Party spokesman Mahmudjon Faizrahmonov and Muhammadjon Kabirov, head of the IRPT’s mass media department and cousin of Muhiddin Kabiri, are convinced that the ban of their party has led to an increase in radicalisation among young Tajik Muslims. “When the party was active, the youth had a chance to use their religious insight for social and political activities. But now, young people don’t even believe in elections anymore,” Faizrahmonov tells me. “Just look at the numbers: before 2015, there were around 250 Tajik ISIS fighters. Now, it’s over 1,000.”
It’s understandable why the Tajik authorities are worried. But employing ham-fisted methods at home can hardly help social stability
Indeed, Faizrahmonov fears it is political nihilism, not religious piety, that will breed violence in Tajikistan. An increasing body of research on countering violent extremism, whether from the US military or European scholars of Islam such as Olivier Roy, bears this out — many ISIS recruits from overseas are hardly pious in their former lives, having superficial religious knowledge.
However, the IRPT’s view of radicalization may be missing something. While the Islamic State’s threat to Central Asia itself has been massively overstated in English-language media, Tajiks are by and large not actually radicalized in Tajikistan. Instead, most people from Tajikistan who join terrorist organizations were radicalized while working as labour migrants in Russia, where they live in precarious and often denigrating conditions.
Tajikistan is trying to persecute what was once Central Asia’s only legal Islamist party out of existence. But is this really about countering terrorism, or just cracking down on dissent in any form?