Research The Islamic Mediascape in Central Asia

The Transformation of Tajikistan’s Religious Field: From Religious Moderation to Authoritarian Salafism

By Shahnoza Nozimova and Tim Epkenhans

Presentation at workshop The Islamic Mediascape in Central Asia, October 2, 2017


Tim: Really sorry that I can’t be in Washington today. This is my first, I think my very first online conference paper I’m supposed to give together with Shahnoza. I hope I can fulfill my job in a way that you can understand me. And that you can get an idea about the very idea, what we have with our paper, which is called The Transformation of Tajikistan’s Religious Field: From Religious Moderation to Authoritarian Salafism.

I assume that some of you have already stumbled over the term salafism and I guess Shahnoza and I will have to comment on this a bit more extensively, so here is just perhaps a little bit of provocative term right now. We used to make our point in this era.

So what are we going to do today? What are we going to present? The idea of the points of departure is to look at the political transformation in Tajikistan post-conflict or after the peace agreement of 1997, until today. To look to the kind of interaction between Islam, the media, the state or the government, in this case, after 1997.

Our point of departure is that we thought of a certain characterization, how to sum up, understand the transformation of Tajikistan after 1997 and we came up with a periodization when it comes to Islam and the media as such, but also, in my opinion when we look at the political transformation of Tajikistan and when we look at the transformation of the civil society in Tajikistan, this periodization for post-conflict Tajikistan might make sense in this field as well.

But first of all we would like to refer here to Islam and the media in Tajikistan. So we identified three periods, three kind of time periods where we can still discuss the exact borders but we would suggest that there was a short post-conflict rehabilitation between 97 and 2002, where security was reestablished, where the fragile government of Rahmon consolidated its position regularly at least up until perhaps 2000, 2001.

Security was reestablished in Dushanbe at [inaudible 00:02:28]. Also, southern Tajikistan had something like an urban civil society reemerge or basically fight and tighten the resources to again claim their space with Tajik society. It was a slow process and most of the developments were not intentionable, the government had very low regular, generally, capacity at which the residence also for instance for Islamic topics, at this time was relatively low, which was partly due to the civil war.

We do no refer to this post-conflict rehabilitation period so extensively right now because of the timeframe, I would like to focus on the second period where we consider, we consider it very important for the further development of Tajikistan, which we have called Globalization and Domestic Détente between 2002, 2003 and 2014.

This is a period where we see that the religious field developed rapidly into a highly vibrant, diverse space. With a notable plurality of voices and intellectual trends and discussions at this time. This was, in our opinion, an unintended outcome, it was not somehow facilitated by the government. But for two reasons the government during this period between basically 2002, 2003 and perhaps until the late 2000s had preemptively little capacity to impose a more regulated idea about normativity and it is found in this case, as we see here by the standards of Tajikistan perhaps also when we look at the region as such.

Tajikistan had a remarkable societal plurality and to some extent also political plurality with the inclusion of the Islamic Revival Party to the government. So we see that at this time basically between 2002 and 2014, Islam became a more and more important issue in daily affairs in Tajikistan. Where we have on the one hand, a large part of the population that publicly started to practice Islam in public and more assertively than ever before.

We see here that a group of independent and highly diverse with a past of religious colors, took over the lead and then it was with the civil society to some extent, provided to certain relative space, by discussing related issues. Why did the government allow this or why did this happen, considering the authoritarian hold of government at the time already and the hostility towards Islam as such by major parts of the elites.

First of all we should consider here the globalization of Tajikistan into a larger regional and international context, which happened after 9/11 and after increased attention to Central Asia and to issues such as Islam in Central Asia after 2001. We saw a lot of international activities trying to facilitate the peace process and a dialogue between the government and the opposition, in this case the IRPT. I myself was involved in many of this, sometimes facilitated by ministry of foreign affairs, I was at that time working for the German one, but also by the OSCE and by the Swiss International Aid Agency.

Now we saw that there was to some extent the space created for discussing the dialogue form. And to another extent, the government at that time hesitating to simply shut down this kind of dialogue platforms, partly because individuals involved which supported this.

So basically the government on one hand, wanted to integrate or wanted to play a role in this increasing globalization at the time, the debut of China and the return of Russia was not as clear as it’s perhaps today. And to another extent, we see a relatively fragile, weak Government with simply the institutional capacity to regulate religion or consistently it was not given.

During that time, we saw that the Islamic media rapidly developed and here also we have to keep in mind that this was the time where the internet or electronic ways of communication increased in Tajikistan significantly and that basically facilitated the entire process of the domestic détente and globalization, where individuals with [inaudible 00:07:19] he could reach a large audience by using for instance different forms of electronic media, from smartphone ringtones to the internet as such by setting up blogs and so on.

During that time between the early 2000s and the late 2000s so 2009, 10, I myself observed, I don’t claim any form of consistency, 46 different blogs and about nine major home pages; fatwas, question and answers replaced, where we definitely saw that Islam became a major part of this new kind of diverse civil society and media discussion touching Islam as such.

The government reacted slowly to this transformation and that is the second major point of our today’s presentation. The government was always hesitating to include Islam into the narrative of Tajikistan’s national narrative and identity. For a very long, it was this idea of the Aryan origins of the Tajiks and there was basically Soviet patterns of Tajik history writing where they’re simply trying to stick to.

But slowly the government changed, I would still say that in 2006, 2007, is this major turning point in the reconsideration within the government, what to do with Islam. And that was highlighted by the fact that 2000 declared as the official year of Imam e Azam, so the founder of the Hanifi Mosque, Abu Hanifa, which was celebrated in Tajikistan 2009 with some resources.

Among others, Rahmon invited the [foreign language 00:09:19], to share a major conference in Dushanbe and Rahmon could stage himself, not only as the [foreign language 00:09:30], the leader of the nation but also as the Islamic leader as such, which then indicated the shift that the government started to reintegrate Islam into it’s national narrative.

However, with the transformation of the Islamic religious field before, we see that there was a major point of contention and this point of contention was that the transformation of the early 2000s created a highly diverse market of religious idealists. Where each individual lay religious person could find satisfying potentially individual tailored solution to her or his everyday questions or problems, morally and so on.

And this kind of diversity, of course, is a major challenge to any form of government regulation. And here from the perspective of the authoritarian, at times too soft, authoritarian government, Islam was eligible in the sense of [inaudible 00:10:41]. And unsystematic, so it had to be ordered and disciplined to a certain extent.

And then what we saw then from the later 2000s on that the government put two notes, on the one end its political process of consolidation but also started to improve its capacity to regulate religion as such. And Shahnoza will in a few moments refer to the so called Islamic Center, which, traditionally or from the historical point of view is basically part of the former Soviet institution to regulate Islam in Soviet Central Asia, the former SADUM. And the Markazi Islomi, so the Islamic Center was here. One element, which the during the independence at the time of the civil war was briefly known as the Muftyat. But it was basically dismantled in the time of post-conflict rehabilitation, but then, from the mid 90, 2000s on, it was again strengthened as one of the major institutions to regulate Islam in Tajikistan as such.

This was partially related also to personal change and it highlights something, which we won’t touch in this paper too much or now at today’s presentation too much. It is the question of individuals, of contingency and the entire process.

I still think when I look at how Islam in Tajikistan was negotiated over the last 15 years as long as I follow it, we see a lot of contingencies, individual characters came up and were able to occupy parts of the intellectual discussion within Tajikistan when it came to Islam. And it was never systematic or planned or related to structural causes.

And I would still say to some extent the development we saw since basically the late 2000s in the Islamic Center in Tajikistan under the chairmanship of [foreign language 00:12:44] or religious scholar until 2009. Is to some extent also contingent since after [foreign language 00:12:55] was able to somehow advertise his idea about Islam, his idea of normativity to the presidential administration.

There was a certain kind of understanding that by reoccupying the Islam or religion-esque part of larger Tajik identity, it would give the government a certain form of additional legitimization. It would also enhance or basically make it possible to integrate certain groups and individuals into the society and the larger government. Pro identity is very clear with former opposition individuals [foreign language 00:13:38] for instance is a good idea in this case.

Where we see this transition and the most interesting part of it, before I hand over to Shahnoza is something which is quite important and which is that one of the central points of our contention is that the reestablishment of the Islamic Center is as one of the major institutions to regulating Islam in Tajikistan was at the same time an effort to reduce the complexity and the ambiguity of religion within the society. And may bridge into action more legible from the government’s perspective so we call this, to some extent we see the paradox here, that today the Islamic Center has adopted a variation of Islam which to some extent resembles readings of Salafist origin.

Of course the government at the Islamic Center has always prosecuted any sort of Salafism within the country and also propogised that Salafism is not part of this authentic, traditional, real, patriot Islam but nonetheless when we look at how the government for instance dealt, and the Islamic Center dealt with dissident [foreign language 00:15:05], we see very clearly that there’s once an illusion to the idea of taqfir in Salafism and when we look at certain categories, Shahnoza will also relate to such a family, sexuality, migration, health and so on, religious volatility, we see very clear a paradox.

But now I think I’ve talked for about 15 minutes, so I would like to head over to Shahnoza right now.

Shahnoza: Good morning. I hope you’re all off to a good morning but in case if you woke up to strange dreams or anything like that, no worries, we’ve got you covered, we’ll tell you exactly where you can go, for the advice in case you need to …

So I will give now a short introduction to the empirical part of the paper. And it’s basically based on the third part of this periodization that we talked about where now Islam, as it is presented by the Islamic Center, which is now the part of the state establishment, of the state control in Islam. So it’s partially done by Markazi Islomi, so this is the quasi-religious constitutional collection of ulama who come from late Soviet, Soviet period training, but also some of them have already received their training in post-Soviet period.

And another part of this regulation is the committee on religion, which is a state secular institution. And exactly how the division of labor is conducted is not clear but what we can say is that both this quasi-state religious and also the secular institution together, they form up much of the establishment that defines and regulates the religious and cultural normativity in Tajikistan.

And formally Saidmukarram Abdukodirzoda who is the head of the council is considered the Grand Mufti and was in that, was in Tajikistan cause he’s considered the leader of the umma.

So we studied the Islamic Center’s website, which came online in 2014 and for some time it operated under the domain of and in 2015 it basically shaped up into the page that we know right now. But in 2016 they moved to a different domain name which is which basically stands for the council of ulama. So they studied religion, study belief.

The website is very well developed, it’s quite informative, it has short bios on all the members of the council, so they’re all nine of them, all men. And it has a relatively up to date news section that publishes news pertinent to the decision making of the council and also it has a small collection of the Islamic literature in Tajik. And also an embedded Quran reader that is in Arabic.

It also has the locations, so the addresses of the mosques in and around Dushanbe but not in the other regions. And what we saw when we looked at the website is that it basically performs two major functions; one of them is, they deliver the council’s position on the political issues of the day. So whenever, for example, the president addresses this issue of radicalization and terrorism, the council publishes an op-ed, echoing some of the message and it also adds some of their own interpretation and places it within the Islamic tradition, backs it up with some Islamic sources.

So for example, when President says, the historic mission of religion is unity and stability of community, not making divisions within the Muslim umma, the council adds that, if today so called Islamic movement, parties or groups find foothold in Tajikistan, the fate of Syria and Iraq shall descend upon us.

Time and time again, they openly condemn the IRPT ans especially when you look at what they were publishing in around 2015. And they argue that Islam does not need a party and that whoever claims so is in fact pursuing their own personal, destructive to the Tajik society ambitions.

And so there is always this stress on [foreign language 00:21:28] so religion is an advice, it’s not a platform for political mobilization, it’s moral guidance, moral compass. And it’s always, they stress that we need as a society, Tajik society to be grateful for stability and there should be value for unity.

So when for example in 2015 in Iran, the annual celebration of the general peace accord, IRPT issued an open statement to the guarantors of the peace accord saying there were violations of the major terms of the agreement. The council issued a statement to clearly identify their position that first of all, IRPT do not represent the Muslims in Tajikistan and then second of all, either they claimed to not have any standing or that they have outlived their statute of limitation.

On the other occasion, an interesting role that this op-ed play is that the council tries to establish its relevance in the public discourse. So for example 2017 is the year of youth in Tajikistan and in an official remark that they had the council gave on the conference of youth and radicalization, he said, “Although the name of our Islamic center has not been inscribed in the year of youth decree, the officials of our institution have vested interest in the sensitive issue of teaching and training.” So in Islam the central concept of taribiya of youth and teens instilling humility, humanity and patriotism and respect for national and religious values in their minds.

And they bring up constantly this conception of depoliticized Islam which is very political in nature, so there’s this paradox which is their vision of [foreign language 00:24:17] so this is the version that there is a single version of Islam to which the whole nation should adhere and that is the guarantee of the national unity in Tajikistan.

But in this op-ed, what this [foreign language 00:24:41] entails is not quite clear. So in the second function of the website and then we’ll look into this part, to try to figure out parts and parcels of what this great picture within [inaudible 00:25:02] is.

And so we analyze the section on the question and answers and in many aspects its not different to any online fatwa outlet that you get, right. It mostly deals with the issues of practice, you know, major subsections of the most popular subsections on things like ablution, prayer,  fasting, pilgrimage and so on.

But another, more interesting things that we came up were in the section on, for example, theology or household affairs and also on religious normativity. And important to note that within the current iteration of this religious field on the internet but also within Tajikistan itself, they have the monopoly of issuing religious edicts, so the Islamic Center.

So, for example, the IRPT have also a fatwa section on their website but in 2013, the ministry of justice, so that is before 2015 when they were completely outlawed, in 2013, the ministry of justice demanded they should stop issue religious opinion, online and also within their party. So they had the Islamic Academy.

Another popular website was the Turajon brothers online fatwa outlet that also went offline in 2015. So basically for about two years the council has the monopoly on all the fatwas that are issued both sort of physically, in the regular city fatwa within the council, but also online.

Based on our reading, at times we see these very conservative outlooks on certain issues and especially on denouncing the roles of this alternative, perhaps political factions, what they call in Islam.

And another aspect is gender issues and the role of women in Tajikistan.

So before I go into some of the examples, I can get into that during the Q and A section, I want to discuss why we might be seeing this. And we argue all so far we are proposing that we might see this very narrow, conservative interpretation, because it pleases the social imaginings of the male dominant elite and also male religious audience so the lay audience in Tajikistan, there is considerable, it takes into consideration only male interest.

And another aspect that we’ll also argue is within making this Islam more legible is that by integrating this national identity narrative, it makes it more legible by eliminating the alternative, more complex and very local interpretations of Islam.

And also by occupying the [inaudible 00:29:10] from centralist to very rightist point, wide area of positions, they eliminate the need for, or they occupy the discursive space which can be claimed for example, by more dissident Islamic groups and activists.

But also more importantly, such imagination, it legitimizes the status quo or as it has emerged post 2015. So for example, when it is asked why do the head of the council always talks about the need to follow the Hanafi Mazhab, one of the Abdul of the city of [inaudible 00:30:12], when he asks these questions, there is no reference that it was [foreign language 00:30:21] that was followed traditionally or historically in central and so on.

That interpretation is not given, it’s clearly said that in the contemporary time, we have to think about the stability and unity of our society, so adherence to a single madhab is the central aspect of the way that Islam should be practiced in Tajikistan.

So I want to end by a short comment on the Islamic literature that is being used by the Markaz Islami and it actually starts quite diverse, so in the earlier fatwas they are more diverse references. But there is certainly a very heavy influence of the, what we identify as the South Asian tradition, so things like Fatawa-e-Alamgiri so this was the sermont commissioned by the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb and more things like [foreign language 00:31:45], so these are all major influences within the Deobandi Movement.

And it should be noted that, for example, the head of the council, he is himself, he studied in the mid 1990s in Islamabad in Pakistan.

So, getting back to your morning, if you didn’t wake up to a dream that you were flying or swimming, good news it means that something great is expecting you. And how do we know this? Because interestingly among this more normative interpretation, what we found curious, there is a lot of questions on dreams. And that was something different from what we have for example observed in [inaudible 00:32:48] that website there was no this trend as such. Maybe one or two but this is certainly a trend, it seems to be for anybody who wants to know, an interpretation of what they have been up to, while they were asleep.

But you know other things you might be out of luck so if you were wondering color additives are safe, not just safe, whether or not they are halal. You will not receive an answer for that because it says, if you have any questions about that, go to Tajikistan FDA, they will tell you the answer. So color additives we don’t know but certainly dream interpretation is a thing.

Thank you.


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