Two Imams, One Message

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Khujand, Tajikistan — Today’s interviews with two local Imams underscore the generational and demographic diversity within Tajikistan’s religious establishment. The older Imam leads an urban mosque in Khujand. His younger counterpart heads a congregation in a rural Uzbek community. Yet each man expressed similar concerns over the infiltration of foreign Salafi ideology. And each offered valuable insights on the local factors informing this process.

Those factors are three-fold. First, seventy years of Soviet rule left most Tajiks with only a superficial understanding of their religion and religious heritage. Few religious scholars were trained, and those that did receive formal religious education did so in state-controlled seminaries. This paucity of strong, indigenous religious institutions created a vacuum—one that foreign fundamentalist quickly tried to fill.

The second factor is a persistent sense of insecurity in Tajik society. Faced with pervasive poverty and government corruption, ordinary Tajiks have increasingly turned to Islam as in the hope of giving structure and meaning to their lives. This trend reflects both the weakness of Tajik civil society, as well as latent resentment toward the political leadership. Yet it also creates space for radicals that champion Islam as a refuge from—or revolutionary alternative to—Tajikistan’s social and political malaise.

The third factor is self-defeating policy. By over-regulating religious institutions, the Tajik government alienates traditional Islamic leaders while simultaneously associating them with the regime. By over-reacting to religious radicalism, its drives conservative and fundamentalist movements underground. These approaches marginalize quietist Muslims while cloaking radicals with a measure of legitimacy and authenticity that they might not otherwise possess. In this manner, the state’s unsophisticated efforts to co-opt or control religion may inadvertently empower the radicals it most fears.

I would add one additional insight to the Imams’ observations. Since the end of the Tajik civil war, the Rahmon regime has routinely used the fear of renewed conflict to discourage dissent and marginalize political opponents. Such rhetoric may dissuade those who remember the war. For those born during and after the conflict, however, the threat of civil discord lacks the same resonance. This may be why Salafi ideology appears to be making inroads among Tajikistan’s youth.