Political Islam and Conflict in Tajikistan

Saodat Olimova


Saodat OLIMOVA is Research Fellow at the Sharq Centre for Analytical studies in Dushanbe and a representative of the journal Tsentralnaya Aziya i Kavkaz in Tajikistan.


Tajikistan is the only country in Central Asia where an Islamic party is participating in governing the country. However, the role of Islam in politics is also connected with the tragic events in Tajikistan since independence.

The Historical Background

As we know, the Hanafite school of Sunni Islam, well-known for its liberalism, prevailed on the territory of pre-Soviet Tajikistan. The Sufi orders of Naqshbandiyyah and Qadiriyyah were also widespread. By tradition residents of Badakhshan professed Ismailism, which is a religiousphilosophical teaching of Shiism. By and large the territory of contemporary Tajikistan has been a weakly urbanized mountainous periphery remote from the major Islamic centres of Central Asia such as Bukhara and Samarkand.

In its regional form Islam gave a world outlook and a way of life to the inhabitants of these territories. Ethnic identity was effaced, unpronounced and replaced by a regional gorge identification. Religious identity was the main component of peoples self-identity. The patriarchal communities of the highlands have always tended to unite the secular and religious leadership. The Sufi orders were a distinctive example of such an association because over time they created a kind of social structure that permeated the rather socially homogenous traditional society while their leaders pirs-ishans automatically gained tremendous influence on the secular life of the communities.

From the early years of the Soviet Government, its attitude towards Islam was decided by the question of how the new regime would take root in Muslim regions, especially in such a traditionally Muslim region as East Bukhara. Hence the dual attitude to Islam in Soviet Tajikistan: a fierce struggle against it, on the one hand, and an attempt at cooperation on the other. The duality entailed the destruction of the institutional Islamic clergy and an attempt, albeit not quite successful, to eradicate the system of Muslim law. Popular Islam was allowed to exist, led by a conformist clergy and under the control of the authorities.

The campaign against the institutional doctrine of Islam resulted in the strengthening of Sufism, the organizational basis of which remained the secret Sufi brotherhoods primarily of the Naqshbandiyyah and Qadiriyyah, which often remained outside the field of vision of state atheism. The struggle against the Ismaili religious leaders was especially fierce and, as time went by, led to a very high level of secularization among the Badakhshan people.

However, on the whole, the greatest impact on the religious situation in Tajikistan during the Soviet era was made by modernization and urbanization.

The tough social control so characteristic of the deeply and firmly Islamized traditional Tajik society is impossible in the city. Social practice was supposed to work out new mechanisms to regulate social behaviour: external control was to be replaced by self-control.

Nevertheless, urbanization in Tajikistan was special. A. Vishevski remarked that the Soviet model of accelerated modernization corresponded, first and foremost, with the historical conditions of the eastern Slavic peoples. For this reason the speed and scope of modernization in Central Asia differed from that in Russia.1

The modernization and industrialization were perceived by the people in Tajikistan as something alien and unnecessary. New values clashed with traditional values and were therefore rejected. A large part of the population responded by preserving its traditional system of values. According to the development model applied in Tajikistan economic modernization relied mainly on people, capital and technology coming from outside Tajikistan. The result was rural overpopulation and hidden unemployment.2

Thus, the Soviet-type modernization and industrialization initiated from outside preserved the traditional way of life in Tajikistan. The population benefited much less from modernization than its neighbours in Central Asia. The countryside stagnated but the rural population did not leave for the towns. Thus, traditional social structures, way of life and values remained almost intact.

Furthermore, the Soviet-type urbanization referred to in Vishnevskys apt remark was paralleled by a ruralization of the cities which had no full-fledged market relations or urban self-government, and were burdened with medieval trappings such as the absence of freedom of movement.3 An important trait of the incomplete urbanization process is the absence of a middle class, that is to say, the carriers of urban relations.

Nevertheless, the impact of industrialization and urbanization on Tajikistan cannot be denied. Peasants migrating to the towns were pushed to the margins of society and social dislocation. The condition of urban life to become an individual in the city was an idea not readily accepted by generations raised on communal principles. The cultural revolution, despite all the achievements in the field of education, did not eradicate the old values. While the level of education was rising and the way of life was changing, Islam remained the traditional social and cultural foundation.

The destruction of the institutionalized clergy followed by tough state ideological control and atheist campaigns drove Islam into hiding. This served to archaize Islam and Tajik culture as a whole, which largely explains why Sufism retains its influence. Popular Islam grew to become disproportionately strong as a way of life and a method of adapting to the atheist regime, on the one hand, and as a counterbalance to modernization, on the other.

Islam and the Inter-Tajik Conflict

Nevertheless, society in Tajikistan, albeit later than in other countries, reached a crisis of traditionalism during the period preceding perestroika. This crisis gave rise to dynamic disparities and, as a consequence, to many unresolved problems. Among the most important was the demographic explosion which resulted in an increase in poverty and backwardness. The lack of investment resources during the past 20 years has been an additional brake on economic development.4

Despite the crisis, Tajikistan continued along the road of modernization. As a result new elite groups emerged. Elites of a new type were

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