Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT) members at an IRPT party congress in Khujand, Tajikistan in April 2013. 

When the Soviet Union collapsed, it left behind an independent Tajikistan that was saddled with severe economic and social challenges that have lasted to this day. In particular, the government has always had an uneasy relationship with its Islamic roots, and it has made several attempts to diminish religion’s role in daily life. Among other restrictions on religious practice, Tajik authorities have arbitrarily shuttered dozens of mosques across the country, fined women for wearing the hijab, and even banned parents from giving their children Arabic names. According to recent estimates, police have forcibly shaved off the beards of some 13,000 men.

Tajikistan, in other words, has some of the world’s most restrictive laws on religion. But for the most part, the world had not paid much attention—that is, until news broke last May that Tajikistan’s U.S.-trained Special Forces chief, Gulmurod Khalimov, defected from his position and joined the Islamic State (also known as ISIS), which has been active just across Tajikistan’s border in Afghanistan. In Khalimov's YouTube video apparently shot in Syria announcing his defection to ISIS, he cited his government’s crackdown on Muslims as justification for abandoning his post.

Ironically for a country that has tried to stamp out religion, the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT) had long been the nation’s only viable democratic opposition to Tajikistan president Emomali Rahmon, who has ruled the country since 1992. Last September, without credible evidence, authorities banned the IRPT and declared it a terrorist organization, alleging it had participated in an attempted Islamist coup. But by virtually outlawing political opposition and cracking down on all forms of Islam, Rahmon has created conditions for ISIS and other extremist ideologies to spread.

In many ways, the IRPT, which began as an underground Muslim movement in the officially atheist Soviet Union and emerged as a bona fide political party after Tajikistan’s independence in 1991, was the polar opposite of ISIS: a moderate Islamist voice that participated in the political process but could also claim to represent Muslims’ interests. The IRPT was unique in largely authoritarian Central Asia and the larger former Soviet Union as the region’s only legally registered Islamist party. Even more important, in a part of the world where governments have pursued an assertive secularism, the IRPT’s existence was evidence that Islam and democracy could successfully coexist.

Inside Tajikistan itself, the IRPT’s formal representation in parliament was modest—it had occupied only two of the 63 seats for years—but it played an outsize role in the country’s relatively vibrant civil society. This highly circumscribed yet significant space for peaceful activism occupied by the IRPT and an even smaller social democratic opposition party, but also by nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and journalists, was until recently a unique feature of Tajikistan’s political life. It was also a legacy of Tajikistan’s 1992–97 civil war.

During the war, the IRPT was part of the United Tajik Opposition, combining liberal and Islamist forces, which fought against the central government. The five-year conflict took over 50,000 lives and resulted in a peace deal that formed the basis of Tajikistan’s fragile yet functional political system. Peace negotiations guaranteed 30 percent of government posts for opposition groups such as the IRPT, but this promise has turned into an increasingly distant goal.

Notwithstanding persistent attempts by the government to marginalize the party, it seemed for a number of years that a moderate IRPT opposition, which as of 2015 was estimated at more than 43,000 members, would be a long-term feature of Tajikistan’s political life. But over the past two decades under Rahmon’s increasingly authoritarian government, Dushanbe has tightened the screws on religious practice and any signs of genuine political competition. A 2009 law on religion formalized a ban on female students wearing the hijab. Soon thereafter, the central government began to close unregistered mosques throughout the country. Perhaps the most dramatic development was in 2011, when authorities banned anyone under 18 from attending religious services—in a mosque, church, or synagogue—even if accompanied by an adult, with the exception of funeral services.

Things got worse in September 2015, when the IRPT was accused of aiding an alleged Islamist coup. Apparent clashes erupted in Tajikistan on September 4 between militants led by former Deputy Defense Minister Abduhalim Nazarzoda and government forces, leaving more than 26 people dead, including nine police officers and Nazarzoda himself. The IRPT swiftly condemned the government’s version of events and Nazarzoda’s alleged uprising, making clear that he was not a party member.  

Just days later, however, Dushanbe arrested dozens of IRPT leaders despite a lack of credible evidence linking them to the violence. In the months that followed, the crackdown fanned out to include anyone who had ever been a member of the party, is related to a party member, or has worked as a lawyer for the IRPT. All told, latest estimates indicate that Tajikistan has jailed nearly 200 political activists as a result.

The arrests followed a larger pattern of political repression within Tajikistan, where the human rights record has deteriorated steadily amid an ongoing crackdown on freedom of expression. Since the end of the civil war in 1997, state-controlled media have built a cult of personality portraying President Rahmon as a “guarantor of peace and stability,” and his government has increasingly sought to eliminate independent voices, civil war–era rivals, and any potential opposition in and outside the country. To further this goal, authorities harass independent journalists and frequently block numerous websites, including Facebook, YouTube, and Gmail, in addition to independent media outlets. Rahmon has used charges of terrorism to jail or attempt to extradite from abroad (and sometimes even kidnap) dissidents or perceived critics. Tajikistan’s few independent NGOs report that torture and ill-treatment in prisons are widespread.

One IRPT member currently on trial, Rahmatullo Rajab, helps cast doubt on the government’s terrorist narrative about the party. Trained as a journalist before the Soviet Union’s collapse, Rajab told Human Rights Watch in 2013 that he found his way into the IRPT because he deeply distrusted the central government, which he saw as continuing the Soviet Union’s mistaken legacies. Like many members of the IRPT, Rajab was not interested in creating an Islamic state but was hoping to see a greater role for religion in society. Comparing the IRPT with various social democratic parties that are nominally Christian in Europe, Rajab emphasized that the IRPT’s platform has always explicitly called for a separation between religion and the secular state and prioritizes expanding educational and employment opportunities for women.

Now, with Tajikistan’s most viable opposition party outlawed and its senior members accused of terrorism, Rajab and the others on trial could get up to 20 years behind bars. Their conviction—a result made likely by the lack of an independent judiciary—would sound the death knell to Tajikistan’s experiment in multiparty politics. It would also send a stark message to Tajikistan’s people: no criticism of the government will be tolerated.

As legitimate political space disappears and moderate Islamist voices are extinguished, Tajiks may come to believe that democracy does not work—and that violence is the answer. Groups such as ISIS are waiting in the wings to capitalize on the sentiment.

Rajab’s son, Shuhrat, lives abroad in hiding, fearing arrest if he goes home. He is desperate to avoid the fate of other Tajiks living in countries such as Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Russia, and Turkey, who have been detained or worse by local officials at Dushanbe’s request, most of whom have merely participated in peaceful demonstrations or posted criticisms of Rahmon on Facebook from abroad.

One example is the political activist Maksud Ibragimov, who was stabbed six times on a Moscow street in November 2014 after calling for democratic reforms in Tajikistan. Later, in January 2015, several unidentified people kidnapped him off the street and drove him to the Moscow airport, forcing him onto a plane to Dushanbe. He was arrested upon arrival and, according to his lawyer, tortured into stating that his return to Tajikistan had been voluntary. Last July, a court sentenced him to 17 years in prison for extremism.

President Rahmon’s moves against the opposition make it appear inevitable that Rajab and other IRPT leaders will join the expanding ranks of Tajikistan’s political prisoners—a human rights crisis that Tajikistan’s partners such as the United States and European Union have largely ignored and should urgently address. But the problems don’t end here. Severe levels of corruption and a mounting economic crisis could spell further disaster. Declining oil prices and Western sanctions on Russia have hit the millions of Tajik labor migrants in Russia extremely hard. Their remittances, which contracted by 32 percent in comparison with the same period in 2014, were largely what kept Tajikistan’s fledgling economy afloat.

Taken together, these factors are likely to make Rahmon’s religious and political crackdown even more widely felt among the population, threatening to increase the appeal of groups such as ISIS and placing Tajikistan—just two decades beyond its bloody civil war—on an increasingly unstable, precarious path.