Experience in Tajikistan
Landscape around Pamir highway in Tajikistan. (Credit: Daniel Prudek/Bigstockphoto.com) (via: bit.ly)


This paper examines the problem of violent extremism in a country that survived a conflict between a secular government and armed Islamic opposition. In addition to analyzing the causes of religious extremism and describing the reaction of society and the authorities, the paper offers recommendations for countering violent extremism. This paper aims to answer the overarching questions: what counteracts religious violent extremism, and what supports its growth? What supports peace in Tajikistan? And what compels Tajik citizens to fight in Syria?

The study looks at the social context and causes of violent extremism, the attitude of society, religious policies of the state, and countermeasures using responses from a survey on religious issues conducted in 2010 (n = 1200) along with a public opinion survey conducted in 2014 (n = 2000). We also examine interviews with religious activists, Muslim leaders, and experts conducted throughout 2013–2017, supplemented by press and media materials.

The methodology used to study radicalisation in this article was proposed by Silber and Bhatt (2009), who contended that radicalisation is a stepwise process that begins with preliminary radicalisation and moves through stages of self-identification, ideological processing, and finally ‘jihadisation’. An analysis of factors behind the spread of violent extremism reveals the most important features to be the following: youth protest against social injustice and dysfunctional social lifts; pressure from authorities; a high level of state interference in religious life; and exposure to or contact with armed conflicts in Afghanistan and Syria. The geopolitical struggle has a direct impact on the transition from religious radicalism to violence. The protracted conflict in the Middle East, along with perceptions of the West’s policies towards Islam, serves as fertile ground for extremism. Migrants are a group vulnerable to radicalisation. An analysis of respondents’ answers to the 2010 and 2014 surveys facilitated assessment of markers for the risk of jihadisation of migrants. Such markers include marginalisation, conflicting values, fear, rejection of local forms of Islam, the transition to global Islam, and contact with extremist networks.

There is a widespread belief that political Islamic movements and Islamic extremism are among the main security threats for countries with a Muslim population. Indeed, confessional conflicts are an important part of Middle Eastern conflict, and religious extremism has destroyed lives in Middle Eastern and North African countries. Compared with these regions, the religious situation in Central Asian countries is calm even though thousands of militants from Central Asia are fighting in the Middle East. It is also known that a bloody conflict between the secular government and armed Islamic movement raged in Tajikistan a quarter of a century ago before ending negotiations and peace agreements in 1997.After are building period, political elections, and a reintegration of militants, Tajikistan now lives a peaceful life. However, many issues influencing the relationship between authorities and Islam remain unresolved. This paper therefore aims to answer the following questions: What supports peace in Tajikistan? What compels Tajik citizens to fight in Syria now? What counteracts religious extremism, and what supports its growth?

Terms and definitions

The diverse nature of religious radicalisation, extremism, and terrorism phenomena has created disparities in assessments and ambiguity of the conceptual–categorical methods used by researchers and politicians. For example, in many regions including Central Asia, radicalisation implies the following: a) an intensification of religious life within the framework of Islam (e.g., an increase in the number of believers, mosques, women wearing hijabs, and bearded men); b) an emergence of new religious trends and meanings (i.e., the so-called ‘other Islam’); and c) certain manifestations of political Islam. At the same time, many researchers have neither connected these phenomena with radicalisation nor consider them part of the process of religious revival and/or transformation of religion in the modern world. One unresolved consequence is the inadequate development of methods to measure radicalisation, especially in its nascent stages. The lack of a uniform definition and understanding of radicalisation has led to contradictory estimates regarding the degree of danger posed by religious extremism.

In the absence of a generally recognised definition of ‘religious radicalisation’, we use the definition presented at the UNDP Global Consultation Meeting (21–23 May, 2014): “Radicalization is a continuum marked by a departure from generally acceptable social norms and values aimed at others to exert pressure on them to force them to accept this worldview” (Odorfer, 2015, p. 6). Attempts to transform the worldviews of other people can be coercive, including via direct violence. The process of radicalisation manifests in relation to people who profess different views. Radicalisation can manifest as physical violence (including systemic, such as laws and rules) and in denying the rights of others (Odorfer, 2015). It should be emphasised that radicalisation can lead in many cases to violent extremism and, in the long term, to terrorist activity. But this sequence is not a rule and may arise out of a confluence of specific circumstances.

The methodology used to study radicalisation was proposed by Silber and Bhatt (2009), who framed radicalisation as a step-by-step process beginning with preliminary radicalisation and then proceeding through the stages of self-identification and ideological processing before culminating in jihadisation. The empirical basis of this paper is grounded in material from public opinion polls; interviews with religious activists, Muslim leaders, and experts held in 2013–2017; and press and media materials. Data were drawn from a 2010 survey on religious issues (1200 respondents), which involved a nationally representative sample in the Republic of Tajikistan, and a survey conducted in 2014 (2000 respondents).

Religious extremism in Tajikistan: Researchers’ views

Numerous studies have examined extremism and radical movements in Tajikistan in recent years (Karagiannis, 2006; Olimova & Tolipov, 2011; Tarnby, 2012; Yilmaz, 2009). Many researchers have concluded that political Islam and radicalisation pose potential threats, but the magnitude is unclear and requires further study. They believe the roots of religious radicalisation are in the history of political Islamic movements and parties that fought with Tajikistan’s secular government. Of particular importance include unsatisfactory socioeconomic conditions and weak public administration, a potential for exporting ideas from countries in the Middle East and South Asia, and low levels of religious education (Tarnby, 2012, p. 84).

Some scholars have studied radical Islamic groups in Tajikistan in a regional context and in connection with the development of international extremist and terrorist Islamic movements (Olcott, 2007; Khalid, 2007). Such authors believe the threat of religious radicalisation to be especially high in Tajikistan, which shares a long border with Afghanistan and has close ties with various international Islamist movements. The government of Tajikistan shares these views, as officials consider the radicalisation of Islam and religious extremism to be major security threats. Typically, Afghanistan and Iran are considered the main sources of danger. At the same time, some researchers have recognised post-Soviet Islamisation but consider radicalisation in Central Asia to be a myth (Heathershaw & Montgomery, 2012). They have explained the emergence of this myth as a struggle of authoritarian central Asian regimes with an opposition under the pretence of a fight with radical Islamic movements and the preservation of secularism (Heathershaw & Montgomery, 2014; Tarnby, 2012).

Islam in contemporary Tajikistan: Overview of religious circumstances

Tajikistan is a landlocked country in Central Asia. Over 90% of its territory is occupied by mountains; only about 10% is suitable for cultivation. The population of Tajikistan is 9 million (2018), about three-quarters of whom live in rural areas. The country’s society is largely young, comparatively educated with significant levels of unemployment, and includes a large proportion of migrant labourers. According to the World Bank (2016): p. 30-31), Tajikistan is the most remittance-dependent country in the world. According to a2014 survey, the vast majority of respondents were Muslim (99.4%). Other religions were Christian (0.4%) and irreligious (0.2%). Among Muslim respondents, most were Sunni (87.1%). Others identified as Ismaili (3.2%) and Shia (1.4%); 7.1% of respondents did not know to which Islam streams they belonged, and 1.1% did not answer the question.

The majority of respondents (85.9%) reportedly belonged to the Hanafi branch of Islam, Math’hab. Besides the Hanafi and Ismaili branches of Islam, a small number of respondents belonged to the Khanbalia and Ja’fari branches. About two-thirds of Muslims were practicing: 50% stated they prayed five times per day, 76% regularly observed fasting during Ramadan, and 74% routinely visited a mosque and recognised Islamic values. There were more than 3,900 officially registered mosques on the territory of the Republic of Tajikistan as of January 1, 2017, including 48 central mosques, 326 cathedral mosques, and 3,551 five-fold mosques. Furthermore, there were three officially registered and operating Ismaili Jamoat-Khonas. In general, Tajik society is conservative and etatist. Older relatives hold the power and authority in the family. Families are included in communities overseen by government structures, elders, and mullahs (traditional spiritual leaders), all of whom restrain the spread of new radical views.

Public opinion on the role of Islam in society and in political affairs

The importance of religion in Tajik life is exceptionally high; 99.03% of respondents in the 2014 survey reported believing in God, and 96% stated they were more or less guided by religious views in decision making. Nevertheless, most of the population practices moderate Islam, which recognises the division of secular and spiritual values and entrusts more authority to state management. Shari’a laws only apply in the family–marriage sphere. This duality is clearly reflected in public opinion. Upon analysing respondents’ view pointson the role of Islam in political affairs in Tajikistan, the 2014 survey discovered that two major groups existed with nearly the same number of supporters: a) those who thought Islam should not play any role in politics (45%); and b) those who thought political leaders should not be religious but must consider Islam laws and morals. These groups believed it feasible to incorporate certain norms of the Sharia in civic legislation. A small proportion of people (1–2%) deemed it necessary to follow Islam norms in political affairs.

Public opinion regarding the interrelation of religion and government appeared to digress from the principles of secularism. About half of respondents (45.2%) concluded that religion should be separate from government political affairs compared to 79.6% who acknowledged that the government should support Islamic values in Tajikistan. The survey further identified three groups with nearly similar proportions: a) those who thought religious leaders should not hold any roles in politics (28.3%); b) those who thought religious leaders should express their opinions on political affairs, give advice to political leaders, and evaluate their performance from religious and moral points of view (28.6%); and c) those who thought religious leaders should be involved in political affairs with equal rights (25.7%).Most respondents (65%) believed that Tajikistan should have political Islamic parties based on moderate Islam.

State religious policy

Liberal religious policies were implemented in Tajikistan after the 1992–1997 civil conflict with the Islamic opposition movement and the 1997 peace accords. During this period, the formula of Tajik secularism was developed; it consisted of separating the state from religious organisations but not from religion. The legal framework and legislation in the field of freedom of conscience and religious organisations were prepared with the only parliamentary Islamic political party unique to Central Asia. A system of religious life management was thus established (Olimov & Sahibov, 2017).

Throughout these years, despite the consequences of civil conflict and poverty, the population of Tajikistan neither supported extremist and radical trends of Islam nor viewed religious radicalism and extremism as serious issues among the other problems facing the country. Since 2009, along with the announcement of the ‘Year of Imam A’zam Abu Hanifa’ and adoption of a new Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organisations, state religious policies have changed. The state has become increasingly involved in Islamic religious life. In addition to the Civil Code and the new Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organisations (2009), the religious sphere in Tajikistan is regulated by the Law on Rites and Traditions and the Law on Parental Responsibility for the Education and Teaching of Children (2011), which prohibits the participation of minors in religious activities and restricts visits to mosques by persons under 18. Later, the government decided to assign Friday sermon topics, introduce certification of imam-khatibs in mosques, and recall Tajik students studying at religious educational institutions abroad. In 2014, a state allowance was established for imam-khatibs. Video cameras were installed in all mosques in 2015, and public servants were advised not to attend Friday sermons. Private religious education was prohibited, and all madrassas were closed. The only remaining religious educational institution in Tajikistan was the Tajik State Islamic Institute named after Imomi A’zam. These actions were aimed at opposing religious radicalisation, extremism, and terrorism; according to official data, however, over 1,100 people from Tajikistan travelled to Syria and Iraq to participate in armed conflict.

Reasons for extremism

There are several popular theories regarding the social causes of religious radicalisation and extremism. Main reasons included is content with inequality, discrimination, poverty, and low quality of social services. A low level of education, poor health, low level of political participation, and social exclusion are other important factors behind radicalisation (Raffie, 2013). Some researchers have also pointed to a youth protest against social injustice and dysfunctional social lifts, pressure from authorities, a high level of state interference in religious life, and contact with armed conflict in Afghanistan and Syria (International Crisis Group, 2015; The Change Institute for the European Commission, 2008).

Our research has shown that after a quarter-century of post-Soviet transit, Islam has restored its place in the worldview and morals of Tajik citizens, the family–marriage sphere, every day practices, and, in many respects, social life. At the same time, there is practically no Islamisation in the spheres of economics, law, governance, and politics – or, if it exists, it is fragmented, such as in the sphere of Islamic banking and the production of halal products. Results of public opinion polls have shown that much of the Tajik population professes local forms of Hanafism, which recognises the separation of the secular and spiritual and affords administrative powers exclusively to secular authorities. From the point of view of the population of Tajikistan, however, secular power must also consider Islamic ethics and morals.

Practical analysts often focus on external causes of extremism, such as support from Gulf countries, Islamic proselytism, the spread of fundamentalist currents through foreign education, and Internet preaching. Many analysts argue that the growth of ISIS supporters in neighbouring Afghanistan can lead to the export of radical ideas to Central Asia. Nevertheless, our research indicates that reasons for radicalisation have an internal character, although external factors contribute to the transition to violence.

The Tajik experience exhibits a close link between violent extremists and criminal networks. There is a ‘prison jihad’, wherein prisons are used to recruit fighters, promote jihad, and help extremists gain authority through future work with young people while outside. International channels for extremist interaction are based on a) networks of drug trafficking, arms trade, human, and organ trafficking; and b) foreign interference and activities in international funds supporting extremists.

Youth radicalisation is often cited as a potential problem. In reality, however, the age structure of radicals is highest among people aged 30–35 earning an average or above-average income. Women make up 6–7% of all extremists in Tajikistan. According to data, religious extremists are generally recruited from four groups: 1) the unemployed; 2) educated urban youth earning a moderate to high income who encounter conflicts with the older generation; 3) labour migrants who work intermittently in Russia; and 4) security and military personnel (e.g., police, army, and athletes). The geopolitical struggle exerts a direct impact on the transition of religious radicalism to violence. The protracted conflict in the Middle East, as well as perceptions of the West’s policies towards Islam, serve as fertile ground for extremist agitation used to justify violence.

Contradictions of Math’habs

The experience in Tajikistan demonstrates that contradiction and conflict among Math’habs are often a reflection or consequence of political struggle. Elites mobilise spiritual leaders and ordinary Muslims to fight with followers of various Math’habs through media, the Internet, and activism. Sometimes this kind of mobilisation is not possible even with great effort. In the last decade, the ruling elite and official clergy of Tajikistan have repeatedly opposed Shiism; however, the population continues to tolerate various Math’habs and branches of Islam, including Shiism. Some Muslims in Tajikistan do not know about the differences among Math’habs. To clarify the attitude of Sunnis in Tajikistan towards Shia, a 2016 survey asked about respondents’ understanding of the difference between Shia and Sunni. The answers were split roughly evenly across 2040 respondents: 55% expressed an awareness of these differences, whereas 45% did not demonstrate sufficient knowledge.

Radicalisation and violent extremism, caused by Math’hab contradictions, are closely connected with the problems of religious education and enlightenment. Many religious leaders and officials have reported in interviews that the lack of a quality religious education is a main factor in the growth of radicalisation and violent extremism (International Crisis Group, 2015). However, dissatisfaction with the level of religious education actually hides the struggle of Math’habs and currents of Islam. Typically, those who are dissatisfied with the level and quality of religious education from traditional religious teachers and madrassas profess other ideologies and currents of Islam, which they consider to be ‘true Islam’. The negative impact of the deepening contradictions among Math’habs has pushed authorities to establish control over religious activity, propaganda of the ‘official’ Math’hab, and a prohibition policy. The authorities have driven religious education and enlightenment underground. As a result, a lack of Islamic knowledge and a desire to receive it provides extremists and radicals with a wide audience.

Radicalisation of migrants

Several researchers have claimed that more than 80% of recruitment cases of Central Asian migrants occurred in Russia during labour migration (De Cordier, 2013). According to a report from The Soufan Center, more than 5,000 combatants from Central Asian countries have fought in Syria and Iraq (Barrett, 2017). Several experts and journalists are convinced that Central Asian migrants in Russia have been radicalised because of difficult living and working conditions. Indeed, many migrant workers in Russia are in the shadow labour market, outside legal fields and under conditions of severe exploitation. They regularly face crimination and xenophobia. Materials from interviews have shown that migrants often experience a religious identity crisis and violation of social order in a clash with the host society, including conflicts with local Muslims in large city mosques. Migration forces individuals to leave localism at home, change their religious practices, and adapt to living conditions in the host country. Nevertheless, mosques do not directly affect migrant radicalisation; missionaries from radical movements and recruiters prefer not to act in mosques.

Differences in Math’habs constitute a main point of discussion for imams of migrants’ mosques. Every community in a mosque develops its own answer to this question. For instance, in the cathedral mosque of Perm, as alot is practiced according to the Hanafi and Shafi’I Math’habs. In mosques of northern Russia, namely in regions of oil and gas development, Muslims from the North Caucasus regions practice loud zikr in courtyards of mosques along with the Friday prayer. Some mosques communities consider a variety of options acceptable, whereas imams in other mosques consider this undesirable. In some mosques, imams are trying to create a certain order for different Math’habs and schools of Islam.

The mechanism of religious radicalisation of migrants

Following the methodology of Silber and Bhatt (2009), we studied the radicalisation of migrants in an early stage: preliminary radicalisation. Migrants responded to questions about the existence of threats to Islam and the possibility of resorting to violence to protect the religion. In 2014, 35% of Tajik migrants believed there were threats to Islam, and more than half of those surveyed believed Islam did not need protection with weapons but required moral self-improvement. Only about 1% of Tajik migrants said they would strongly support the use of weapons and violence against ordinary citizens to protect Islam;5% would somewhat support it; 27.5% would somewhat not support it; and 66% would strongly oppose it. Over the course of this study, we also looked at Tajik residents’ attitudes towards acts committed by suicide bombers: about 3% indicated that self-blasting for the purpose of protecting Islam could be justified, 12% believed such an act was rarely justified, 82% believed such acts could not be justified under any circumstances, and 3.1% had no opinion on the issue.

A survey from 2016 showed that the degree of acceptance towards violence to protect Islam had increased slightly compared to 2014. In 2014, 82% of surveyed migrants believed that self-blasting to protect Islam could not be justified under any circumstances; in 2016, 74.6% of respondents said the same. Moreover, in 2016, 12% of respondents indicated that violence could be used to protect Islam and Islamic values, more than the share of respondents with the same belief within the whole population of Tajikistan (7%).

Familiarity with radical ideologies and self-identification

The subsequent stages of radicalization are self-identification and ideological processing, when potential recruits are acquainted with radical ideologies, identify with these ideologies, and establish contacts with relevant networks. According to the survey of migrants in 2014, 6% of respondents considered themselves supporters of radical movements of Islam.

Analysis of respondents’ answers made it possible to assess markers of jihadisation risk among migrants. The most important markers were as follows: predisposition to violence in the name of Allah; susceptibility to joining a relatively closed religious group; susceptibility to dogma-induced psychotic depression; and interest in martyrdom. Although we cannot conclude that sympathy for violent forms of protest necessarily involves terrorist actions, it is clear that sympathy and uncertainty, unlike conviction, are necessary for the development of radical political views and subsequent terrorist actions. Sympathy for radicalisation was rare among surveyed migrants; nevertheless, risk factors included youth (18–24 years old), students and people with incomplete higher education, those with moderate to high income, those who visited mosques rarely or not at all, those in contact with Muslims from the North Caucasus, and members of religious groups.

The most notable phenomenon was the rejection of traditional local forms of Islam, accompanying the process of adaptation and integration into the host society. Research results revealed that migration to Russia influenced migrants in two ways: 1) the number of non-practicing Muslims, agnostics, atheists, and converts to other religions increased; and 2) the number of strictly practicing Muslims and religious activists increased (Olimov, 2018). Further, the group of traditional Muslims adhering to Hanifi Sunnism, which is traditional in Central Asia, appears to be declining. Given diverse opinions and positions, migrants move from one branch of Islam to another, turn to independent reading and interpretation of the Quran, and fall under the influence of various preachers. Changes in religious life during migration create objectively favourable conditions for the spread of new, modern forms of Islam among migrants and the transition to various areas of Salafism, including the idea of takfir, which is the ideological basis of jihadism (Olimov, 2018).

Countermeasures: Experience in Central Asian countries

Currently, potential support for radical religious movements in Central Asian countries is low; the social base is not broad and amounts to no more than 6–7% of the population. At the same time, we cannot ignore increasing radicalisation connected with growing social tension in society and internal changes in Islam, namely struggles related to the directions of Islam and contradictions between global and local Islam. This growth nonetheless remains constrained by a tranquil society, a strong position of state powers in all Central Asian countries, and traditional liberalism and tolerance of Central Asian Hanafism. Usually, countries in Central Asia use a security approach to counter the threat of violent extremism. This method offers an advantage to law enforcement agencies in monitoring, studying, and isolating agents of radicalisation and violent extremism. Yet despite great efforts, these actions are not always effective; they are short-term, whereas long-term measures are needed that should be aimed at preventing extremism by strengthening social and economic conditions and ensuring the rule of law and security. The Resolution, which is a basis for the UN Global Action Plan to Prevent Violent Extremism (2015), exemplifies this point: according to the Resolution, an effective response will require “a promotion of political and religious tolerance, economic development and social cohesion and engagement, cessation and resolution of armed conflicts” as well as the promotion of reintegration and rehabilitation.

What types of policy responses can be effective in preventing radicalisation and violent extremism? Presumably, policy measures should be aimed at preventing radicalisation; in particular, it is necessary to interrupt the phase of ‘pre-radicalisation’, during which people begin to sympathise with extremist ideas or terrorist movements without becoming immediate participants. Short-term reactive approaches to radicalisation and total control over religious organisations and spiritual leaders currently established in Central Asian countries should be abandoned. This does not prevent radicalisation but rather spreads religion underground, which in turn forces the state to increase pressure and create ever more powerful and complex mechanisms of pressure on Islam and enter into conflict with the population (Olimov, 2018). In addition, strict control over the religious sphere, which is designed to discourage radicalisation, forces people to hide their religious beliefs and place their religious life in the shadows. As a result, young Muslims find themselves defenceless and helpless against Salafist propaganda (i.e., Takfirists). In this case, the search for balance between resisting violent extremism and respecting human rights is of paramount importance. Systematic violations of human rights will lead society as a whole to become unprotected. The rule of law should hence be the top priority in countering violent extremism and ensuring security. National institutions including the government, police, and criminal justice systems should be key actors in preventing violent extremism. Prison systems should become centres of deradicalisation rather than hotbeds of extremism.

It is also important to support cultural and religious organisations of migrants. They could do much more in terms of combating radicalisation and violent extremism, but to achieve this, they need more support. They should be able to connect with those who are at risk of radicalisation, relying on a more solid foundation of legal and moral legitimacy. It is also necessary to maintain and enhance the resilience of religious communities and institutions so they can resist the spread of religious extremism through open discussion among religious leaders and believers as well as dialogue among various Madhhabs and directions of Islam.

Communities play avital role in counteracting radicalisation and violent extremism. The Tajik experience has identified increasing resilience and social cohesion in the post-conflict period as a key factor in the reintegration of militants and the attainment of peace. Another important point is raising public awareness, including working with the media, non-governmental organisations, and research and academic institutions. Although many researchers are studying the processes of radicalisation, as well as the dynamics and trends of violent extremism and the response to it in various regions of the world, results do not always appear in decision makers’ and practitioners’ fields of vision. Therefore, expanding cooperation between researchers, politicians, and practitioners is extremely important in preventing and counteracting violent extremism.




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Muzaffar Olimov

Professor of history at the Tajik State National University,

Muzaffar Olimov was formerly an associate in the al-Farabi Carnegie Program on Central Asia, the director of the SHARQ (ORIENS) Research Center, and a senior scientist at the Tajik Academy of Sciences Institute of Language, Literature, and Oriental Studies. Olimov’s published research focuses on history, religion, ethnology, and security in Central and South Asia. His recent work includes research on Islam in contemporary Tajikistan, human capital in Tajikistan, and labour migration in the region. Olimov is also a professor of history at Tajik State National University.