When the Soviet Union collapsed, it left behind an independent Tajikistan that was saddled with severe economic and social challenges that have lasted to this day. In particular, the government has always had an uneasy relationship with its Islamic roots, and it has made several attempts to diminish religion’s role in daily life. Among other restrictions on religious practice, Tajik authorities have arbitrarily shuttered dozens of mosques across the country, fined women for wearing the hijab, and even banned parents from giving their children Arabic names. According to recent estimates, police have forcibly shaved off the beards of some 13,000 men.
Tajikistan, in other words, has some of the world’s most restrictive laws on religion. But for the most part, the world had not paid much attention—that is, until news broke last May that Tajikistan’s U.S.-trained Special Forces chief, Gulmurod Khalimov, defected from his position and joined the Islamic State (also known as ISIS), which has been active just across Tajikistan’s border in Afghanistan. In Khalimov's YouTube video apparently shot in Syria announcing his defection to ISIS, he cited his government’s crackdown on Muslims as justification for abandoning his post.
Ironically for a country that has tried to stamp out religion, the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT) had long been the nation’s only viable democratic opposition to Tajikistan president Emomali Rahmon, who has ruled the country since 1992. Last September, without credible evidence, authorities banned the IRPT and declared it a terrorist organization, alleging it had participated in an attempted Islamist coup. But by virtually outlawing political opposition and cracking down on all forms of Islam, Rahmon has created conditions for ISIS and other extremist ideologies to spread.
In many ways, the IRPT, which began as an underground Muslim movement in the officially atheist Soviet Union and emerged as a bona fide political party after Tajikistan’s independence in 1991, was the polar opposite of ISIS: a moderate Islamist voice that participated in the Central Asia and the larger former Soviet Union as the region’s only legally registered Islamist party. Even more important, in a part of the world where governments have pursued an assertive secularism, the IRPT’s existence was evidence that Islam and democracy could successfully coexist.
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