As Tajikistan's Islamic Renaissance Party (IRP) prepares to decide who will rule it for the next four years, a rift has reportedly emerged between party conservatives and so-called modern pragmatists.
The question is whether a change of strategy is in the cards, one that would move the IRP away from the moderation and anti-extremism espoused by current party head Muhiddin Kabiri.
"It's an important issue for our country's stability," explains journalist and commentator Rajabi Mirzo. "Because of its religious background, the IRP is seen much more than just a political party. It enjoys a good deal of influence over people."
Despite the ruling People's Democratic Party's grip on power, it is often the IRP that is the best gauge of the country's true political and religious leanings. In that regard, the charismatic 45-year-old Kabiri has built his reputation on being pro-Western and a modernizer. But in a country where the state controls all things religious, even Kabiri's leadership position is seen as subject to the ruling party's approval.
For this reason, and the fact that Kabiri is genuinely popular, most observers expect him to be voted in for another four-year term when voting takes place at the IRP's next party conference on September 24.
Some high-ranking party officials, however, won't rule out other outcomes.
"We can't say for sure [Kabiri] will definitely be reelected," Said Ibrohim Nazar, a member of the IRP Supreme Board, says. "The party has a string of other competent people for the job if Kabiri doesn't remain in leadership."
'Not Islamic Enough'
Kabiri was handpicked by the IRP founder Said Abdullo Nuri to lead the party in an acting capacity while Nuri suffered from a long-term illness. Following Nuri's death in 2006, Kabiri was unanimously elected as party chief.
Nuri's choice of Kabiri came as a surprise to many because, unlike many other prominent figures within the party, Kabiri lacked an Islamic education and strong religious background.
He graduated from a secular, state university, and has proven to be a moderate while ruling the party. He frequently speaks out against religious extremism, a rising phenomenon in the region. And in what could be considered a bold statement coming from the head of an Islamic party, he has gone as far as saying he doesn't support the idea of establishing an Islamic state in Tajikistan.
Kabiri's critics accuse him of being too soft and, for an opposition leader, far too accommodating to a government that keeps a tight rein on religious institutions and people's religious activities.
The country's authorities have closed dozens of mosques and madrasahs in recent years in an effort to keep a lid on Islamic extremism. In 2010, more than 1,000 Tajik students who were studying at religious schools abroad were ordered to return home. Most recently, children were prohibited from attending mosque prayers.
According to local media reports, Kabiri particularly disappointed his supporters after the 2010 parliamentary elections when, despite high expectations, the IRP received only two parliament seats.
Many on the IRP Supreme Board, which will determine the party's leadership, believe Kabiri's response to allegations of widespread electoral fraud and to the government pressure has been inadequate, according to a recent article in the weekly "Millat."
"They are concerned that if the leadership of the party doesn't change, the IRP will lose its position and influence in society," the paper wrote.
Mirzo Muhammad Navid, a board member, left the IRP recently after 20 years in the party. Among reasons for his departure, Navid cited his frustration with Kabiri's "lack of consideration for others' opinion in decision-making."
Navid, who is seen as one of the IRP's more conservative figures, even cast doubt over Kabiri's aptness to lead an Islamic party.
"Kabiri is just a politician before anything else," Navid says. "He is a politician who uses religious slogans."
The criticism echoes a widespread sentiment among other conservative IRP followers, who believe Kabiri has somewhat turned the party into a conventional political grouping, rather than one based on religious principles.
The party has not yet publicly announced potential challengers to Kabiri's leadership. Saidumar Husaini, the deputy head of the party, has said that those who want to be considered have until the day before the party conference to announce their candidacies.
Husaini and Nazar both have been tipped as potential candidates for the post, as has Muhammadjon Nuri, the party founder's eldest son. Nazar has told media he would accept it as his duty should the Supreme Board determine that he should lead the party.
Husaini predicts Kabiri will be reelected by a wide margin. However, he says, "there are some 300 people casting votes, and you can't predict everybody's decision."
Local experts believe that Tajik government would prefer Kabiri as the head of the Islamic opposition party, as he is a known quantity.
"The government knows what to expect from Kabiri," says Rajabi Mirzo. "He is predictable."
"The government is not entirely impressed with Kabiri's excessive promotion of himself in the West as a modernizer. But authorities know that Kabiri presents a tolerant and relatively secular voice, and he is a good and very convenient choice."
In the end, many experts and IRP members don't expect to see any major shifts in the Islamic party's strategies or its moderate stance, even if Kabiri is replaced.
Kabiri agrees. "There is no such risk of the party taking a more extreme standpoint," he says. "A new leader won't be able to fundamentally change the path set by the previous leadership, because Tajik society and the party itself wouldn't accept that."
While Kabiri is praised for his modernist views, his deputy Husaini doesn't agree that the party leader or any other individual within can be given sole credit for the IRP's moderate standing.
"Our party operates with what we see as true Islamic principles which uphold moderation, tolerance, and being able to adapt to realities of the time," Husaini says. "We promote the development of society, we promote the development of education, science, and technology."
"We don't want to be a backward force," he adds. "This is the strategy of our party and one person cannot change it."
Nevertheless, Qosim Bekmuhammad, a Dushanbe-based political analyst says that the personal opinion of the party leader cannot be underestimated.
"One political statement by the leader of an influential Islamic party could become crucial in sensitive moments, it could have a huge impact on the country's security and stability," Bekmuhammad says, noting that Kabiri is currently the safest and most predictable choice for the party's leadership.