government."
It was the opinion of the panel that once the IRPT is gone from Tajikistan's political scene it is likely to be many years before there is another legally registered Islamic political party in Tajikistan or anywhere else in Central Asia.
But as Lemon suggested, inevitably Islam will play a role in Central Asian politics. "The regimes are faced with an increasingly religious population who are demanding that religion play an increased role in politics but obviously being raised in the Soviet Union, the current elite is unwilling to listen to the demands from the more religious people within their society and obviously this is not a sustainable model and eventually religion will have to be better incorporated into the political system in Central Asia."
The discussion dealt with these issues in greater detail as well as touching on other subjects. You can listen to the full discussion below: