Tajikistan's Islamic Renaissance Party (IRP), the only officially registered Islamic party in Central Asia, wants to boost its two-seat presence in the Tajik parliament in the next elections, scheduled for February 2010. To achieve that goal, the party is seeking to shrug off its old image of a conservative rural party, recruiting many women and young technocrats.
RFE/RL correspondent Farangis Najibullah recently caught up with IRP leader Muhiddin Kabiri on the sidelines of the 19th Economic Forum in Krynica, Poland. Kabiri, a businessman and professional handball player, discusses the party's stance on a secular state, the threat of religious extremism, and the ongoing debate over the hijab.
RFE/RL: The Islamic Renaissance Party currently holds two seats in Tajikistan's 63-member parliament. How many members does your party have and whom do you represent?
Muhiddin Kabiri: So far, we have 33,200 registered members and the number is increasing. In the past, we were known as a party representing certain rural areas with more conservative traditions, but we have transformed completely. In the 1990s, there were only two or three people with university educations among our party's leadership. Now all of our 49-member board of party leaders have university degrees and several of them have Ph.D.s in various fields. Women make up over 60 percent of our party members. And the majority of our party members are young people.
RFE/RL: The IRP is the only officially registered Islamic party in Central Asia. Does this bring additional responsibilities and put your party under scrutiny?
Kabiri: Being the only officially registered Islamic party bears lots of responsibility, as well as many challenges. People both abroad and inside the country watch us with suspicion. And there are forces that deliberately ignite these suspicions. But we try to break those stereotypes.
As the only officially registered Islamic party, we are somehow seen as representatives of Islam and all religious people. We have to be absolutely careful of every step we take, because there is no room for error for us. If we fail, if we make a mistake, it would make Muslims and Islam look bad.
Usually, when a secular party makes errors, no one would hold the entire secular vision responsible for that mistake. People would only blame the party itself. But if our party, or a member of our party, is involved in any wrongdoing, critics would say that mistake was the outcome of Islamic views. We understand and accept these responsibilities. It's one of our party's differences from other political groups.
RFE/RL: Do you seek to establish an Islamic state or Islamic republic in Tajikistan, as some of your detractors have suggested?
Kabiri: Our party complies with our country's constitution, which backs the [secular] system in Tajikistan. Our Sunni Hanafi sect of Islam does not support the idea of theocratic governments, meaning we believe no one should rule a country in the name of God. It's people who rule countries. Therefore, we are not seeking to create an Islamic state or an Islamic republic in Tajikistan. But we want to create an Islamic society. Governments can include technocrats or nonpracticing Muslims or others, but our most important goal is the creation of a society that lives with Islamic values.
RFE/RL: There are ongoing debates in Tajikistan over the ban on Islamic head scarves, or hijabs, in schools and public places. Your party has been criticized for politicizing the hijab issue.
Kabiri: For us, the hijab issue is about human rights. It's about freedom of choice, which is guaranteed by our constitution. The Education Ministry or any other bodies have no right to ban the hijab anywhere. The only exception is the military, where people have to wear uniforms.
Unfortunately, the hijab debate has been politicized, because some women came to us to complain and our party backed them. Well, what would the difference be between our party and others -- let's say the Communist Party -- if we didn't defend the hijab, Islam, and Islamic values? Then we were criticized for giving a political character to the hijab issue, but it wasn't true. We had no choice but to interfere in this debate to back Islamic values, as well as to support our voters.
RFE/RL: Davlatmoh Ismoilova, a Tajik student who sued the Education Ministry over the hijab ban last year, claims that your party gave her money to hire a lawyer to defend her case.
Kabiri: Yes, she came to us and said she had no money to defend her rights. And, yes, we supported her financially. But even if somebody else, other Tajik citizens, were to ask our party to support them financially to sue an official who had denied their rights, we would offer such support -- even if their problems, their case, had nothing to do with Islam.
RFE/RL: Do you support the idea that there is a growing threat of religious extremism in Central Asia?
Kabiri: Yes, the threat of religious extremism is present and it is increasing, because our region, unfortunately, has all the necessary conditions for that. All Central Asian countries are among the 20 most corrupt countries in the world. All Central Asian countries are among the 20 most authoritarian nations. And poverty is widespread in most parts of the region. Under such circumstances, people become extremists. If people here were not Muslims, but Christians for example, under such circumstances they would become Christian extremists.
RFE/RL: How does your party take part in the fight against religious extremism?
Kabiri: The very fact of our party's existence contributes to the prevention of religious extremism. For its over 30,000 members, our party offers an opportunity to be involved in legal political activities within the framework of an Islamic party. Membership of a lawful party gives them legitimacy, as well as responsibilities, before the law. These people want to have religious and political activities. Where would they go if there wasn't our party?
Perhaps half of them would avoid politics, but I'm sure the other half would join underground Islamic groups, such as Hizb-ut-Tahrir, Salafi, or Jamoati Tabligh movements. Or they would set up another illegal group. Therefore, our party's existence prevents the spread of religious extremism. Besides, using our religious and political leverage, we talk to people, especially to the young, and try to prevent them from pursuing extremist ideas.
RFE/RL: How is the IRP's relationship with other Islamic groups in Tajikistan, including Salafi or Jamoati Tabligh?
Kabiri: We have announced that anyone who wants to have political activities in Tajikistan should seek official registration and act within the law. Only then can we have cooperation with them. But we oppose groups that want to act underground, with disregard to the interests of our nation, state, and culture. We don't support the extremist view of the Salafi movement.
We also oppose to Jamoati Tabligh group, which is promoting elements of foreign culture in the name of Islam, such as the so-called religious dress code and beard. It gives a completely wrong impression about Islam.
RFE/RL: Parliamentary polls are scheduled to be held in February 2010. Taking into account Tajikistan's record of contentious elections, do you expect your party to add to the two seats it currently holds?
Kabiri: Our program and all our activities are focused on increasing our seats in the Tajik parliament through the next elections. This is our hope. However, as any other political party, we take into consideration the possibility of the February vote being rigged and unfair -- like the last parliamentary elections in 2005 and indeed all other elections in the past. That would be the worst-case scenario for us, but we are prepared for all situations.
RFE/RL: Assuming the February elections prove to be free and fair, how big a share of the vote would you expect your party to receive?
Kabiri: According to estimates, we would receive 30 percent of the vote.