The Islamic Rebirth Party, IRP, is the only legal Islamic party in Central Asia, but in the past year it has come under increasing pressure from the authorities.
The IRP holds just two seats in parliament, and will need to work hard to broaden its appeal among voters if it is to do better in the 2005 election.
But there are fears that younger Islamists may desert it in favour of Hizb-ut-Tahrir, a banned group which appears to be gaining grassroots support despite continuing arrests of its members.
In an interview with IWPR, the party’s deputy chairman Muhiddin Kabiri dismissed speculation that Hizb ut-Tahrir might develop into a feasible political alternative, “There is no need for another Islamic political party in Tajikistan.”
IRP leader Sayyed Abdullo Nuri had earlier made similar comments in an interview published in the party’s Najot newspaper.
Kabiri drew a clear line between the IRP’s views and those of the underground movement. While his own party supports democratic principles, he said, Hizb-ut-Tahrir is foreign-funded, operates illegally and is hostile to the current constitutional set-up in Tajikistan.
The party official stamped on the idea that the two groups could somehow be equated as options for political Islam, saying that even the most cursory comparison shows how drastically their aims differ, “Unlike Hizb ut-Tahrir, the IRP is not a trans-national party, its activities are confined to Tajikistan and it operates within the framework of the country’s constitution.”
“The IRP believes that the democratic freedoms accepted by the international community are compatible with the ideas and norms of Islam,” he said, contrasting this with the Hizb ut-Tahrir axiom that the modern secular state is a western import and should be replaced by a “caliphate”.
Kabiri underlined Hizb-ut-Tahrir’s foreign roots – the group originated in the Middle East in the early Fifties – and claimed that its organisation in Central Asia is still managed from abroad, so that its structure and methods do not fit with the region’s own religious traditions.
Hizb-ut-Tahrir first gained a foothold in Uzbekistan in the mid-Nineties, and became well-known through its extensive distribution of radical leaflets, which has continued despite the jailing of hundreds of members. It then spread to southern Kazakstan but especially neighbouring areas of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan where there are substantial Uzbek minorities, who appear to form its core.
It remains beyond the pale in all four countries, whose leaderships – suspicious of any form of political Islam – are naturally concerned by a group which says it wants to do away with them. Uzbekistan, though, remains the prime target for Hizb-ut-Tahrir’s propaganda campaign, and reciprocates with extremely repression.
In Tajikistan, the chief prosecutor’s office says 118 Hizb-ut-Tahrir supporters are now in jail – but it estimates that the clandestine party has at least 3,000 followers. This year, some arrests were made in the southern region of Hatlon, far from the group’s recruiting grounds in the northern Soghd province, close to the Uzbek border.
The IRP – which has a much longer history in Tajikistan – has been extremely wary of Hizb-ut-Tahrir since its appearance in the country. The animosity is mutual – the radical group has accused IRP leaders of selling out to the authorities.
There are some indications that IRP leaders like Kabiri have started speaking out more stridently against the banned group to quash rumours that some kind of alliance might be in the making.
Given the gulf between their respective positions on the political spectrum, the IRP could only lose by such an alliance, and it is more than possible that the rumours are part of a deliberate smear campaign.
Analysts suggest that what the party is really worried about is that younger devout Muslims who would otherwise be its natural constituents might be drawn to the more radical ideas voiced by Hizb ut-Tahrir.
The IRP has changed a lot since the days when its hardened guerrillas were the mainstay of the United Tajik Opposition, which battled with government troops during the a five-year civil war that ended in 1997.
The ensuing peace deal gave it a share of government posts and required it to disarm its men. Although some local commanders retain an armed retinue, demilitarisation was largely a success.
The IRP transformed itself into a legal political party, but performed poorly in the general election of 2000.
While critics say IRP leaders have lost credibility by cosying up to the government of President Imomali Rahmonov, the party itself has complained of increasing pressure from the authorities over the last year.
A number of its senior officials have been arrested, and in the highest-profile case, deputy leader Shamsuddin Shamsuddinov was jailed for 16 years in January this year. According to Radio Liberty, the charges on which he was convicted were questionable since they related to the civil war period – for which there has been a general amnesty.
On the subject of Hizb-ut-Tahrir, the IRP’s tactic is to align itself firmly with the government’s position. Kabiri said that both his party and the authorities had badly underestimated the group’s influence, and were still failing to cope, “At the moment, all sides – the government, the IRP and the official religious bodies – are unable to compete with Hizb ut-Tahrir’s propaganda.”
But unlike the authorities, Kabiri opposes the use of repressive policing methods to counter the threat, “They are not the solution; they will only have the reverse effect of boosting its image among the public.”
Kabiri believes people can be dissuaded from supporting Hizb ut-Tahrir through education. Some are drawn to the clandestine group without realising how radical its aims are. “It is all because of the lack of a proper modern religious education,” he said.
Salima Vahobzade is a reporter for the Vecherny Dushanbe newspaper.
This article was originally published by the IWPR (Institute for War Peace Reporting), London, in the Reporting Central Asia Service (RCA, No. 264, 11 February 2004). The Institute for War & Peace Reporting strengthens local journalism in areas of conflict. Religioscope has been allowed by the IWPR to repost its articles.
© 2003 Institute for War & Peace Reporting