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Tajik cities at risk of an ‘Islamist explosion’

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Dushanbe (AsiaNews) – An “Islamist explosion” in Tajikistan’s cities is increasingly likely, writes Paul Goble in a piece published on Tuesday by the Jamestown Foundation.

According to the researcher, the main centres of the “Islamist revival of the last 30 years” are the cities, not poor rural areas.

This is due to the “communication revolution” and the “loss of familial ties” of young people moving from rural villages to fast-growing cities.

If this was true in Iran and the countries hit by the Arab Spring, and “it is even more so now in Central Asia” – “nowhere more than in Tajikistan, the most Islamic, and one can also say Islamist, country in that region.”

In the big cities of the former Soviet Republic and in some Tajik diasporas in Russian cities like Moscow, Salafists and Wahhabis, known for their radical interpretations of Islam, have made huge inroads.

This has been a source of concern for Tajik authorities, whose countermeasures, like closing down 2,000 unofficial mosques in 2017, have so far proved counterproductive.

Two Tajikistani experts, Khokim Mukhabbatov and Mavdzhigul Ibadullayeva of the ‘Muslims Against Narcotics, Extremism, Force and Terrorism’ say that Salafism and Wahhabism attract young men between the ages of 18 and 30 who left their villages for the cities or for work in Russia.

Their religious worldview was “formed not by imams and mullahs in their villages but by Internet sites that appealed to them as Muslims rather than as villagers or Tajiks.” From this, it was only a short step from there for them to become recruits for the Islamic State.

Tajik authorities have hesitated between incentives and suppression, between making concessions – like amnesties and reaching out to Salafist backers in Qatar and Saudi Arabia – and cracking down hard.

“Neither approach has worked, the two experts say. The first has been taken by the Salafists as an indication of [. . .] the weakness of the Tajikistani government. And the second has created an ever-larger group of people either in prison or listed as extremists who have no reason to support the government and every reason to join with others in opposing it or even seeking its overthrow.”

What is more, Salafists and Wahhabis have a “real advantage” over the government. They know how to use modern technology to reach out and organise their followers.

Thus, they are able to benefit from the fruits of modernity remaining faithful to Tajik traditions, and at the same time reject the Russian language and the country’s pre-Islamic history.

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