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Tajikistan Takes On The God Squad

Tajik President Emomali Rahmon
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.

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 the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change.​

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


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