The Deterioration of Religious Freedom: Tajikistan’s Attempt to Counter Violent Extremism
By Alexandra Funk
Religious freedom is essential to a functioning, harmonious society. In Tajikistan, Islam has been integral to its culture and politics since the 7th century—that is until recently. In an effort to counter terrorism, the government is pursuing misguided policies that fuel violent extremism by limiting religious freedom.
In October, the member-states of the regional security group Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO)—Russia, Tajikistan, Belarus, Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan—held a summit in Yerevan. The documents adopted at the summit include a unified list of terrorist organizations and a measure that focuses on creating means of countering terrorism and extremism.
Given the region’s track record and Russia’s influence there—and in the CSTO—it can safely be assumed that these measures were not constructed with human rights principles in mind. It’s become abundantly clear that many of the organizations on the unified list are there because they have spoken out against their government’s policies, not because they have any actual terrorist designs. And in Tajikistan, much like the rest of the CSTO, religious minorities are feeling the brunt of this newfound campaign to counter violent extremism (CVE).
For the United States, the outcome of this summit is of direct interest because Washington has recently upped its engagement in Central Asia with an eye toward improving multilateral relations, supporting innovation and growth, and significantly, countering violent extremism and promoting human rights. The bedrock of the U.S. CVE model is the principle that counterterrorism efforts must address the political, social, and economic grievances that terrorist organizations exploit—most importantly, the human rights violations committed by repressive regimes.
Fundamental to U.S. efforts to engage in the region is the C5+1 program. Tajikistan—which has a role in both C5+1 and CSTO—is falling drastically behind its international human rights commitments as it ramps up measures it says are aimed at combating extremism and terrorism. A whole host of problems in the country are pushing individuals toward extremism and terrorist groups, including the leftover conflicts from a civil war, security concerns connected with its long border with Afghanistan, and dismal economic opportunities leading to extreme poverty and the emigration of more than one million Tajik migrant laborers to Russia. Against this background, the government itself is contributing to radicalization by implementing some of the world’s most restrictive laws on religion.
The 2009 Religion Law—a main agent in the deterioration and curtailment of religious rights—criminalizes unregistered religious activity, prohibits private religious education, tightens restrictions on the publication of religious literature, and sets strict limits on the number and size of mosques. The government is further working to eliminate outward signs of “radicalism” by banning Hijabs in schools and government buildings and detaining men with beards. Police in the southwestern Khatlon region have forcibly shaved the beards of approximately 13,000 men.
The state also imposed a requirement that restricts participation in the hajj—the Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca—to persons 40 years old and over, and limited prayer to four locations: mosques, cemeteries, homes, and shrines. In 2011, Tajikistan barred individuals under 18 from attending religious services outside of funerals.
In 2015, continuing its crackdown on Islam, the government criminalized the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), the country’s principal democratic opposition to President Rahmon—with whom he signed a peace agreement following 1997’s civil war. The supreme court shortly thereafter labeled IRPT an extremist and terrorist organization, citing questionable reports indicating it was involved in an attempted Islamic coup.
IRPT’s criminalization eliminated in Tajikistan—and Central Asia, more broadly—a peaceful opposition organization that represented the interests of the nation’s 90 percent Muslim population, proving that democracy and Islam are not mutually exclusive. Following the criminalization, the supreme court punished a number of IRPT leaders with lengthy prison sentences, including two life terms in an unfair and politically motivated trial on June 2, 2016. Further, many lawyers representing or attempting to represent IRPT members were subsequently detained—this month a court sentenced one of these lawyers, Buzurgmehr Yorov, to twenty-one years in prison.
As President Obama completes his last days in office, a new administration will determine how to continue the CVE and C5+1 programs. No matter what shape these programs take under the new president, one thing is certain: if they are to be successful, they must prioritize improving religious freedom in Tajikistan.
This is not a novel idea. Secretary Kerry recently urged Tajikistan not to clamp down on political forms of Islam, emphasizing that counterterrorism measures should be implemented in a manner that respects religious freedom. Thus far, however, the Tajik government is facing no practical consequences for its violations of freedom of religion and free religious expression.
Despite being a “country of particular concern” under the International Religious Freedom Act in 2016, the United States waived accompanying sanctions due to Tajikistan being a country of “important national interest.” The State Department argues that sanctions would be antithetical to achieving the economic stability and growth needed to attain regional stability and security, and that Tajikistan is a key partner to the United States in bringing security and peace to Afghanistan and providing supply and transit routes. The United States subsequently promised to advance and protect human rights in Central Asia through the C5+1, but in practice it is letting the authoritarian Rahmon regime continue its repression.
It is time the United States honors its promise. The Tajik government needs Washington for economic and security assistance, and the next administration must use this leverage by making aid contingent on improving the status of religious freedom. By imposing the sanctions associated with the International Religious Freedom Act, the Tajik government will hopefully consider repealing its restrictive laws.
If the United States hopes to protect human rights and lead in CVE, it must match its actions to its rhetoric, and react when partner nations use purportedly counterterrorism measures to target the religious rights of citizens precisely in ways the U.S. CVE program aims to prevent. By responding to Tajikistan’s repressive tactics, the United States can honor its own values and press for global security that is consistent with, and not a violation of, human rights.