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Salafi Ban Reflects Tajik Officials' Growing Fear

The government of Tajikistan has banned Salafism, saying the Sunni Islamic movement represents a potential threat to national security.

Tajikistan's Supreme Court on January 9 added Salafis to its list of extremist religious groups prohibited from operating in the country.

The movement claims to follow a strict and pure form of Islam, but Tajik clerics say the Salafis' radical stance is similar to that of the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Salafi leaders insist their movement has peaceful aims, with no political or extremist agenda.

"In order to prevent national, racial, and religious conflicts and damage to the nation's reputation and honor, Tajikistan's Supreme Court, as of January 8, 2009, bans the Salafi religious movement's activities in the country as an illegal group," Supreme Court spokesman Mahmadali Yusufov said, adding that the movement poses a security threat.

Sowing Division?

The Salafi movement, which has been active in Tajikistan for just over two years, claims to have recruited more than 20,000 believers there.

Local officials say the group has only a few hundred supporters.

Tajik authorities are worried the movement will gain traction as it focuses its efforts on the country's younger generations. Most of the movement's local leaders are themselves in their 20s and early 30s, and came to Tajikistan after graduating from Islamic schools in Pakistan or Arab countries.
I've never heard any Salafi follower say anything against the government

One Salafi activist, Hoji Nazirmat, protested the court's decision to ban the group, saying the Salafi movement in Tajikistan has always steered clear of politics.

"Any act of persecution and harassment of Salafi followers would violate Tajikistan's laws, because we live in a democratic, secular country with the rule of law," Nazirmat said. "I've never heard any Salafi follower say anything against the government."

Salafis claim to adhere to a pure form of Islam, and do not recognize other branches of the religion, particularly Shi'ism and Sufism.

A majority of Tajiks follow Hanafi, a relatively moderate branch of Sunni Islam. There are also more than 200,000 Ismaili Shi'a, most residing in an eastern province of the country.

Official Concern

Tajik authorities claim that computer discs and videotapes confiscated from Salafi members show the group's leaders expressing strong anti-Shi'ite and anti-Iranian sentiments.

Local clerics have also warned the group is intent upon creating sectarian divisions within Tajikistan's Islamic faithful.

The Salafis' focus on "pure" Islam and their campaign to recruit young madrasah graduates has prompted many Tajiks to compare the group to the Taliban.

In October, Tajikistan's Council of Islamic Ulema, a grouping of prominent Islamic scholars, demanded that the Salafis abandon their beliefs or stay away from local mosques.

The group's anti-Iran stance has prompted rumors that the group has been funded by Western countries to weaken Iran's influence in Tajikistan. U.S. officials have rejected the allegations as baseless.

Tajikistan has a history of tolerance for Islamic groups that is arguably unique in the region, although official curbs on some expressions of stricter Islamic tenets have emerged more recently.

Dushanbe has cracked down on the most radical Islamic groupings, including Hizb ut-Tahrir. Tajik authorities have arrested hundreds of Hizb ut-Tahrir members, whom they accuse of trying to overthrow the secular government in favor of an Islamic caliphate.

But it is also home to Central Asia's first -- and so far only -- officially registered Islamic political party.

The country's five-year civil war from 1992-97 had pitted supporters of the secular government against members of the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRP). The government that emerged from the eventual truce went on to make peace with the IRP.

Some Tajiks, however, worry that measures like the Supreme Court ban on Salafism will only serve to radicalize the country's outlawed Islamic groups and stir antigovernment resentment.

The IRP criticized the court decision, saying the ban violates people's right to peaceful assembly and association.

RFE/RL's Tajik Service contributed to this report
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    Farangis Najibullah

    Farangis Najibullah is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL who has reported on a wide range of topics from Central Asia, including the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the region. She has extensively covered efforts by Central Asian states to repatriate and reintegrate their citizens who joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.