On September 2015, gun battles in and around Tajikistan's capital Dunshanbe, left 22 people dead, including nine police officers. Security forces later reported that they were hunting ousted Deputy Defence Minister Abdukhalim Nazarzoda and his followers in a mountainous area about 150 kilometers east of Dushanbe, claiming he was leading a "terrorist group."
Nazarzoda had recently been dismissed from his post over accusations that he belonged to the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), previously the second-largest political party in the country, which was banned days earlier for alleged ties to ISIS.
Bloody and bizarre episodes such as these have become increasingly common in this small Central Asian republic with a rich religious tradition, the birthplace of the 13th Century Sufi poet Rumi, and the largest proportional Muslim population in the region. However, growing religious and political unrest in the country has seen tensions rise between the country's secular, pro-Moscow government and the Islamist opposition.
Until March 2015 Tajikistan was the only Central Asian state in which political Islam had representation. Indeed, a peace deal in 1997 assured Islamists 30 per cent of government posts. However, 62-year-old President Emomali Rahmon has succeeded in establishing complete control over the government, justifying tough clampdowns on religion and political opposition by a need to keep extremism in check. Professor Alexander Knyazev, a Kazakhstan-based Central Asia analyst, told Reuters the government's campaign against the IRPT risked backfiring, as the group "acting as a legal political force, had served as a lightning rod (for dissent), deflecting radical Islam."
Tajikistan's special forces chief shocked the world by joining ISIS.
However, talk of senior Tajik figures joining extremist groups does not represent empty rhetoric. In May 2015, Gulmuod Halimov, Tajikistan's special forces chief, shocked the world by travelling to Syria to join ISIS. Appearing in one of the group's propaganda videos, Halimov claimed that Tajik policies do not permit people "to pray and wear Islamic hijabs." His message appealed directly to Tajikistan's overstretched, underpaid security forces, asking "Are you ready to die for this state or not?" This statement is particularly powerful given the average annual income in Tajikistan is $880, making it the poorest post-Soviet state, and remittances from Russia account for 52 per cent of GDP.
ISIS has had particular success in garnering support in Central Asia, where it is thought to have recruited over 4,000 fighters. Deirdre Tynan, International Crisis Group's Central Asia Project Director, looks to the local context, arguing that the phenomenon "is rooted in an unfulfilled desire for political and social change," as well as a failure by regional governments to deal with the resurgence of religious practice after the death of official Communist atheism that accompanied the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
However, despite its relative proximity, since the 2001 US-led invasion, only a trickle of Tajik jihadis have joined the insurgency in neighbouring Afghanistan, compared to the relative flood travelling to the distant battle in Iraq and Syria since 2014. Analyst Christian Bleuer suggests that a significant part of this phenomenon may be the appeal of the purportedly transnational jihad in Syria and Iraq compared to a more local struggle in Afghanistan.
Tajikistan's precarious situation is partly geopolitical, with the country particularly susceptible to instability filtering through its porous border from Afghanistan or Pakistan. Russia has expressed concern about the security situation across Central Asia following the withdrawal of NATO troops from Afghanistan. With Tajikistan's proximity to Afghanistan, Pakistan, and China's Xinjiang province, it is at a junction of jihadi movement through the region.
Tajikistan sits at a junction of jihadi movement through the region.
However, most believe that the country's struggles with extremism are also a result of its own policies. The Pew Research Center ranks Tajikistan among the 18 countries with very high government restrictions on religion, whilst the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has recommended that the State Department designate Tajikistan as a 'country of particular concern' for its religious freedom violations.
USCIRF claims the government of Tajikistan suppresses "all religious activity independent of state control, particularly the activities of Muslims." A number of laws that severely restrict religious freedom have been implemented in the country since 2009, and the government also "imprisons individuals on unproven criminal allegations linked to Islamic religious activity and affiliation." The Tajik government uses concerns over Islamist extremism to "justify actions against individuals taking part in certain religious activities."
The assumption of Muslim radicalisation is often wielded by politicians who fear their opponents, or seek foreign support for their regime's security policy. USCIRF found that "Tajikistan's extremism law punishes extremist, terrorist, or revolutionary activities without requiring acts that involve violence or incitement to imminent violence," and terrorism trials most often take place without due process.
In the last year the state has considerably tightened state control over religion, including personal dress and travel, due to fears about radicalisation. Many of these measures, including restrictions on imports of hijabs and a drive to eliminate names considered to be "too Arabic", are viewed by many Muslims as a crackdown on their faith.
This criminalising of certain religious practices alienates important stakeholders in the battle against extremist ideologies. The deliberate blurring of the lines between transnational jihadism and domestic opposition by security forces and politicians doesn't just risk backfiring, but plays into the 'us and them' narratives of jihadi groups who already have established recruitment network in the region.