Tajikistan’s hijab ban will not end extremism

Secular policies alone are unlikely to shield malleable Tajik youth from the hiring spree Salafist Militia Groups have embarked on across Central Asia.

The upper house of Tajikistan’s parliament greenlit draft legislation on June 19 criminalising not just the donning of so-called “foreign attire”, but also its sale and import. Islamic veils are the principal article of clothing targeted by the passage of this bill, which formalises an already unwritten prohibition on conservative dress codes for female citizens.

Anyone audacious enough to defy President Emonali Rahmon’s diktats will be slapped with a hefty 740 US dollars fine—an amount more than four times the average monthly salary of 172 US dollars.

On the face of it, such a move does not appear that crass or heavy-handed for a Muslim-majority jurisdiction trying to push back against male guardianship and other faith-based chauvinistic practices.

After all, most women who sport headscarves in public do so under duress as opposed to of their own volition. That being said, outlawing loosely-defined “alien garments” altogether in the name of preserving traditional values and culture could have a “forbidden fruit effect” on otherwise moderate and unobservant natives.

Islam as a coping mechanism

The average, able-bodied Tajik faces a bleak choice between staying put and being consigned to the breadline or taking up menial, exploitative labour in wartime Russia where Central Asian guest workers constitute an underclass. Either way, their burgeoning embrace of radical Islam is merely a coping mechanism to deal with this catch-22.

By attaching little importance to the empowerment of his economically-active population, Rahmon has arguably aided and abetted their ill-treatment overseas while rendering Tajikistan fertile ground for the spread of ISIS’ caliphate.

At roughly 38.4 per cent of GDP, remittances remain the mainstay of Tajikistan’s fragile economy, notwithstanding Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine over two years ago. Rahmon’s conciliatory outreach to the Kremlin following the Crocus City Hall Attack in March, however, spoke volumes about his indifference to throwing the Tajik diaspora under the bus.

Having allowed them to be scapegoated and ostracised for a major security lapse on the FSB’s part, he practically gift-wrapped Putin’s subpar intelligence apparatchiks a get-out-of-jail-free card.

Worse still, from the US State Department’s vantage point, Tajikistan has now been unjustly lumped together with neighbouring terrorist sanctuaries like Afghanistan and Pakistan in terms of threat perception.

Republican-led fear-mongering over the apprehension of eight ISIS-affiliated Tajik nationals at the US southern border last month, coupled with Türkiye pulling the plug on visa-free access for Tajik passport holders, bears testament to the reputational damage wrought upon Central Asia’s poorest and least developed country.

Whether it be the latest massacre in Makhachkala and Derbent that resulted in 20 casualties or the deadly assault on 143 Moscow concert goers three months earlier, there is no denying that Putin’s post-war appeasement of the Islamic world has come home to roost and emboldened Russia’s indigenous Muslim community.

Yet, the former KGB agent faces a moral dilemma since some of the MENA states endorsing his bloodlust  vis-à-vis Ukraine and adding impetus to his “de-dollarisation” drive are the very same places from which the fundamentalist ideology that has taken root in Chechnya and Dagestan emanates.

Dynastic politics

Dushanbe’s international relations roadmap is equally paradoxical in that it happens to be pursuing closer engagement with blocs whose members’ domestic laws it considers backward and medieval—namely the Arab League and OIC.

Rahmon is looking to have his cake and eat it too by, on the one hand, “de-islamising” society at large while actively courting third-rate theocracies such as Saudi Arabia and Iran. A potential capital infusion from oil-rich Middle Eastern regimes is no act of charity and risks whipping up even greater religious fanaticism among the masses.

Hereditary, bloodline succession invariably paves the way for gluttonous wealth extraction from state coffers and flagrant human rights violations by the ruling family in question. Tajikistan is no exception given the incredibly cushy lives Rahmon’s immediate relatives lead on the back of ordinary, working-class folk barely able to make ends meet or express themselves freely.

So long as dynastic politics reign supreme and the leadership baton is passed from father to son, any effort to neuter internal sleeper cells and subversive movements will ultimately prove futile.

Outwardly pious Tajiks have long been subject to mudslinging and strong-arm tactics by local authorities. This includes forcibly shaving men with unkempt beards as well as accusing veiled women of being prostitutes and drug-runners.

Nonetheless, Rahmon’s zero tolerance policy towards manifestations of extremism has done nothing to prevent the police state he presides over from churning out hardened jihadists. It is becoming increasingly untenable for the United States to vindicate his egregious clampdown on civil liberties, not least considering Tajikistan’s limited strategic importance to Washington following the abrupt 2021 withdrawal from Afghanistan.

The legacy Western powers that managed to coalesce around Belarus’ democratic opposition and reduce Alexander Lukashenko to a spent force after his bogus re-election in 2020 cannot sit idly by as Rahmon runs roughshod over his people under false pretences like combating radicalism or superstition.

It is high time the free world imposed Magnitsky sanctions on Rahmon along with those from his inner circle responsible for turning their country into a neglected wasteland. Unlike Belarus, Tajikistan does not enjoy a brotherly, “one nation, two states” alliance with a nuclear superpower and is therefore more likely to fold if the G7 wages a maximum pressure campaign against its upper echelons.

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