Counter-Terrorism: Pacifying Tajik Islamic Violence


June 25, 2022: Afghanistan’s northern neighbor, Tajikistan has largely been free of Islamic terrorist violence since 2001. But in 2022 there was another outbreak in Gorno-Badakhshan Province, or GBAO. This province contains 45 percent of Tajikistan territory but only three percent of the population, including most of its Shia minority. Nearly all Tajiks are Sunni Moslems. The Tajiks are Indo-European and the tail end of the Persian tribes that got as far as the Persian Gulf three thousand years ago and founded the Persian Empire, which eventually became modern Iran. About half the Persian migrants ended up in modern Iran while the rest settled in what is now northern Afghanistan and Tajikistan and adopted Sunni Islam 1,500 years ago. The Persian Empire Iranians had switched to Shia Islam 400 years ago and this further divided the Persians from the Tajiks in Afghanistan and modern Tajikistan. The Russians began moving into Central Asia 500 years ago but were only able to gain control of half the Tajiks, with the other half uniting with the more numerous Pushtun tribes to form modern Afghanistan and block further Russian advances to the south. After the Russian monarchy was overthrown in 1918 the communists regained control of Tajikistan by 1924. The communists were anti-religion but tolerated and regulated the Tajik form of Sunni Islam. The Tajiks never became Islamic traditionalists. This meant that, like Iranians before 1979, there were few beards and women did not wear veils or observe the restrictive lifestyle rules imposed on Iranians after the 1979 revolution. The same trends developed among the Turkic tribes that dominated the rest of Central Asia. This meant it was difficult for Islamic conservatism and terrorism to develop. There was some, especially after the five Central Asia states became independent states in 1991. The current outbreak in GBAO was partly about an Islamic revolution but mostly about the small population of that province feeling exploited by the Sunni majority when it came to profiting from the development of the huge mineral wealth in the Pamir Mountains of GBAO. The small population of GBAO is not only largely Shia but some are not even Tajik. The GBAO rebels blocked some roads to protest Tajik police killing a charismatic young local leader who backed better treatment of the GBAO population. The Tajik government has maintained peace via negotiation and compromise and is now making a serious effort to address local complaints in GBAO.

Despite the relative lack of Islamic violence, since 2001 Central Asian nations have been increasing their counter-terror activities. But there has not been a commensurate growth in Islamic terrorism. There has been a growth in corruption and bad government. The best thing the Islamic radicals have going for them is a promise to replace current dictatorships with clean government. Not all people in the region want a religious dictatorship, because they have noted that "Islamic Republics" (as in Iran and Afghanistan) don't work so well either. And there are bigger problems to worry about.

The five former republics of the Soviet Union (Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan) that now comprise most of Central Asia are finding drug gangs more of a threat than corrupt politicians and Islamic radicals. While there have been more Islamic terrorism incidents, the number is still very small, and some of them have to be investigated a bit to make sure the violence wasn't just gangsters (who also use terror attacks). There are a lot more gangsters (especially drug smugglers and distributors) than Islamic terrorists in the region.

Most of the people in the region are at least nominally Moslem. During seven decades of communist rule, Islamic practices were strictly regulated and curbed. Since independence (after the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991), the dictators that took control of most of the region have brought bad government and more corruption than existed under communist rule. People looking for something better have found Islam, especially the radical kind, a potential solution. Nothing else seems to be working. Although some Central Asian states have pledged to fight corruption, the results are largely cosmetic. As a result, many Tajiks migrated and currently 29 percent of the Tajik GDP is from remittances sent by expatriate Tajiks.


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