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Qishloq Ovozi

Tajik President Emomali Rahmon

Qishloq Ovozi is once again pleased to present the work of an up-and-coming authority in the field of Central Asian studies. Edward Lemon has written many articles recently about the role of religion in Tajikistan and about citizens of Tajikistan who leave the country to wage jihad. He has also been one of the panelists at a roundtable hosted by RFE/RL's Turkmen Service.

Below, he looks at the Tajik government's policy of promoting secularism and of attempting to exert as much control as possible over the Islam inside the country.

Tajikistan's Assertive Secularism

According to the first line of its constitution, "The Republic of Tajikistan is a sovereign, democratic, law-governed, secular, and unitary state." President Emomali Rahmon frequently repeats this mantra; he has uttered this precise phrase over 50 times in his speeches over the past five years. Indeed, secularism ("dunyaviyat" in Tajik) plays a profound role in the way politics is practiced in Tajikistan.

Secularism offers a way of understanding and living in the world. Tajik secularism has its origins in 70 years of Soviet repression of religion. As historian Adeeb Khalid astutely observes, Soviet rule created a "secular Islam" in Central Asia. Islam is a key part of regional identity; it separates "locals" from Slavs. Popular understandings of Islam do not correspond with a strictly defined set of beliefs or practices. One does not have pray five times a day, donate money to charity, visit Mecca or fast during Ramadan to be Muslim. For many Central Asians, drinking alcohol and being Muslim are not viewed as contradictory practices.

Such positions are now being challenged by a young population taking greater interest in their faith. I was interested to observe at a wedding in Vanj during the summer of 2013 that it was only the older men who were surreptitiously imbibing vodka; younger men shunned drinking as un-Islamic. Regardless of whether the religiosity of the population is on the rise, secularism continues to inform the way most officials and academics think about politics.

What exists in Tajikistan, however, is not secularism where religion and non-religion are treated on an equal basis, but a secularism where certain forms of religion and non-religion are prioritized while others are suppressed. In this assertive secularism, the state can regulate religion, but religion cannot influence the state. Continuing in the footsteps of its Soviet predecessor, the Tajik government has promoted a good, national religion and restricted bad, foreign forms of Islam.

Why pursue such an assertively secular policy? The answer is twofold. First, for the government secularism is intertwined with a particular imagining of modernity. President Rahmon is seeking to emulate Western liberal democracies, which emerged from the Wars of Religion and -- so the theory goes -- expunged religious influences from politics. Second, secularism is seen as a means to guarantee national security; religion has the potential to destabilize the peace that the regime has fought so hard to protect.

Two secularist standpoints on religion emerge from this. First, following Marx, religion is seen as epiphenomenal; it merely forms a mask for other interests. According to this view -- and I have heard it espoused by a number of leading thinkers in the country -- the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRPT) is not religious at all. Instead, it uses religion as a recruitment tool. In turn, IRPT deputy Mahmadali Hait has stated that the Islamic State may profess its adherence to religion, but it is really interested in earning money.

According to a second secularist viewpoint, religion is seen as dangerous. A recent row between the Academy of Sciences and IRPT illustrates this way of thinking. The argument began when staunch atheist and member of the Academy of Sciences Hafiz Bobyorov likened the IRPT to the Taliban or the Islamic State (IS) militant group. All three of these organizations "speak on behalf of God and Muslims; this is in itself a threat," Bobyorov told RFE/RL's Tajik Service. In the interview, Boboyorov argued that religion in itself does not pose a danger, it is only when religion is politicized that it becomes threatening. His opinion seems to be shared by many Tajik officials, including Rahmon himself who frequently warns of the danger posed by radical Islam.

For the government, secularism is the panacea to the affliction of radical Islam. At school, teachers encourage young people to internalize secular and patriotic values. This approach is enshrined in the 2011 law on parental responsibility, which banned young people from mosques and told parents to raise children with "humanist, patriotic values." In early January, over eight thousand students from Sughd province sent a letter to the IRPT calling it to renounce the influence of religion over politics. According to the letter, which was read on state television, "Tajikistan needs educated professionals, rather than a religious political party." Religion is rendered a dangerous force that requires disciplining through assertive secularism.

Radical Islamists, according to this logic, have either been duped or lost their way. Debates surrounding radicalization in Tajikistan have become de-politicized. Those who join extremist groups lack knowledge of Islam, are poor or suffer from psychological problems.

What is left out from these debates is the role played by state secularism itself. The extremist groups themselves often cite the anti-religious policy of the government as a main cause for jihad. In a video posted to the Russian social networking site Odnoklassniki (Classmates) in December by a 26-year-old user calling himself Mujahed Kulyaba, a young Tajik militant fighting with the Islamic States berates the kufr (nonreligious) policies of the Tajik authorities.

Rather than creating security for the Tajik people, state secularism breeds insecurity. Banning children from mosques, restricting access to Islamic education and criminalizing Salafism merely pushes more young people into the arms of radical groups.

American philosopher William Connolly in his groundbreaking book "Why I am not a Secularist," argues that secularism prioritizes non-religion over religion. Despite claiming to pursue the goals of diversity and freedom, secularism slips into the realm of intolerance by asserting it is the only legitimate form of living. For true pluralism to exist, both religion and non-religion need to be respected. To achieve this, the government of Tajikistan would have to desist in its assertive secularist interventions in religious life and embrace the myriad practices of its diverse population.

Edward is a PhD candidate at the University of Exeter focusing on Central Asia and Russia. In his research, he examines the securitization of Tajik migrants in Russia. Currently based in Moscow, he has spent over two years living and working in Central Asia. His first peer reviewed journal article, which focused on political violence in Tajikistan, was published in Central Asian Affairs in September 2014. His work has been published on, BBC Uzbek, and the Geopolitical Monitor.

Writing about the siege of Geok-Tepe, a contemporary reporter said "no one was spared, not even young children or the elderly. All were mercilessly cut down by Russian sabers."

January 12 is usually "Memory Day" in Turkmenistan but not this year.

The Turkmen authorities announced some months back that Memory Day was being merged with another somber anniversary, which annually marks the October 6, 1948 earthquake that nearly flattened the capital Ashgabat.

Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov did not offer any reason for transferring Memory Day, officially a holiday since 1990, but then he and his government rarely offer reasons for their actions.

But there are some who feel forgetting to mark Memory Day is a nod to Russia, or rather a sign that the Turkmen government does not wish to offend the Kremlin. Some of my colleagues at RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, told me that starting several years ago Turkmen officials stopped mentioning Russia specifically when speaking about Memory Day and referred instead to the "enemy."

Memory Day marks a black moment in the history of the Turkmen; their disastrous defeat at the fortress of Geok-Tepe in 1881. The battle was the last major battle tsarist forces would fight against the Turkmen and the area that is now Turkmenistan would remain under Moscow's control from then until 1991.

For the Turkmen, the defeat at Geok-Tepe was not simply a loss; it was a catastrophe.

Tsarist forces had been steadily moving from their Caspian coast bases into the land of Turkmenistan since the early 1870s. The Turkmen at that time were nomadic raiders of the desert and had lived for centuries plundering caravans and taking slaves, including Russians who began to show up in the area in the 18th century as the tsarist army spearheaded Russia's expansion into Central Asia.

Russian forces had already attacked Geok-Tepe, a fortified city of some 40,000, in 1879 but they arrived for the battle in small numbers (some 4,000) and without sufficient supplies to maintain the siege. When the Russians attempted to force the issue by launching a frontal assault on the fortress they were beaten back with heavy losses and forced to retreat into the desert to reach the Caspian Sea coast. Several hundred Russian soldiers were killed and many more taken captive, along with their weapons, in Russia's worst defeat in Central Asia since Khiva in 1717.

The general who was responsible the debacle was sacked immediately and the next year fresh troops arrived commanded by General Mikhail Skobelev. Few Russians evoke such sharp emotion from Central Asians as General Skobelev.

With the exception of 1877-1878 when he was fighting in the Russo-Turkish War, Skobelev had been fighting in the tsar's Central Asian military campaigns since 1868.

Skobelev came much better prepared for the assault than his predecessor had in 1879 but the deciding event was on January 12, 1881 when Russians tunneled under the fortress wall and planted explosives that blew out a huge section of the defensive structure. Russian troops rushed through the breach, killing some 6,500 people in the city and then chasing down and killing some 8,000 more who fled.

Edmund O'Donovan was a reporter with the "London Daily News" and witnessed what followed. He wrote, "No one was spared, not even young children or the elderly. All were mercilessly cut down by Russian sabers. In all, 8,000 of the fugitives are said to have perished, while a further 6,500 bodies were counted inside the fortress itself."

O'Donovan lived in an age of Russophobia in Britain so his description is in keeping with the views of his time. However, his death toll was accurate, though later it would emerge most of those killed were males and this was by design.

Peter Hopkirk in his book "The Great Game" notes Skobelev justified the massacre at Geok-Tepe by saying, "I hold it as a principle that the duration of the peace is in direct proportion to the slaughter you inflict upon the enemy. The harder you hit them, the longer they remain quiet."

And here we are almost 135 years later and the government of independent Turkmenistan has decided to remain quiet about Geok-Tepe and Memory Day.

-- Bruce Pannier, with contributions from Yovshan Annagurban and Muhammad Tahir of RFE/RL's Turkmen Service

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About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect some of the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change.

Bruce Pannier
Bruce Pannier

Content draws on the extensive knowledge and contacts of RFE/RL's Central Asian services but also allow scholars in the West, particularly younger scholars who will be tomorrow’s experts on the region, opportunities to share their views on the evolving situation at this Eurasian crossroad.

The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.



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