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Tajik Clampdown on Islamic Group Could Backfire

Experts fear Tablighi Jamaat missionary organisation may be further radicalised after mass detentions.
By Nargiz Hamrabaeva
Scores of members of a banned Islamic organisation are in custody awaiting trial as part of a crackdown on a group that the authorities claim wants to violently overthrow the Tajik government.



Some experts question whether Tablighi Jamaat, whose main mission is proselytising, is as dangerous as the authorities make out, while others argue that an excessively heavy-handed approach could radicalise members and drive them underground.



A series of mass arrests were carried out across Tajikistan earlier this year, with 124 people arrested in one raid alone on a mosque in the capital Dushanbe in mid-April. Although most were soon released, four alleged members of Tablighi Jamaat – banned in Tajikistan in 2006 – face trial on charges of inciting religious, national and ethnic hatred.



Officials alleged that they had undergone training in religious centres in Indonesia, Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates.



A further 46 were detained in arrests during March and April in the southern Khatlon region. Twenty-three of this group were released shortly afterwards under a court order forbidding them to leave the country and are currently under investigation.



In August, five of the 46 were sentenced to prison terms of between three and six years for belonging to an extremist organisation, organising a criminal group and calling for the violent overthrow of the government.



Another 18 remain in custody awaiting trial on similar charges.



An official from the interior ministry who asked not to be named told IWPR that Tablighi Jamaat did represent a real danger, although he did not offer evidence that members were involved in subversive activity within Tajikistan, apart from distributing Islamist pamphlets.



“They’re extremists,” he said. “Tablighi Jamaat wants to create an Islamic state. The movement is banned by the justice ministry, and the ban is there because they’re dangerous. They’ve studied illegally in Pakistan, and since they were there illegally, it’s more than likely they received training in terrorist camps.”



On the group’s general aims, he said, “They have dangerous plans. There’s intelligence information implicating Tablighi Jamaat members in acts of terrorism in India and Pakistan. In addition, supporters of the movement who have been detained in Dushanbe have been found to be in possession of propaganda leaflets and religious literature.”



Analysts are divided over whether Tablighi Jamaat, an international Muslim revivalist group, poses any real threat.



Some say the authorities are simply bundling the movement together with other outlawed groups such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, an armed group calling for the overthrow of the Uzbek government and Hizb ut-Tahrir, which aims to create an Islamic state in Central Asia.



Others, however, say Tablighi Jamaat’s loose recruitment polices could be exploited by radicals. Internationally, some followers have been accused of links to terrorist groups.



According to Tajik officials, Tablighi Jamaat ideology first appeared in the country in 1997, brought back by refugees returning from Pakistan and Afghanistan at the end of five years of civil war in Tajikistan. Supporters are typically aged between 18 and 30, and include ethnic Uzbeks as well as Tajiks.



The Tajik security source said they were being monitored by government informants “in every mosque”.



“Very often, Tablighi activity is uncovered due to a tip-off from someone. Well-wishers inform the police that Tablighi Jamaat [followers] are preaching somewhere or are going to proselytise.”



A 32-year-old member who gave his name as Khurshed explained why the movement appealed to him.



“During the civil war when I was a teenager, I lost my parents. With a group of relatives I left for Afghanistan and from there on to Pakistan. I returned home several years ago, but it turned out that no one needed me, no one was waiting for me,” he said.



“Thanks to my involvement in Tablighi Jamaat, I have found a meaning to life and a chance to fulfil myself.”



Khurshed said members of the group, who tend to wear long loose shirts, white caps and grow short beards, were being unfairly targeted.



“When people look at us they often call us extremists and confuse us with terrorists,” he said. “But our ideology is peaceful, and we don’t meddle in politics or strive for power or the creation of an Islamic state. Our mission is to go out there with our message, at times overcoming hardship and difficulties. We call on people to lead a righteous way of life and seek secular and religious knowledge, and we hold talks on theological topics.”



Reluctant to divulge the exact number of members in Tajikistan, Khurshed said, “There are many of us, several thousand.”



Other estimates put the figure at around 6,000.



Khurshed told IWPR that following the recent crackdown, members went underground and changed their appearance.



“Following the ban and a number of show trials, we’ve become more careful. We’ve started to dress differently and stopped actively preaching in public places and mosques,” he said.



“If authorities hadn’t banned it, in a couple of years Tablighi Jammat would have become the largest Islamic organisation in Tajikistan.”



Political analyst Abdullo Qurbonov said that while it was doubtful that the movement was expanding, forcing it underground could make it more dangerous.



“In calling for a pure Islam, the preachers from this organisation recruit more new followers and, ideologically, they bring them to the conclusion that Muslims should pursue jihad [holy war] against infidels.”



Qurbonov said he understood that radical Islamic groups had approached some Tablighi Jamaat members to recruit them for military training, and alleged there was proof that some of those who attended Tablighi Jamaat meetings went on to join armed groups.



“Tablighi Jamaat does not recognise the state as a legitimate entity from an Islamic point of view. For them, only the ummah [Muslim community] exists, and nothing else,” he said.



However, Muhiddin Kabiri, leader of the Islamic Rebirth Party, argued that the ban on Tablighi Jamaat was designed to curtail the spread of Islamic ideas that were outside the control of the state. He said the movement was not extremist and presented no security threat.



“This movement makes a point about being apolitical, it shies away from current political affairs, and it does not stress the differences in outlook that exist among Muslims. It avoids all contacts with political Muslim entities, and that is an indication of its peaceful character,” said Kabiri, whose party is the only recognised Islamic political force in Central Asia.



Tajik analyst Parviz Mullojonov agreed that Tablighi Jamaat does not pursue political goals.



“It was their non-confrontational nature that was the reason why they have initially been tolerated by the secular authorities and local religious establishment in most of the countries where they’ve started operating,” he said. “But that benevolent attitude has changed first to suspicion and then to open hostility.”



Mullojonov views the group’s lax recruitment policy as problematic.



“The selection criteria for becoming a Tablighi Jamaat preacher is rather loose, and people with quite radical views often join. As a result, many Islamist leaders call on their supporters to join Tablighi Jamaat so that they can influence its policies and ideology and use its legal status and peaceful image for their own ends,” he said.



He said some experts in the United States suspected that many Tablighi Jamaat followers were in fact using the organisation as cover. In Tajikistan, he concluded, the authorities seem to have decided that “it is easier to ban them once and for all, just in case, than to go out on a limb and then discover they’ve made a mistake”.



Nargiz Hamrabaeva is a correspondent with the Tajik news agency Asia Plus.

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