Members of Tajikistan’s Ulema Council showed up suddenly in Russia on October 18.
Officially, the Tajik delegation led by Ulema Council chairman Saydmukarran Abduqodirzoda intended to "take part in religious activities in the Russian Federation," part of which included "meeting with labor migrants of Tajikistan in this country (Russia)."
The visit came one day after the chief mufti of Moscow and Central Russia, Albir Krganov, expressed concerns about Tajik migrant laborers.
"Unfortunately," he claimed, "we observe the radicalization of our migrants." He referred specifically to migrant laborers from Tajikistan, calling them a "vulnerable group."
Krganov explained that "currently on the borders of Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Afghanistan, a large new extremist group numbering several thousand people is being created under the name 'Khorosan.'"
The Khorasan Province group is an affiliate of the so-called Islamic State extremist group.
Krganov noted the Tajik-Afghan border is porous and said that "there is a danger...of links between these extremists and a large part of the Tajiks who are living in the Russian Federation."
Krganov pointed to a cooperation agreement Russia’s Muslim Spiritual Assembly had signed with Uzbekistan’s Muftiat, noting that "the Uzbek side is taking preventative measures against extremism and terrorism among its nationals." Tajikistan, he added, was "doing the opposite."
Krganov said Russia does not want to see the radicalization of migrant laborers, "in the first place, for the security of our country, and [Tajik authorities] should understand this and the national organizations and diplomatic offices we have [in Russia] should work more concretely. So far, we have not seen this."
The message was quickly received in Tajikistan, where shortly after Krganov spoke Tajikistan’s Committee for Religious Affairs said it was looking into sending a group of imam-khatibs to Russia.
No further details were released about the Tajik clerics’ meeting with Tajik nationals in Russia, though Tajikistan's State Migration Service rejected Krganov’s claims.
So Qishloq Ovozi turned to Edward Lemon, a postdoctorate fellow at Columbia University’s Harriman Institute who is an authority on the radicalization of Central Asians, including Central Asian migrant laborers in Russia.
Lemon pointed out that, in fact, "most Central Asian militants have been recruited while working in Russia," and he noted that recently "[Russian] security services have arrested a number of Tajik citizens. It does seem that Tajiks have been arrested more frequently than citizens of the other Central Asian states in recent months."
Lemon said that "although the muftiats of Russia and Tajikistan have enjoyed close cooperation...we cannot rule out that there has been a falling out between leaders there."
Lemon noted that while linguistic links to Afghanistan might help Islamic extremist groups in Afghanistan target Tajiks, there is little evidence to suggest a "large part" of Tajik migrant laborers in Russia are joining such groups.
"If 1,000 or so of the 1 million or more Tajiks in Russia have been recruited since 2013, this is still only 1/1000. That is not a large part of the migrant community, almost all of whom abhor [Islamic State]," Lemon said.
Russian officials have been known to make alarming statements about the security situation in Central Asia going back to the days when the Taliban first appeared in Afghanistan in the mid-1990s.
These dire warnings have often stoked fears among leaders in Central Asia.
But in the past, it was Russian government officials voicing these concerns.
Mufti Krganov publicly chiding Tajikistan is a new tactic, but whether his concerns are more legitimate than those voiced previously by secular Russian officials is unclear.
As Lemon suggests, "My understanding is that Khorasan [Province group] is based far from the Central Asian border in Nangahar [and] its threat to Central Asia appears limited."