The Islamic Renaissance Party’s downfall and its consequences for Tajikistan’s stability

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by Helene Thibault on 7/8/2015

Tajikistan is the sole Central Asian country to have legalized a faith-based political party, the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT). The IRPT is considered to be the main heir of the United Tajik Opposition (UTO) that opposed government forces during the civil war (1992-1997). The June 1997 peace agreement devised the allocation of 30% of executive positions to the opposition. As a result, IRPT party members and UTO fighters were integrated into the country’s legislative and security structures. For long, the presence of the IRPT has been seen a sign of political and religious tolerance in the post-civil war nation but the party had been under increasing pressure in the last years and has finally been banned on July 08 2015. The General Prosecutor’s office announced that the Party lost its political party status, citing its poor electoral performance, the recent desertion of many party members as well as criminal cases connected to party members, including charges of extremism. Earlier in June, the party’s leader, Muhiddin Kabiri, announced that he was in a self-imposed exile in Turkey, fearing judicial prosecution. It is difficult to foresee what the consequences will be but this latest case of political repression is yet another manifestation of authoritarian consolidation in Tajikistan, which has been ruled uninterruptedly by Emomali Rahmon’s Peoples’s Democratic Party since 1994.

The IRPT’s protracted marginalization

Though it was able to participate in every election since 1997, a 2006 governmental reshuffle left the party without any executive positions. It won 7.7% of the votes during the 2010 parliamentary elections, though the IRPT leadership claimed to have won between 30 and 50% of the votes, citing their increasing membership and popularity. It was after this electoral success that the authorities intensified their pressure. During the 2013 presidential elections, the IRPT’s nominated candidate, long-term social activist Oinikhol Bobonazarova, could not enter the race after the party gathered about 202 000 signatures out of the required 210,000. She blamed negative publicity against the party as well as unrealistic administrative requirements for the failure to register. The campaign for the March 2015 parliamentary elections was also characterized by political intimidation with alleged sex tapes of male and female representatives of the Party and arbitrary arrests. The party garnered a mere 1.5%, leaving it with no seats in parliament for the first time in 15 years. After the elections, voices loyal to the authorities called for the interdiction of the party. In March 2015, several imams across Tajikistan called for a referendum to disband the party. On April 2, Rahim Karimov, a professor at Dushanbe’s Islamic University, called for the IRPT to be listed as a terrorist organization. In June 2015, the IRPT’s leadership openly asked the President for his protection in an official letter, which was left unanswered. On July 1st, the IRPT addressed the guarantor countries of the 1997 peace agreement as well as different international organizations to help promote peace and stability in Tajikistan. Various Tajik politicians and strategists disapproved  of the IRPT’s initiative and went as far as to question the IRPT’s entitlement to speak as a stakeholder in the 1997 peace agreement. In a recent interview with Politrus, Muhiddin Kabiri expressed fears that the government was planning to decrease the number of IRPT members to a minimum, and then use the law, according to which if a party is not represented in 50% of the administrative centres, it could be declared “inoperative”. His predictions turned out to be right.

Besides political marginalisation, IRPT’s representatives as well as its assets suffered physical attacks. In 2010, a suspicious fire destroyed the IRPT’s women’s mosque in Dushanbe. There were several cases of party representative having been severely beaten up and one party representative in Khorog was murdered in 2012. In January 2014, an IRPT activist from Isfara, Umedjon Tojiev died in prison. He was reportedly tortured during his detention and died after falling from the third floor of a prison building in Sughd. In June 2014, the IRPT’s regional headquarter office in Khujand (Tajikistan’s second largest city in the Northern province of Sughd) was entirely demolished by the city authorities on the pretext that it was part of a new urban configuration. Relocation was promised but as of now, their status is still pending and nothing indicates that an arrangement will be found, on the contrary.

Back in 2010 and 2011, when I conducted my doctoral fieldwork in Tajikistan, I used to visit the IRPT’s regional office in Khujand on a regular basis. The party had around 12,000 to 13,000 members in Sughd and around 40,000 in the whole Tajikistan. Their office in Khujand was a bustling place. The party held lectures and seminars on religious or secular topics and offered language lessons (Arabic and English) to men and women. The building was equipped with a prayer room for women, the only legal place for them to pray outside their home. I have always felt welcomed as members enthusiastically answered my questions and invited me to many of their events. I also never felt out of place even if I often was the only woman not wearing a headscarf. The level of political cooperation between political parties in Sughd at the time was impressive. Representatives of different political parties, even sometimes the President’s People’s Democratic Party, would meet on a monthly basis to discuss various matters such as corruption, the hijab ban, increasing suicide rates among women, etc. The current situation is radically different.

In June 2015, dozens of IRPT members have publicly repudiated the party in what seems to be an orchestrated campaign of political shaming. One party member from Khujand has agreed to share his story with me, though he did not want his real identity to be revealed. While having been harassed in person and online and kept under surveillance by the police since 2013, Firdaus’ (this is a pseudonym) situation worsened in June 2015. Earlier last month, few policemen arrived at his place with a warrant and Firdaus was forced to follow them to clarify the case. At the police station, he was shown photos of individuals whom he did not recognize. The police pretended to have the men in custody for their involvement in extremist activities. They had allegedly confessed that Firdaus was their accomplice. The police presented him with a case against him and threatened to prosecute him unless he agreed to make an official declaration to disavow his party. The “declaration” was videotaped and later put on Youtube, Facebook and other media. Firdaus was released in the evening but the police called him in once more the following day and threatened him again. Fearing he would be prosecuted and jailed, he fled to Russia few days later, where he remains until now.

Silencing discordant voices

The marginalisation of the IRPT is symptomatic of a greater attempt to silence all opposition voices. In the last years, the press was censored; websites such as Twitter, Odnoklassniki and Facebook were repeatedly blocked and Internet access even cut off following sensitive events such as when violent clashes occurred in the Badakhshan region bordering Afghanistan in July 2012 and in May 2014. Critical NGOs were shutdown and its leaders charged and jailed. Zaid Saidov, the former industry minister announced the creation of the New Tajikistan party in April 2013 and was sentenced few months later to 26 years in prison on charges of fraud, corruption, rape and polygamy. The country’s Supreme Court has banned another prominent opposition movement Group 24 in October 2014. The Group’s leader, Umarali Kuvvatov, was murdered in Istanbul four days after the March 2015 elections.

The latest attacks against the IRPT might not only be interpreted as a blow against democratic development but as an aggression against Islam itself. The problem is that actions undermining political freedom are accompanied by measures restricting the practice of religion, which have multiplied over the years. One of the most controversial measures is the Law on Parental Responsibility in the Upbringing and Education of Children adopted in 2011. Its most contentious provision forbids parents to let minors participate in religious ceremonies, at the exception of funerals. This law sparked discontent even from the most moderate portions of the society. Other measures include a hijab ban in all education and state institutions as well as in public spaces more generally, the closing of religious schools, control over the selection of imams and of Friday religious sermons, the forced repatriation of thousands of students from Islamic institutions abroad etc. Limited access to religious education is particularly problematic. The number of religious education institutions has not ceased to decrease over the years. In 2003, the Islamic Institute in Dushanbe as well as 21 medresses were responsible for providing religious teachings. In the summer of 2013, the authorities suspended five of the country’s six remaining medresses, which were all located in Sughd. As such, the Islamic Institute and the Abu Hanifa medresse in Dushanbe are now the country’s only two functioning religious schools but the latter’s future operation is now jeopardized.

In happier days, the Islamic Revival Party of Tajikistan used the following slogan “Instead of emptiness Faith”. Indeed, the party has represented itself as an important force against disillusionment and disorientation following the disintegration of the USSR and the collapse of the economic system. The party sees itself as being able to channel the phenomenon of islamization taking place in the country since independence. Official discourses insist on the danger of radical Islam in Tajikistan that could lead to an overthrow of the government and/or violent conflict. The threat is greatly exaggerated and the probability of such an escalation is very low. Yet, now that the IRPT is gone, there will be even less space for voicing discontent, especially for believers who feel doubly oppressed.

Recipe for a disaster

The Islamic Renaissance Party used to represent Tajikistan’s main opposition force and its interdiction announces a very deplorable scenario for Tajikistan. All necessary conditions are met for political failure: rampant corruption, lack of religious freedom, political repression, and widespread poverty. Tajikistan stands as one of the most-remittance dependent countries in the world; nearly a million Tajik workers in Russia contribute to almost 50% of the GDP by sending money back to their loved ones. However, the current economic downturn in Russia forces the return of thousands of migrant workers who will face hovering unemployment. As a matter of fact, the lack of economic and political perspectives contributes to rekindle the spectre of the civil war.

Tajikistan used to contrast with its neighbours in terms of political pluralism and competition but authoritarian practices have now become too prevalent to ignore. Tightening the grip on civil society tells us something about the authorities’ fear of losing control over the country’s fragile equilibrium. A series of political events have contributed to generate a feeling of instability in the country in the last years. In August 2010, 25 political prisoners escaped during a mass prison break from a high-security prison in Dushanbe. A month later, a suicide bomber drove into a police station in Khujand that housed the Anti-Organized Crime Unit of the Police of the Sughd Province, a dreaded institution locally known for its brutal methods. In October 2010, an attack on a military convoy passing through the Kamarob Gorge killed at least 25 police officers and soldiers. This was followed by two months of fighting against ‘insurgents’ in the Rasht valley. Finally, in July 2012 and May 2014, the southern Pamir region of Kuhistoni-Badakhshan was the scene of violent clashes. Whereas the authorities tried to connect these events with Islamic militancy, they have more to do with local grievances than religious fundamentalism. Indeed, these events took place in regions that are politically marginalized since Emomali Rahmon and the elite that surrounds him originate from the Southern Kathlon province.

As it was the case in 1991, Islamic radicalism does not threaten stability in Tajikistan; it is rather the absence of legitimate channels to express discontent as well as the authorities’ failure to compromise. The fact that the leadership no longer sees the IRPT as one contributor to peace is a very bad sign for political stability. There seems to be nothing left of the 1997 power-sharing deal but the government should not forget the conditions that put an end to a brutal conflict and secured peace in this unsettled nation.

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Hélène Thibault is a postdoctoral researcher at the Centre for International Studies at the Université de Montréal, Canada. She earned a PhD from Ottawa University in Political Science in 2014. She has worked on Central Asian issues since 2005, specializing in religion, national identity and Soviet legacy. She also took part in multiple election observation missions with the OSCE in Ukraine.

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