Soon after the disintegration of the Soviet Union and creation of 5 newly independent states in 1991, Central Asia and specifically Tajikistan found itself at risk of instability and the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan. Today, Afghanistan is discussed as the biggest security threat to peace and stability in Tajikistan. In multiple cases, Tajikistan President, Emomali Rahmon, has shared his concern over the border with Afghanistan and possible threat from spread of Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism. In dealing with this threat, President Rahmon has taken policies such as extreme militarization all over the country and restriction on practice of Islam, arguing that through Islamic teachings, considering presence of extremist groups not far away from Tajikistan, extremists could influence population within Tajikistan. Through this act, Islam has been used as a political instrument of Rahmon’s regime. No one denies the security threats from the existing condition in Afghanistan on its neighboring states, specially Tajikistan. However, one could argue that the threats from Afghanistan are extremely politicized in an attempt by the president to gain legitimacy for his repressive and highly condemned role. In other words, Rahmon has used Afghanistan as a highly critical security threat to consolidate his power. Many scholars argue that “the authoritarian nature of Central Asian regimes promote securitization in order to justify limiting political and economic freedoms, strengthening power structures, and maintaining existing regimes” (Chernykh & Burnashev, 2005, P.141). In this light, I argue that even though security threats are real, the threats have been used as Rahmon’s political instrument to maintain stronger control not only on politics of the state but also to control practice of Islam. Hence, Islamic extremism and the Afghan-Tajik border are the threats that have been used by President Rahman in an attempt to further reinforce his dominance in Tajikistan.
War and instability in Afghanistan represent real security threats to Tajikistan. After the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Tajikistan became an independent state. However, soon it experienced a civil war in 1992 (Pannier, 2017). To survive, thousands of people moved to neighboring states. “The civil war in Tajikistan killed more than twenty thousand civilians and as a result many were left homeless from whom some live in Afghanistan currently” (Ahmed, 1994, p. 87). Later the Afghan war took place and the closeness of the two countries had a ‘salutary impact’ on the Central Asian region, specifically Tajikistan. The Afghan civil war and the repressive role of Taliban regime forced vast majority to move to neighboring states. Today, there are already around 2 million Afghan refuges who live in Pakistan and more than 1.4 million in Iran, with an estimated 30,000 in India, 5,000 in Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and other countries (Refworld, 2013). In addition, in recent years rise of Taliban and the Islamic State in Northern provinces [close to Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan] have further exacerbated anguish among the Central Asian states and specifically Tajikistan for the long border it shares with Afghanistan (Bahrom, 2016). In 2015, a gun battle took place near Tajikistan’s capital Dushanbe which took lives of many people. Later, it was confirmed as a terrorist act led by a member of Islamic Renaissance Party (IRP), a banned Islamist political party in Tajikistan. “This act was used by Tajik government to highlight the risk that extremism could spread from the Middle east and [in particular] Afghanistan into Central Asia” (Cohen, 2019). Hence, war and instability in Afghanistan represent real security threats to Tajikistan.
Extreme politicization of threats coming from the Tajik-Afghan border has enabled some states, particularly Tajikistan, to use it for achieving their own personal goals. Securitization is defined as “a process of social construction of discursive emergence, threat and danger aimed at justifying the adoption of extraordinary measures” (Stanger, 1995). In Tajikistan, President Rahmon in multiple speeches referred to the shared border with Afghanistan as an extreme threat to the security and stability of Tajikistan, referring to threat of Islamic State. For instance, his speech in Parliament in 2017 stated that there is threat of cooperation between Islamic State and other opposition groups within the country, considering the long shared border between the two countries (Deutsche Welle, 2017). The threats coming from Afghanistan is undeniable, however, the measures taken in addressing the issue by the president are in many instances an extreme securitization of the issue. In response to concerns over threats from Afghanistan, president Rahmon “continued to use the specter of Islamic extremism to legitimize tight control over religious practices” (Freedom House Report, 2018). Claiming to protect people, the state has banned opposition groups, jailed human rights lawyers, and restricted rights (expression, freedom of speech, religion) (Freedom House Report, 2018). For instance, the Tajik government has restricted people’s religious rights mainly through closing down mosques, banning hijab, etc. It is believed that mosques facilitate religious teachings which could end up contributing to extremism. Similarly, president Rahman convicted the only opposition group in Tajikistan, Islamic Renaissance Party (IRP), as a terrorist group (Najibullah, 2018). He claimed that this party is an extremist party. This way he eliminated the only group who could compete with the president Rahmon and the existing regime. Through these measures president Rahman argues to save lives of people and maintain its territorial integrity and stability.
Even though threats of Afghan war and instability on Tajikistan are real, they have been extremely politicized by the president Rahmon in an attempt to legitimize his regime. In 2016 thirteen men were jailed for allegations of affiliation with Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRP) (Edwards, 2017). In response to this issue, president Rahmon stated that these men bring terror and insecurity to Tajik nation. In other words, presence of such groups [IRP of Tajikistan] considering the insecurities near Afghan border are regarded as the justification for the policies taken by the president. However, many argue that securitization of such cases enable president Rahmon to justify all his policies. Hence, president Rahmon uses security threats to eliminate his rivals (Edwards, 2017). In another speech president Rahmon asserts that “plague of the new century represents a threat for the global security…these young people when they return home bring instability to society” (Lemon, 2015).
Even though Tajikistan claims links between the active role of the Islamic State in Afghanistan and insurgents in Tajikistan, one could argue that these policies abuse freedom of religion by linking them to various insurgent groups. In the recent years Tajikistan has witnessed a sharp rise in trials of allegations of extremism. Critics, however, accuse president Rahman for using different strategies to eliminate his opponents from gaining power and dominance within Tajikistan. “Securitization of an issue allows actors to carry out extraordinary measures” (Crick, 2012). In addition, in recent years there have been reports on forced breading for men. Similarly, the Tajik government has endorsed restrictions on sell of Islamic clothing. In justification of the above mentioned rules, president Rahman in an interview states that “increase in mosques and religious centers [religious practices], considering the shared border with Afghanistan, is a critical security challenge to the country” (Radio Free Europe, 2015). The State Committee for Religious Affairs closed down 1,938 mosques (referred to as illegal mosques) in 2017. In addition, clothing “continues to be the forefront of this effort, with numerous individuals reporting being forcibly shaved or compelled to remove their hijabs” (Bayram, 2018). Also, he stated that in Islamic clothing extremists attract youths and teach them, thus Tajikistan will not allow this to happen. In September 2010, 23 Tajik soldiers were killed in a terrorist attack which happened near Afghan border (Schwirtz, 2010). Following this attack, President Rahman expressed his deepest concern over insecurity and extremism influencing Tajikistan. Referring to these incidents, president Rahman justifies the need for restricted and repressive regime. It could also be observed that Islam is being used as a political instrument of President Rahmon to implement certain policies and take measures.
By securitizing the border, Taliban, and the spillover of Tajik fundamentalist fighters from Afghanistan president Rahmon always tries to attract foreign countries and international organization’s attention to this border. By using the border threat almost all international donors like European Union, United Nations, Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, United States, Russia and many others make an effort to support the border management by conducting trainings for the stuff, providing new modernized equipment and constructing new buildings for cross-border authorities. As Edward Lemon brings in his work, Rahmon’s speech where he argues that “the flurry of activity by Taliban near the border of the common wealth of the independent state as well as the appearance of the components of the so called Islamic state poses threat to the whole common wealth” (Lemon, 2015). While the Afghan specialist Borhan Osman claims that there is “no solid evidence for the presence of IS inside Afghanistan and media reports have overblown its influence” (Lemon, 2015). In the beginning of its independence Tajikistan was really in need of foreign assistance, since it had a Civil War and it damaged almost all sphere of the country, particularly security and economic. Thus, at that time the donors mentioned above take an active role in reconstruction and state-building. What is more that today the situation is different; the border management is very well trained and equipped, however, Rahmon’s regime continues to present the border and spread of terrorism, as a threat in order to receive money from international donors (Bleuer, Kazemi, 2014, p. 59) which enables him to strengthen his own dominance over Tajikistan.
The reactions of population and success of measures addressing instability and war in Afghanistan is debatable. Some argue that even though no one denies the threats from Afghanistan, it does not justify the extreme measures taken by Rahmon’s regime. Militarization and linking Islam to violent extremism are the two extraordinary securitizing measures undertaken by President Rahman. These measures limit freedom of religion, expression, etc. Hence, many could argue that more attention needs to be on policies that could prevent threats from Afghanistan while population is guaranteed of freedom. In addition, one could argue that experience of the civil war in Tajikistan from 1993 to 1997 and the incidents near Afghan border persuade the population to accept any kind of measure as long as the state promises stability. Taking into consideration the current regime and its sustainability for nearly 3 decades, one could argue that president Rahmon has been able to maintain its authoritarian regime. In some instances the main argument central Asian leaders assert about securitization is that, “endowing the citizens with political rights would be too risky in light of complexity of the external security situation” (Crick, 2012, 407). This has been used as justification for the restrictions enforced on the population. Frank also states that there are problems in securitizing an issue. “The successful securitizing move allows the securitizing actor to exploit threats and occasionally avert attention from a specific issue (Crick, 2012, 408) [which could be the authoritarian regime and the repression that comes with it].
Finally, notwithstanding the threats, spread of terrorism, cooperation between Islamic State and other opposition groups within the country, and encouraging youths towards Islamic fundamentalism, the Tajik authorities securitize the threat. This securitization and linkage of Islam to violent extremism allow Rahmon to undertake extraordinary measures such as militarization, restriction of religious freedom of the population through closing down mosques and forbidding religious education and teaching. Also, by using the threat from bordering with Afghanistan, president Rahmon attracts international donors for assisting him in maintaining border security. This assistance in fact gives him the resources to further strengthen his power over the country. Hence, linking Islam to violent extremism has given President Rahmon the power in order to justify his extraordinary measures and to further strengthen his power and dominance in Tajikistan. This paper also pointed out at how Islam [without understanding its essence] as carrier of extremism and fear, has been instrumentalized for accomplishing certain political goals. Hence, the concern is not longer a border one, rather instrumentalizing religion in order to maintain a strong hold on power.
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