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Tajikistan's Crackdown On Islam 'Helps IS Recruiters'

Tajik militants in Syria or Iraq, Photo from video published in Odnoklassnini.
Tajik militants in Syria or Iraq, Photo from video published in Odnoklassnini.

A Tajik diaspora leader in Russia says a crackdown by Tajikistan's government against Islamic political and religious groups and certain forms of Islam has played into the hands of Islamic State (IS) recruiters.

Farukh Mirzoev, the head of the Yekaterinburg-based Tajik cultural society Somon, said earlier this month that young people from Islamic countries like Tajikistan were joining IS not because of ignorance but because they did not see any prospects for religious development at home.

"IS ideologues play on this very skillfully," Mirzoev said.

According to Mirzoev, Tajikistan's spiritual leaders brand Islamic groups and those who show a greater degree of religious observance as "Salafis, Wahhabis, and IS men."

The term "Wahhabi" is frequently used in several former Soviet countries -- including in Russia, and particularly in the North Caucasus -- to denigrate forms of Islam that are not state-approved, usually Salafi Islam. The term is often applied to Muslims whose political or social loyalties are considered suspect or a political threat to regimes.

In Tajikistan, as elsewhere in the former U.S.S.R. -- particularly in Chechnya -- the term "Wahhabi" is often used as a political marker.

"Tajiks are followers of Hanafi Islam, and any other Sunni sects are considered by the government as detrimental to social cohesion. The Salafi (Wahhabi) sect of Islam is officially prohibited in Tajikistan," Sojida Djakhfarova of RFE/RL's Tajik Service says.

"The government believes that Wahhabis plan to destroy Tajiks' fundamental beliefs and the foundations of the secular state."

The rise of IS and the recruitment of Tajiks to its ranks has provided new opportunities for Tajikistan to link certain brands of Islam, particularly Salafism, with the IS group and therefore also with threats to national security.

In September, following armed attacks in and around the capital, the Tajik government banned the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), the only Islamic political party legally registered in Central Asia.

Tajikistan's Interior Ministry named the leader of one of the attacks, which targeted a police station, as Ziyoraddin Abdulloev, who was initially accused of being an IRPT member.

A high court in Tajikistan later ruled that the IRPT -- formerly a major player in the country's political scene -- should be included on a blacklist of extremist and terrorist groups.

Tajikistan had previously accused the IRPT of having ties to IS.

"In Tajikistan, they even closed the IRPT on the grounds that many of its members had become IS agitators," Mirzoev said.

The result of the crackdown against "Wahhabism" has had a chilling effect in Tajikistan, according to Mirzoev. "[Everyone] tries to be careful about what they say. Radical statements have stopped," the Tajik diaspora leader said.

Playing Into IS's Hands

Have Tajikistan's attempts to crack down on Islam -- including by branding Islamic groups as "extremist" -- backfired, at least in terms of IS recruitment?

Mirzoev believes that IS recruiters have been able to make use of the situation in Tajikistan to manipulate Tajiks, particularly labor migrants in Russia, into joining the extremist group in Syria.

Since Tajiks with an interest in Islam -- such as those who want to become more religiously observant -- are not able to express that interest, or even ask questions, IS recruiters have moved to fill the vacuum.

IS has also seized on the advantage it holds in having recruiters with a better knowledge of Islam than Tajikistan's clergy do. "IS clergy make use of the fact that our clergy do not have a perfect command of Arabic or theology. When IS ask [our] imams questions, [the imams] are stumped," Mirzoev said.

'Amnesty' For 'Deluded' Tajiks

Amid its attempts to control all things religious, Tajikistan has instigated an "amnesty" system for Tajik nationals who want to leave IS. Militants are allowed to return home without charge but are then used by the state to tell the public -- including in Dushanbe's Grand Mosque -- about their negative experiences with IS.

The Tajik government believes that by talking about IS atrocities and its perversion of Islam, returnees -- some of whom said they went to Syria to fight for a "religious cause" -- will be able to deter other Tajiks from joining IS.

The system is similar to that adopted by the pro-Kremlin government in Chechnya -- another part of the former Soviet Union that seeks to control religious expression and which has linked "Wahhabism" with IS.

However, diaspora leader Mirzoev believes that to counter IS propaganda and recruitment, Tajikistan needs to improve its knowledge of Islam rather than suppress it.

"We need to create a theological school or madrasah that would train qualified theologians and imams," Mirzoev said. "IS has nothing to do with Islam, but it interprets [Islam], it brings it to young, immature minds in a colorful way."

Mirzoev also said that Tajikistan should separate religion from the state. "The religious leaders want to control a person from birth to death," he added.

Growing Number Of Tajiks In IS?

Tajikistan has admitted that the number of Tajiks fighting in Syria and Iraq has grown, with Interior Minister Ramazan Rakhimzoda saying in June that the number fighting alongside IS was 500.

But not all Tajiks in Syria are fighting alongside IS. There is evidence that Tajik nationals have also joined other Islamist groups in Syria, including two now-defunct Aleppo-based groups -- Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar and the Crimean Jamaat -- which have now merged with Syrian Al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra (Al-Nusra Front).