The Threat of Islamic Radicalism in Tajikistan: Myth or Reality?

The Threat of Islamic Radicalism in Tajikistan: Myth or Reality?

Tajikistan’s government is cracking down on “extremism,” forcibly shaving beards and harassing the political opposition. Is there any evidence of a “radicalization problem” in Tajikistan? The best data suggest no.

Earlier this year officials in the Khatlon province of Tajikistan announced that over the last year they had shaved the beards of nearly 13,000 men and “convinced” 1,800 women to stop wearing hijab. Part of a country-wide campaign ostensibly aimed at thwarting Islamic extremism, in the last year, authorities have arrested numerous religious leaders critical of President Emomali Rahmon’s regime, and in August 2015, the Rahmon administration banned the country’s leading opposition party, the moderate Islamic Renaissance Party.

President Rahmon, who has held power since 1992 (including during Tajikistan’s devastating 5-year civil war), has long been wary of religious expression. In 2009 the state introduced a law requiring all religious groups to register, limiting the number and location of mosques, and requiring approval of all religious publications. Since then, additional regulations have banned children from attending religious events, prohibited hijab in schools, and prevented male government employees under age 50 from wearing beards. Yet the crackdowns carried out in the last year raise new concerns about the regime’s authoritarian practices.

Each of these measures has been justified in the name of fighting Islamic radicalization. Tajikistan has indeed faced a handful of small-scale attacks in recent years, including assaults against police units near the capital, Dushanbe, in September 2015. However, whether this or similar attacks can in fact be tied to radical Islamic groups has proven extremely difficult to determine, precisely because of the state’s eagerness to pin the extremist label on all opponents.

Using survey data, from the highly regarded Pew Research Center, however, one can get a better sense of the level of support for terrorism among the Tajikistani public. Data were gathered in late 2011 and early 2012, before the latest crackdowns in Tajikistan and thus do not reflect how Tajikistanis have reacted to the most recent wave of repression. However, they can help uncover whether the justification given for this and for earlier clampdowns has basis in reality.

Table 1 displays the mean scores for survey respondents in ten Muslim countries who were asked whether they believed “suicide bombing and other forms of violence against civilian targets” could be “justified in order to defend Islam from its enemies.” The scale of responses ranges from 0 (never justified) to 3 (often justified). As shown, Tajikistani respondents demonstrate substantially lower levels of support for violence than do respondents in any other country, including both their Kyrgyzstani neighbors and Muslims in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Turkey, which are generally considered quite moderate.

Table 1: Average Support for Use of Violence to Defend Islam

Afghanistan 1.199*
Egypt 0.982*
Indonesia 0.273*
Iraq 0.238*
Jordan 0.653*
Kyrgyzstan 0.405*
Malaysia 0.575*
Pakistan 0.348*
Tajikistan 0.156
Turkey 0.488*

*There is a statistically significant difference between this country and Tajikistan.

Tajikistani public officials argue that monitoring religious expression thwarts radicalization. To test whether there is in fact a relationship between religiosity and radicalization, I ran two separate regression models to assess what factors are correlated with support for violence in Tajikistan. Both models included seven questions related to religious belief and practice, listed in Table 2, as well as control variables for age, income, education, household size, and whether the respondent lived in an urban or rural area.

The first model included male respondents and contained a variable noting whether the respondent had a beard. The second model included both men and women and excluded this variable. In both models, only one of the religiosity variables—prayer frequency—had a positive and statistically significant relationship with support for violence. However, the effect of this variable is extremely small: the probability of responding that violence against civilians is often justified increases by less than 1% for someone who prays five times a day compared to someone who never prays. Moreover, among men, increased reading or listening to the Koran is associated with a (statistically significant) decrease in support for violence. Wearing a beard and mosque attendance—two behaviors that the Rahmon regime has heavily monitored and regulated—show no relationship to support for violence against civilians.

Table 2: Results of Regression Analyses, Relationship between Religiosity and Support for Violence

Question Model 1:
men only
Model 2:
men and women
Do you believe in Allah and his Prophet? No correlation No correlation
How important is religion in your life? No correlation No correlation
How frequently do you pray? Positive correlation Positive correlation
How often do you attend mosque? No correlation No correlation
How often do you read or listen to Koran? Negative correlation No correlation
Do you give alms? No correlation No correlation
Do you fast for Ramadan? No correlation No correlation
Respondent has a beard. No correlation --

Thus, despite the Rahmon regime’s justifications for its increasingly despotic crackdowns against people of faith, there is little evidence that Tajikistanis—including the most pious Tajikistanis—would support terrorism at home or abroad. If anything, the greater danger is that state repression could promote radicalization, particularly with the one outlet for moderate political expression, the Islamic Renaissance Party, now proscribed.