TAJIKISTAN: Islamic Party 'Does Not Oppose' Action Against 'Genuine' Terrorists.

Igor Rotar, Keston News Service, 10 October 2001

‘We condemn the acts of terrorism in the United States and sympathise with the Americans,’ declares Muhhiddin Kabiri, the deputy head of Tajikistan’s Islamic Revival Party. ‘We do not oppose the use of Tajikistan’s territory for revenge action against the terrorists. However, we will only support the United States if the battle is against genuine terrorists. It is exceptionally important that the revenge action now underway should not become a campaign against Muslims,’ he told Keston News Service on 9 October from the Tajik capital Dushanbe.

The Islamic Revival Party (IRP) in Tajikistan, founded in 1990, originally called for the creation of an Islamic state in the republic, though it now limits itself to calling for a ‘worthy role’ for Islam in the affairs of state. The party’s founders were perhaps the chief enemies of the official clergy who were closely allied to the communist government. Keston’s correspondent first became acquainted with the party’s leaders in 1990 when it was still an underground organisation. What was perhaps most striking was to what extent they had managed to evade Russian and Soviet influence. Many party leaders, such as its head Muhammadsharif Himatzoda, speak virtually no Russian, but are fluent in Arabic.

The majority of the party’s supporters wear national dress and their way of life scarcely differs from that of Tajiks before Russian colonisation. The deputy head of the party Davlat Usmon once told Keston, in vivid illustration of the IRP’s patriarchal leadership: ‘An American journalist came to see us dressed in shorts. We very much wanted to help her find out about the situation, but her wild attire so embarrassed us that the discussions did not work out.’

In May 1992 the anti-communist opposition (of which IRP members formed the backbone) tried to seize power by force from the republic’s leadership, which consisted almost entirely of former communist party members. Tajikistan descended into a bloody civil war. A year later opposition fighters were forced to flee to Afghanistan. The war in the country continued, however, and opposition forces regularly mounted armed sorties into Tajikistan. More than 40,000 people were killed in the civil war and hundreds of thousands were left homeless. Peace did not return to Tajikistan until 1997, when the government and opposition reached an agreement to form a coalition government.

The IRP’s view of the 11 September attacks in the United States is important because the party unites the majority of those who support the creation of an Islamic state in Tajikistan. The very fact that it is expressing its readiness to work with the United States in the battle with terrorism gives cause to predict that the situation in Tajikistan will not become unstable, even though Washington has now begun revenge action against Afghanistan. There is an easy explanation for the IRP’s decision to support U.S. action: the party maintained close links with the ethnic Tajik leader of Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance, Ahmad Shah Masoud, who was assassinated on 15 September. The IRP fighters who fled to Afghanistan in 1992 fought in Masoud’s forces, first against Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and then against the Taliban movement.

The majority of Tajiks regarded Masoud as a national hero and it is no exaggeration to say that his death stunned the nation. All those who spoke to Keston voiced their conviction that he had been killed either by the Taliban or by followers of Osama bin Laden. It is significant that Tajikistan’s Minister of Emergency Situations, Mirzo Ziyeyev, even held a wake for Masoud.

During the civil war Ziyeyev was one of the most influential commanders of the Tajik opposition. In 1996 forces he led ousted government troops from the Karategin valley in the Pamir mountains close to the border with Kyrgyzstan (where the majority of opposition supporters live). He imposed Shariah law in the territory he controlled and the Karategin valley became in effect an unrecognised Islamic state. After the 1997 peace agreement, the Karategin mujahaddin merged with the government forces and, as their leader, Ziyeyev was appointed a government minister. Tashkent accuses Ziyeyev of providing help to fighters of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, who are responsible for several armed incursions into Uzbekistan. The fact that Ziyeyev today openly supports Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance guarantees that the majority of field commanders in the Tajik opposition will support Washington’s revenge attacks.

However, tribalism also plays a role in determining the reaction of the Tajik population to Washington’s attacks on Afghanistan. The Tajiks have not formed a single national identity and are divided into ethnic groups. The northern Leninabad (Sogd) region stands apart from the rest of Tajikistan, and gravitates towards Uzbekistan both economically and culturally. It takes only two hours to travel by car from the regional centre, Khodjand, to Tashkent, while the journey to Dushanbe takes more than 12 hours. Around 30 per cent of the population of Leninabad region are ethnic Uzbeks. In customs and even in physiognomy (many have Mongoloid facial features), the northern Tajiks are closer to Uzbeks than they are to their fellow-Tajiks in the south.

Visiting Leninabad region at the end of September, Keston found that the response of the local population to the 11 September attacks differed significantly from the opinion of people in southern Tajikistan. ‘There hasn’t been a war in the United States for 200 years,’ Sadynbai Sultanov, the imam-hatyb of the mosque in the town of Gafurov (situated in Tajikistan’s section of the Fergana valley, 30 kilometres from Khodjand), told Keston on 29 September. ‘Washington has preferred to unleash war in Muslim parts of the world, thousands of kilometres away from home. But if you play with matches all the time, then sooner or later you’ll set fire by chance to your own home as well. Today, Americans are answering before God for their own sins.’

Religious journalist Farrukh Akhrorov, who writes for the paper Leninabadskaya pravda, described local feeling. ‘Of course there is sorrow for the innocent people who died,’ he told Keston on 29 September, ‘but the majority of Leninabad residents believe that Washington itself provoked the acts of terrorism by its own anti-Islamic policy. People are afraid that if the United States begins revenge action in reality it will not be a battle with terrorists, but the murder of Muslims.’

It is significant that the radical Islamic party Hizb-ut-Tahrir has distributed leaflets written in Tajik and Uzbek in Leninabad region claiming that U.S. and Israeli special forces carried out the 11 September attacks in order to ‘launch a war against true Muslims’ (see KNS 9 October 2001).

‘Most Tajiks condemn the acts of terrorism in the United States. However, there is indeed a problem with Islamic radicals from the underground party Hizb-ut-Tahrir,’ the deputy head of the Tajikistan government’s committee for religious affairs, Ikromdin Nematov, told Keston in Dushanbe on 2 October. ‘The overwhelming majority of this party’s supporters are ethnic Uzbeks (who make up a quarter of Tajikistan’s population). The party also wields influence among some Tajiks in Leninabad region. It is natural that after the tragic events in the United States we should take even harsher measures to put a stop to the activity of Hizb-ut-Tahrir on Tajikistan’s territory.’ (END)