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When the Government doesn’t want to live together: Current Repression of Tajikistan’s Pamiri Minority

Published onJun 21, 2022
When the Government doesn’t want to live together: Current Repression of Tajikistan’s Pamiri Minority
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The author of this article has security concerns and therefore prefers to remain anonymous.

Emblem of the Ismaili Imamat which sat on the mountain side overlooking Khorog. It was destroyed by government security forces in June 2022. Photo credit: author

On Monday 16 May 2022, a demonstration began in Khorog, the small administrative capital city of Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast (GBAO) in Tajikistan. The peaceful demonstration was in answer to several months of frustration with the Tajikistani Government following the murder by security forces of Gulbiddin Ziyobekov, a young unarmed Pamiri man from Roshtkala District in GBAO. The murder, which took place on 25 November 2021, sparked a peaceful demonstration in Khorog calling for an investigation. The internet was cut-off and security forces opened fire on the demonstrators, killing two and injuring 17 (OHCHR April 2022). The demonstration eventually ended three days later on the condition that 1) a transparent investigation into Ziyobekov’s death be conducted, 2) demonstrators would not be prosecuted, 3) military checkpoints in GBAO be lifted, and 4) the internet be restored (Pamir Daily News May 2022). Since the end of November, the Tajikistani Government has not attempted to maintain its side of the agreement. The investigation has often been stalled by the State Prosecutor’s Office, several demonstrators and Pamiri activists have since been detained and sentenced to up to 18 years in prison, in the case of youth leader Amriddin Alovatshoyev (Eurasianet 18 May 2022), Special Forces Officers sit at checkpoints right in the middle of the city with Kalashnikovs and balaclavas, and the internet was only restored after five months in March 2022. In reaction to this, a group of around one thousand young people from Bar-Khorog Microdistrict in Khorog threatened to hold another demonstration if the Governor of GBAO, Alisher Mirzonabot, and the Mayor of Khorog, Rizo Nazarzoda, did not resign by Monday 16 May. The deadline came with no resignations and thus the demonstration began (Pamir Daily News May 2022).

Once again, security forces opened fire on the demonstrators, this time with rubber bullets instead of live ammunition, killing one young man (Eurasianet 18 May 2022). A military convoy was then mobilized and was headed for Khorog but residents of Vomar in Rushan District blocked the road when it reached there on the morning of Wednesday 18 May. Security forces fired at the residents, and unconfirmed social media reports state that mortar canons were used on the residents, who defended themselves with knives and axes. The number of the dead remains unclear but estimates lie in the dozens, and sweeping house-to-house arrests followed (Fergana May 2022). Moving further into Khorog, security forces demanded the leader of the demonstrations, ex-military commander and popular community leader Mamadbokir Mamadbokirov, be handed over to them or else they would take him by force. On Thursday 19 May, Aga Khan IV sent a Talika, a letter of great religious meaning, to his followers in GBAO. The Aga Khan urged his followers to not use violence to solve their problems and instead focus on communication and understanding (the.Ismaili May 2022). Without hesitation, local religious leaders met with the demonstrators and it was agreed that the demonstration would end to prevent further bloodshed. The situation appeared to have de-escalated, until the morning of Sunday 22 May when Mamadbokirov was shot and killed by sniper fire (Eurasianet 22 May 2022). The funeral, which took place on Monday 23 May, attracted a large turn-out but most were prevented from attending by military checkpoints between the various neighborhoods of the city.

According to the Tajikistani Government, the events in GBAO are part of an ongoing “anti-terror operation” in order to “secure the safety of citizens and public order” (MIA May 2022). In this article, it will be argued that the Tajikistani Government frames Pamiris as “terrorists” to defame activists and discredit their calls for basic human rights. By examining the State’s official narrative on these events in GBAO, it will be argued that existing fears of Islamic extremism and terrorism, connected to the memory of the Civil War, are instrumentalized in an attempt to justify the use of violence, arbitrary arrests, and censorship, all aimed at eradicating any critical voices and political opposition.

Framing of Non-Normative Islam in Tajikistan

Pamiris are perceived to be an ethnic minority, living mainly in GBAO but, due to various (many of which forced) migration waves in the 20th/21st Century, there are large Pamiri communities living all over Tajikistan, in Russia, Europe, and North America. Afghanistan also has a sizable Pamiri minority in Badakhshan and many Pamiris from Tajikistan have relatives there, having officially been separated from each other during the border demarcation in the 19th Century. Pamiris are also a linguistic minority, speaking sometimes several Pamir languages, such as Shughni-Rushani, Wakhi, and Ishkashimi. These languages, while protected by the 2009 law Dar bārai zabāni davlatii Ğumhurii Tāğikistān (On the official language of the Republic of Tajikistan), are endangered and do not fit into the State’s language policy which focuses on Tajik as the sole official language, as outlined by the very same law. Most Pamiris follow the religious leadership of Aga Khan IV (“Hazar Imam”) who is believed to be the 49th Imam of the Nizari-Ismaili branch of Shiism and direct descent of the Prophet through Ali. While not all Pamiris are religious, Ismailism plays an important role in the consolidation of Pamiri identity (Davlatshoev 2006) and Pamiri has become synonymous with being Ismaili in Tajikistan. Pamiris therefore belong to a religious minority and fall prey to State narratives on ‘irregular’ religious practices, as will be highlighted in this article.

According to Epkenhans (2015), the perception of Islam in the USSR changed dramatically after the Iranian Revolution and Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. From these events were born widespread concerns over extremism and its threat to regional stability in Central Asia. Discourses of the threat of religious extremism were accompanied by narratives of outside, foreign influences, and from such discourses the term ‘vaḥḥābī’ was coined. The name ‘vaḥḥābī’ gives reference to the purist Hanbali school of Islamic law, largely present in Saudi Arabia, but in reality, there is little connection. As Rasanagayam (2006, 113) observed during fieldwork in Uzbekistan, “the label ‘Wahhabi’ had come to represent any religious expression of which people were unsure, which did not fit the category of clearly ‘acceptable’ or the ‘harmless’, and which might make those associated with it targets for the state security services.” Interesting here is the way the label is used to denote ‘irregular’ Islamic practices and open followers up to investigation. The term therefore had a certain power attached to it, and the consequences of this label were the cause of fear.

Vaḥḥābī’ suggests not only a hardline, fundamental reading of Islam, but also a foreign (Arabic) intrusion on Central Asian traditions and values. Rasanayagam references an incident in which a local spiritual leader avoided questioning on the accusation of wahhabism by stating he did not speak Arabic, and how a student came under suspicion for having spent time in the US. These instances suggest the term is linked with a distrust of outside and foreign influences. Perhaps the most important observation of the term, moreover, is its use as a tool to separate types of Islam from one another. It is, of course, not the worshippers who use this label to define themselves and their beliefs, but rather they are given this label by authorities and citizens who deem them to be so. ‘Vaḥḥābī’ was therefore used as a framing mechanism in the Soviet times to place the more pious followers of Islam within the context of a violent religious extremism. Just as these were associations with the Mujahideen and the Iranian Revolution during the Soviet times, today non-normative Islam is framed by the Taliban and Islamic State. Interestingly, the Taliban and Islamic State are also present in global discourses on Islamic religious extremism and are part of the frames affecting the way Islam in viewed in non-Muslim societies. In Tajikistan and surrounding Central Asia, these discourses are just as present but are accompanied by the memories of Civil War and the continuing turmoil in neighboring Afghanistan.

Morey & Yaqin (2011, 2) would argue that these frames are the result of representation and stereotyping, noting that “the stereotyping of Muslims takes place in repeated acts of representation by politicians, the press and media, and even those claiming to speak on their behalf.” Although they are referring here to the framing of Muslims in Western countries, Morey & Yaqin’s observation is also true for Muslim-majority Tajikistan. Taking as an example the recent campaign against the Arab-style hijab, female Muslims who choose to wear the headscarf in this way are painted as prostitutes, despite their choices being religiously or socially motivated (Miles 2015). In this way, images of Islam are constructed and manipulated into myth-like creations. Just like the term ‘vaḥḥābī’, Muslims choosing to follow an Islam other than the common variety are turned into “Islamic extremists” or “terrorists” through framing mechanisms such as representation and stereotyping.

Civil War Memory

The Tajikistani Government is well-versed in playing with certain discourses to instill fear in the bodies of its citizens. In this regard, the State continues to frame Pamiris as terrorists due in part to their status as a religious minority and therefore ‘non-normative’, but also due to memories of violence from the Civil War (1992-7) which saw Pamiri forces support the United Tajik Opposition which fought against the governmental Popular Front. With the Popular Front eventually winning and maintaining power, Pamiris have since been viewed as dissident and disloyal to the State in Tajikistani society. Civil War memory is a powerful trope often used in the President’s speeches. Its reference instantly triggers memories of the great loss of life and bloodshed which dominated the ‘90s. Everyone who lived in or had connections with Tajikistan during that time will remember these troubled years shortly following independence; horrific stories of arbitrary killings, displacement, and rape are known to everyone.

It is this memory which the President, Emomali Rahmon, utilizes to strike fear into the hearts of his citizens. Through rhetorical tactics, the Civil War memory is connected to the Pamiri group, which is connected to Ismailism. Thus, Ismailism is to be feared on the grounds of the Civil War memory. To understand how the Civil War memory is utilized in State rhetoric, speeches from the President are a useful source as these are a clear outlet of the State’s official narrative. At the opening ceremony of the Ismaili Centre in 2009, both Rahmon and the Aga Khan gave speeches. In his speech, the President acknowledges the existence of Ismailis within Tajikistan and praises them for their help in achieving independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. This praise is, however, quickly followed by illusions to the Civil War:

““Today, the followers of the Ismaili sect, as an integral part of our society, are actively involved in the process of creation and beautification of independent Tajikistan. […]

We must not forget that as a nation suffering from the bitter civil war, the most important thing is to preserve and protect peace, stability, and security of the state and society, as well as national unity, and to act only within the framework of the Constitution and the law.”1

(excerpt from speech by Emomali Rahmon on 10 December 2009)

The memory of the Civil War holds the affective power to create fear of the Pamiri-Ismaili group. By reminding his citizens of the bloody Civil War in which thousands were either displaced or killed, the President evokes memories of this fearful time. As he previously mentions the country’s Ismaili minority, the fear of the Civil War memory becomes attached to the Ismaili group by association. As many Ismailis are also Pamiri, existing fear for the Pamiri group is evoked and attached to the Ismaili group through the Civil War memory. The Ismaili group therefore comes to be seen as the Pamiri group and no real distinction is made. It is interesting to note here that all this happens without mentioning the word ‘Pamiri.’

The “Threat” of Political Opposition

Not only Pamiris are targeted in State narratives by association with the Civil War; it is also tied to almost any kind of political opposition. This is highlighted quite well in the State’s actions in recent weeks. Alongside the violent, bloody repression of the demonstration itself, several arrests have also been made. Most prominently, the well-renowned Pamiri journalist and activist Ulfatkhonim Mamadshoeva was arrested on Wednesday 18 May in Dushanbe, the country’s capital. A few days later on Tuesday 24 May, the state channel Tajikistan aired an extended piece on the unrest in GBAO entitled Šikasti Fitna (Failed Conspiracy), featuring the ‘confession’ of Mamadshoeva, alongside her ex-husband and well-decorated general Kholbash Kholbashov. In the piece, Mamadshoeva read from a script, stating that she had conspired together with exiled Pamiri politician Alim Sherzamonov who had funded the demonstration by transferring funds from Europe. Further members of the political opposition have been detained, including Amirbek Qayobekov and Nuriddin Saidov who formerly lead the now banned Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT) in Rushan. Furthermore, the piece was intercut with CCTV footage of Mamadshoeva meeting with diplomats from an unnamed Western country in a popular café in Dushanbe. The US Embassy has since confirmed that their representatives met with Mamadshoeva on that day but did not conspire with her and called the allegations “absolutely fake” (Eurasianet June 2022).

The documentary Šikasti Fitna aired on Tajikistan on 24 May 2022

Mamadshoeva’s “confession” highlights several connotations attached to such “terrorism” as understood by the Tajikistani Government. Namely, there is the accusation of conspiring with members of the political opposition, and implied connections with foreign actors. The IRPT held the position of political opposition to the Rahmon Government for many years until 2015 when it was banned. Though originating as a regional club following conservative Hanafi ideals with no political aspirations, the political party found its role in post-conflict Tajikistan, manifesting vague religious beliefs and keeping in-line with the nationalistic agenda of the Rahmon Government and the Peace Accord (Epkenhans 2015). In the years since the Civil War, the IRPT has found itself in the middle of a discussion as to Islam’s place within Tajikistani society, and is subjected to the same frames of non-normative Islam, as previously discussed. By emphasizing Mamadshoeva and other activists’ association to political oppositionists, the State connects them with the IRPT and can thus frame them with the same discourses.

Perhaps most prominently, Mamadshoeva’s “confession” to taking money from foreign agents is intended to trigger the same reaction as the term ‘vaḥḥābī’, namely a fear of a foreign, outside influence. By suggesting that a Pamiri activist could be easily bribed to attempt to overthrow the constitution connects Mamadshoeva and the Pamiri minority she represents with the unidentified threat. It is intended to ignite fears of the outside, while at the same time discrediting her person. The same can be said for her connection to Sherzamonov and the exiled political opposition. Sherzamonov, seen in his home of Khorog as a civic activist, was a key figure during a previous conflict in Khorog in 2012, which saw many young men die during a military operation similar to May’s events. Sherzamonov has since fled Tajikistan, having been targeted also for his position as Deputy Chairman of the National Alliance of Tajikistan (NAT), a union between political oppositionists including the IRPT. He, like other members of the NAT and/or IRPT, claimed asylum in European countries and openly criticize the Tajikistani Government’s oppression of any critical voices. The accusation that Sherzamonov financed the demonstration therefore creates a clear connection between non-normative Islam and the demonstrators. While none of the demands of the demonstrators were motivated by religion and Ismailism, its suggested connection to the IRPT through Sherzamonov and Mamadsheova is enough to form a basis for accusations of extremism and terrorism, as per the State’s rhetoric.

And that is exactly what the State is currently doing. In a statement released by the Ministry of Internal Affairs on 18 May, the killed residents of Rushan were referred to as “organized criminal groups [who were] led and sponsored by international extremist and terrorist organizations,” and “imported weapons for this purpose from abroad.”2 According to the MIA, these groups had been terrorizing local residents and the operation was launched to “ensure the security of citizens and public order.” The statement goes on to claim that “no civilians were injured during this operation”, suggesting that all of the residents who were killed were members of these groups. Sadly, the reality is much more gruesome and an exact death toll is still unknown, with many continuing to look for missing relatives.

In this statement by the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the frames discussed in this article can be clearly seen. The words “extremist and terrorist” trigger violence images, wrapped in associations with the IRPT and non-normative Islam. Such organizations being “international” also suggests an outside, foreign influence and triggers fears of the unknown and unspoken connections with the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan, further strengthened with the accusation that the residents were supplied by weapons from abroad. And finally, while the Civil War is not mentioned, its memory will no doubt be triggered through the image of armed groups of dissident Pamiris fighting against Government forces, implying that history is repeating itself.

While this article has aimed to highlight the ways in which Pamiris are currently being framed as terrorists in Tajikistani State narratives, it is important to stress the repercussions of this. Due to these recent events in GBAO, many Pamiris do not feel safe. While ethnographic data is vital to highlight this, it is simply not possible to include such sources in this article as the safety of interlocutors cannot be ensured. Not only is there a very real fear of further violence at the hands of the Tajikistani Government, but sweeping, arbitrary arrests highlight the policing of this country’s Pamiri minority, all supposedly justified as securitization. The rights of Pamiris and other ethnicized, religicized minorities living under the Tajikistani Government must be protected, otherwise the risk very much exists of further genocide and ethnic cleansing.

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