Jun 13

Is Tajikistan Really Jihad’s Next Frontier?

The spectacular defection of Tajikistan’s paramilitary commander Gulmurod Halimov to the Islamic State has caused an unprecedented flurry of English language press coverage of Tajikistan. Articles and op-eds on the situation have been published by the New York Times, Vice News, CNN and Washington Post amongst others. Long-standing predictor of the Central Asian fall, Ahmed Rashid, penned an op-ed in the New York Times that typifies many of the assumptions that underpin the discourse of Islamic danger. In the piece, he argues that “A new front line against Islamist militancy involving the Islamic State is forming along the Tajikistan-Afghanistan border.”

According to the dominant narrative, Tajikistan is on the verge of Islamist collapse. The threat is both external, coming from neighbouring Afghanistan, and internal, coming from Tajiks fighting in the Islamic State. Rashid predicts “a major expansion of Islamist militancy in three fragile states that have so far been spared it.” Halimov’s defection is supposed to signal a radicalisation of Tajik society en masse. “The development on Thursday raised concerns of growing extremism in Tajikistan,” the New York Times says.

Whilst journalists with regional knowledge from the BBC, EurasiaNet, The Telegraph and The Diplomat are more attuned to the nuances of the Tajik case, unfortunately the vast majority of the other articles merely perpetuated the long-standing myth of Islamic radicalisation in Central Asia outlined by John Heathershaw and David Montgomery in their recent Chatham House paper.

Why do analysts predict the collapse of Tajikistan?

Like their Sovietological forefathers, journalists like Rashid lend too much credence to local officials who are always eager to paint the region as an imperilled place. Rashid relays their figure of 5,000 Central Asian citizens fighting in northern Afghanistan; how the security serviceman derived the figure is anyone’s guess. Some news outlets have been sucked in entirely. Vice News published a piece that appears to be satirical at first glance, but seems to be deadly serious. The article extols the wonders of Tajikistan’s “radical” new approach to tackling terrorism: amnesties. “Instead of threatening returning militants with imprisonment or stripping them of their citizenship, officials with the post-Soviet nation have opted to forgive first time terrorists,” we are told. What the author fails to mention – or probably realise – is that Tajikistan’s counter-terrorism approach is highly authoritarian, involving mass arrests, forced shavings and restrictions on religious practice.

Many analysts make sweeping generalisations with based on little or no evidence. John Pike, founder and director of GlobalSecurity.org, who is not known for his knowledge of Central Asia, tells Fox News that “one guy more or less would not make a lot of difference, but if a person in his position would change teams, then you would have to worry that there might be others who would also change teams.” Two weeks after the Halimov defection we are yet to see a surge of fresh Tajik recruits. In fact, there is no evidence that his video has had any impact on recruitment at all.

Most analyses conflate a rising interest in Islam in Central Asia with societal radicalisation. Deidre Tynan, International Crisis Group Central Asia director, told the New York Times that “many people in the region followed developments in the Middle East closely, and that there was substantial support for imposing Shariah, the legal code of Islam based on the Quran, and for the idea of a caliphate.” According Tynan’s  logic, being interested in Islamic practice makes more susceptible to radicalisation. But in fact, very few Tajik militants have received any formal religious training; most are recruited due to a mix of marginalisation, misinformation and interest in macho culture. In other places, journalists have made glaring factual errors. Rashid claims that most Tajiks are Sufis, when the vast majority are Hanafi.

Long-Standing Predictions, Yet Central Asia Remains Resilient

It is worth noting that predicting that Central Asia will be overrun by militants is nothing new. This discourse of Islamic danger harks back to the Sovietological analyses of Alexandre Bennigsen and Michael Rwykin who wrote books The Islamic Threat to the Soviet State and Moscow’s Muslim Challenge. Rashid has been writing that Tajikistan is on the brink of Islamist chaos since the early 1990s when he wrote The Resurgence of Central Asia: Islam or Nationalism? And his latest op-ed “Jihad’s New Frontier: Tajikistan” bears remarkable resemblance to another NYT op-ed that he wrote back in 2010 at the time of the conflict in the Rasht Valley. In “Tajikistan: The Next Jihadi Stronghold?” he argues that: “both Tajiks and foreigners concede that it would make perfect sense for al-Qaeda and the Taliban to expand their operations and bases into the weak southern hinterland of Central Asia.”

Despite all these predictions, Tajikistan has proved remarkably resilient and spill-overs from the Afghan conflict have been rare. Armed conflict, such as the Rasht Valley (2009-11) and Khorog (2012, 2014), has been more about local political economy than about transnational Islam. Radical Islam has limited appeal to the local population.

Indeed, the Islamic State has exceedingly limited support in Central Asia. Only a trickle of Tajiks have joined its ranks. As spectacular as Halimov’s defection may be, the process by which he came to travel to Syria was highly personalised, and does not reflect a broader trend in the Tajik state and society.