The Tajik are a Central Asian, Sunni Muslim people who speak Tajiki, a Persian language often written in Cyrillic. Descendants of the ancient Persian Sogdiana people, the Tajiks were one of the first settled peoples of Central Asia. Likely adopting Islam during the Arab conquest of the 8th century, the Tajiks were central to the Perso-Arabic Samanid Empire of the 1100s (“The Tajiks”). During this time, the Tajiks distinguished themselves with their success in “fruit growing, cattle raising, and the development of handicrafts and trade.” The Tajik maintained their ethnic distinction throughout the reign of the Mongols and into the 16th century, when they were incorporated into Uzbek Khanate rule (“Tajik History”). The Russians began to colonize the Tajik people during the 1860s and 1870s. However, Imperial efforts were weak, and life – including an emphasis on an Islamic education and lifestyle – remained relatively unchanged until the early 1920s. This was partly due to the Basmachi movement, a resistance group that fought Russian efforts to agriculturally exploit Central Asia (Curtis). By 1924, however, the Soviets had acquired the resources and organization to defeat the Basmachi, and emerged as the dominant power in the region. The Soviets’ first objective was to classify the Central Asian people, deciding to categorize all non-nomadic Central Asians as either Uzbek or Tajik. According to this system, Tajiks were an “Indo-European population speaking a language related to Persian,” a definition that proved problematic. Many “Tajiks” were multiethnic – intermarriage between Central Asian groups was common – and bilingual, speaking Uzbek and Arabic in addition to Persian. Surveys from the late Imperial and early Soviet period show that many Central Asians were unable to distinguish themselves as either Uzbek or Tajik (Edgar, 19-20).
Under Stalin’s rule in the 1930s and 1940s, the Soviets stepped up their colonization efforts towards the Tajik people. Despite “widespread resistance,” the Soviets imposed collectivized agriculture. They placed an emphasis on the Tajik cotton industry, particularly in the Fergana Valley, an asset that would become vital to the Soviet economy in the 1960s (Curtis). Stalinist leadership also worked to “Sovietize” the Tajik culture, a process that included the purging of Tajik intellectuals, under the pretense of expelling nationalist forces (“Tajikistan”). This effort sought to replace prominent Tajiks in government and society with loyal Soviet Russians. Between 1933 and 1935, about 70 percent of the party membership in Tajikistan was expelled, and between 1932 and 1937, the republic’s party membership of Tajiks dropped from 53 to 45 percent (Curtis). Soviet oppression created far-reaching consequences for the Tajik people.
While Soviet dominance over the Tajiks lessened in the post-War period, economic exploitation remained a staple of Russo-Tajik relations. Khrushchev manipulated the Tajik economy and population during his “Virgin Lands” project, an attempt to “forcibly increase the extent of arable land in the Soviet Union.” The economic interference led to the development of an unstable agricultural bureaucracy, where leaders were frequently ousted based on economic developments. Though the ethnic Tajik population in the Tajik Republic increased throughout the later decades of the USSR, the Soviets continued to forcibly limit Tajik participation in government. The Soviets still considered the Tajik a “backward” people, often denied them access to education and cultural outlets, and sometimes even forced them to register as Uzbeks, further diminishing their influence (Curtis).
With the advent of perestroika and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the Tajik people began to find a voice. Vehemently opposed to reunification with Russia, the Tajiks of the newly independent Tajikistan formed the United Tajik Opposition to fight the nation’s pro-unification Uzbeks (“Tajikistan Civil War”). A bitter, nearly decade-long civil war ensued, with peace eventually achieved via a UN-brokered armistice in 1997. The war left Tajikistan in shambles, and it remains one of the least developed nations in the world today. However, the factions of Tajikistan have finally begun to come together to create a more representative government (Goryayev).
Today, there are roughly 18 to 26 million ethnic Tajiks across the globe. Between 8.6 million to 11 million live in Afghanistan, 5.8 million live in Tajikistan, about 6-7,000,000 in Uzbekistan, and 1.2 million in Pakistan. The remaining Tajik population is dispersed throughout Iran, Russia, Germany, Qatar, the US, Kyrgyzstan, China and Canada (CIA World Fact Book). The life of a Tajik today varies greatly depending on his country of residence. In Uzbekistan, the Tajik minority is still often targeted and discriminated against; in 2001, the education ministry destroyed Tajik-language books in several parts of the country (Ergashev). In Tajikistan, the Tajiks now form the majority of the population (CIA World Fact Book). Now, at long last, they are beginning to have a prominent position in the Tajikistan government, playing a decision-making role in their namesake nation. Despite decades of oppression and war, the Tajiks have stayed connected to their ethnic and linguistic identity.
Adrift in Central Asia: Tajikistan’s Search for Identity [Kris McClellan]
Thanks to the astonishing ease with which they undertake to change the world, the Russians, once established in Central Asia, that bastion of Sunni Islam, managed to create a secular society in a matter of decades. They made town-dwellers of the chiefly rural and nomadic Turks; the metropolitan and bookish Tajiks they turned into peasants and mountain herders (Charif and Roustam Choukourov, cited in Tajikistan: The Trials of Independence).
Tajikistan faces a difficult path to national identity in the wake of Soviet domination. The state itself is a direct product of Soviet policies, complicating its leaders’ search for meaning and legitimacy during its emergence from the wreckage of the USSR. Tajikistan, lacking a unifying identity and suddenly cut off from the Russian support that maintained financial solvency and political stability, devolved into civil war after independence, the only Republic to experience such conflict. In the post-Soviet period, nationalists drew from every available resource to craft a Tajik identity that could preserve the Republic and promise its people a brighter future, but regional divisions-exacerbated by persistent Soviet-era power networks and a fear of religious fundamentalism-crushed “the Opposition’s” hope for a new Tajikistan. The Islamic Renaissance Party (like the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, or IMU) played an important role in the attempt to define Tajik identity by incorporating Islamic tradition, but its influence has since weakened. The fractured state of modern Tajikistan demonstrates that history (or the lack of it) matters deeply to national identity, and that external politics have a profound influence on a nation’s potential paths of development.
“The founding of Tajikistan,” notes Paul Bergne, “was not the result of Tajik nationalism, but the hour of its birth” (Bergne, 129). During the 1920s, the Soviet authorities attempted to understand the various lands and peoples recently incorporated into the USSR (Hirsch, 251). To the Soviet ethnographers, “Tajik” meant an Iranian-speaking Central Asian, but even this simple linguistic definition was problematic (not to mention inaccurate). In 1924, the Tajikistan Autonomous Region was established within the Soviet Socialist Republic of Uzbekistan (Rubin 139). At the time, many Tajiks registered themselves as Uzbek to gain political advantages, and many were heavily influenced by Turkey. Stalin said it was “the Tajiks themselves who had done the most to prevent the formation of a separate Tajik union republic”; he was likely considering the example of men like Abdullah Rahimbaev, a Tajik who was the Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Turkestan and who described the ethnic composition of the region as Uzbek, Kyrgyz, Turkmen, and “various insignificant nationalities” (Bergne, 27 ). The potential national leaders of the Tajiks denied their own peoples’ place in the Union, denying their contemporaries a voice for a Tajik nation and future generations of a history of autonomous national development. Officials in Moscow decided to make Tajikistan a full Union Republic in 1929, most likely because they believed a Persian republic would help Soviet foreign policy toward other areas with Persian influence, from Iran to India. The Autonomous Republic of Tajikistan lacked the minimum one million inhabitants to become a Union Republic, however, so the Soviets added the district of Khujand, renamed Leninabad (previously part of Uzbekistan) to Tajikistan. This district was 58% Tajik and 38% Uzbek and featured the four largest cities in Tajikistan (the capital, Dushanbe, was a tiny garrison town whose name meant “Monday,” leading to jokes that it might be closed on Tuesday) (Rubin, 139). To one degree or another, all nations and national myths are created, but in the case of Tajikistan, the process was more blatant and less graceful than most.
Despite these inauspicious beginnings, a Tajik intelligentsia did emerge to craft a national story of sorts. “Creative unions” (tvorcheskie soiuzy) were a major influence behind the first attempts to draft a national history by using so-called “Sogdian novels” to exalt Tajik connections to the Sogdians of the 6th-8th centuries AD. Sātim Ulughzāda was the most famous author of these novels, while Bāzār Sābir wrote eloquent national revival poetry until he was imprisoned in 1993 (Dudoignon, 54). The Soviet-era Tajik intelligentsia also built up a glorious heritage around the 10th century Samanid state that was centered in Bukhara (never mind that Bukhara and Samarqand had remained in Uzbekistan), claiming that the Tajik nation was the most ancient and “civilized” in central Asia. But the Samanids were the most modern connection the intelligentsia could make, and the national stories based on thousand-year-old affiliations would not survive the collapse of the USSR (Khalid, 148).
Islam also played an important role in defining membership in the Tajik community. Islamic observances were re-cast as part of national culture, and “Muslim” identified belonging, but the moral imperatives of Islam were subsumed to Soviet social norms (Khalid 98). In fact, Party leaders doubled as national leaders, and “being Uzbek or Tajik or Kazakh became inextricable from being Soviet” (Khalid, 98). Both Islamic and non-Islamic traditions (like the Iranian New Year feast, Navruz) were portrayed as local or “Eastern” customs and cultural markers. “Unofficial” Islam and Islamic rituals were deeply imbedded in “community-based solidarity networks,” which grew out of ties of kinship and village social practices (Khalid, 99). Islam ascribed women an important place in community life. Women served as otins (Quran reciters for ritual events) and were seen as the guardians of the faith and of community values. When asked if there was any contradiction between being a Communist and being a Muslim, a Tajik villager replied “Not at all. I am a Communist. I cannot fast or pray at work. But my wife and kelin (daughter-in-law), they are sitting at home, so they must fast and pray! So we will not suffer from sin. We are a Muslim home!” (Khalid, 103). Islam retreated into the private sphere of the home, where women and old men served as religious proxies for the community at large, but unofficial Islam had to remain apolitical; it survived as an aspect of “national tradition” and to distinguish community members from outsiders (Khalid, 104-107).
When Tajikistan became an independent state, it was the poorest and most externally dependent of all the Soviet Republics. Forty-seven percent of Tajikistan’s budget came from Russian subsidies, and it depended on exporting cotton to the Russian textile industry. The 201st Motorized Rifle Division was stationed in Tajikistan under command of a Garmi Tajik and largely composed of Tajik soldiers, but it was not under clear control from Moscow or Dushanbe. Overnight, half of the Tajik budget disappeared, major supplies of food and energy were no longer guaranteed, and the military lacked a clear central authority (Rubin, 140-2).
Two major political paths emerged from the end of Soviet rule. One was essentially “neo-Soviet” supporters of the late-Soviet status quo largely drawn from the regions that had been favored under Soviet policy (Khujand/Leninabad and Kulab) (Rubin, 131). The other consisted of various nationalist groups, many of whom were influenced by the Soviet war in Afghanistan across the southern border and now viewed Russia as the cause of the region’s problems (Dudoignon). The Democratic Party of Tajikistan (DPT) was founded on August 10, 1990 and relied heavily on Baltic nationalist movements for inspiration and support. Tajik nationalists echoed Lithuanian calls for “escape from the Russian spheres of influence,” and the first independent Tajik periodicals, Rastakhez and ‘Adālat, were published in Lithuania and shipped to Tajikistan (Dudoignon, 58-62). The nationalists grasped for historical national heroes, and settled on the last leaders of the Tajik SSR before Russification. ‘Abd ul-Qādir Muhiddinov and ‘Abbas ‘Aliyev, Tajik Communist theoreticians and specialists on nationalities in the 1920s, were hailed as defenders of Tajik national interests for their resistance to Moscow’s decision to give the cities of Samarqand and Bukhara to Uzbekistan (Dudoignon, 68).
The Islamic Renaissance Party (IRP), like other nationalist groups, turned to Islam for national inspiration. Without an explicitly Tajik pre-Soviet past to draw from, they turned to foreign (but not Turkic) Muslims, like India’s Iqbal, whose 1933 poem “What is to be done, O People of the East?” became an anthem of both Muslim and secular opposition (Khalid, 152). Some trace the roots of the IRP back to a secret network established in 1973, the Renewal of the Islamic Youth of Tajikistan (Nahzati Javononi Islamii Tojikiston), which advocated a social status for Islam. However, the immediate antecedent of the IRP in Tajikistan was a conference of 183 lay Muslim intellectuals in Astrakhan in July 1990 to form the Union-wide Islamic Renaissance Party for Muslims. While the international IRP stagnated, the Tajik delegates returned to Dushanbe and established a local branch of the IRP (against considerable official hostility) in October 1990 (Khalid, 147). The IRP functioned more like the early Bolshevik organizations than contemporary Islamist movements in non-Soviet countries (Dudoignon, 63). Throughout the 1990s, IRP leaders insisted that they had no intention of establishing a theocratic fundamentalist state in Tajikistan, and that they would never strive to impose Islamic ideology and their objectives on the citizens of the country….[The Party’s] objective was to play a role of its own in the spiritual revival and self-realization of the nations, and to defend the rights and demands of Muslims (Khalid, 149).
The IRP partnered with other opposition parties like DPT, toning down its fundamentalist slogans for an Islamic state in order to conform to their message. The IRP adopted a more “national” focus while contributing its religious roots to the opposition as “the ideological cornerstone of the anti-Russian, anti-colonial struggle.” Part of the IRP program called for a re-evaluation of the status of women, whom they felt had been “tarnished” by the Soviet regime, and recommended they wear a hijab (simple veil that covers the head) to reflect Tajik “national” customs. The IRP broke away from the “apparatus intelligentsia” and the official qaziyat, the classical religious institution that served as the main socializing force of Islam under the Soviets (Dudoignon, 64-67). This separation reflects the fact, so often obscured by Western commentators during the civil war, that Islam is not monolithic and immutable, but is instead diverse and dynamic across time and cultures.
Fighting broke out between the “loyalists” and “Opposition” in Dashunbe Dushanbe in May 1992. President Nabiev, the former First Secretary of the Tajikistan Republic’s Communist Party, tried to stop the conflict by agreeing to form a coalition government with the Opposition, but the fighting continued, and a coup by irregular opposition units in September forced Nabiev from the capital. Restorationist forces supported by Russia and Uzbekistan mounted a counter-offensive and drove the “Islamic-democratic” opposition into Afghanistan. A Russian border patrol and “peacekeeping” force was dispatched under the auspices of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) to suppress the “Tajik Spring” and stabilize control of the infrastructure. Of the 5.1 million people recorded in the 1989 census, an estimated 20,000 to 100,000 were killed in the fighting, and 300,000 ethnic Russians (from a pre-war population of 388,000) fled back to Russia (Rubin, 128-130).
Some have argued that regionalism was the driving force in the conflict, and that “the ideologies adopted and propagated in the civil war were means of legitimating mobilization (and foreign support) in defense of clan interests” (Rubin, 144). The Khujandi (Leninabadi) clan that mostly ran the Soviet-era government stayed on the loyalist side, as did their partners from the Kulab and Hisor provinces, while the Opposition drew support from the Garmis and Pamiris. One’s relation to the instruments of Soviet power helped determine ideology, and that relationship was largely influenced by the organization of kolkhozes (collective farms) under the Soviets that mirrored avlod (clan groups) and cemented patronage networks (Rubin, 146-7). This argument implies that the ideologies, on their own terms, were largely irrelevant, but the Tajiks themselves claim that they played an important role; the combatants insist they were fighting for something more than narrow regional interests (Rubin, 145). Nevertheless, it is clear that, without a unifying, deep-rooted nationalism, regionalism (mahalgaroi) played a significant role in shaping the membership of the opposing factions in the civil war (Khalid, 151).
The end of the civil war and the fate of the IRP were influenced by developments beyond Tajikistan. The Government of Tajikistan and the United Tajik Opposition (UTO) signed a peace accord in Moscow on June 27, 1997. The Tajik government, as well as the Russians and Uzbeks, wanted to get the Tajik opposition out of Afghanistan, where tens of thousands fled during the civil war, because of the growing influence and power of the Taliban (Rubin, 130). The mujahidin remnants in Afghanistan attempted to support the Tajik opposition with personnel and arms, efforts rumored to have been financed by Saudi Arabia or Iran. During and after the civil war, secular and moderate elements in Central Asia have been apprehensive and suspicious of any attempt to turn their nations into “Islamic republics,” and secular elements in Tajikistan have used the threat of Islamic fundamentalism to rally support for their programs (Critchlow, 270, 277). During the mid-1990s, Tajikistan continued to rely on Russia for 2/3 of its annual budget and a force of 25,000 Russian troops for border security. This large Russian presence inadvertently helped bring about the peace accords in 1997; Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan were inspired to cooperate with the UN peace negotiations because they feared the Russians in their neighborhood as much as “Islamic fundamentalism” (Rubin, 153-56).
The IRP’s influence has declined significantly since the end of the civil war. It still participates as part of the embattled, resilient opposition, but it is largely shut out from the structures of state. There are few signs of a general re-Islamization of Tajik society, little wonder after seven decades of Soviet rule (Khalid, 153). The IRP was never the fundamentalist menace that its opponents portrayed it to be, but it has failed to achieve even its moderated goals of restoring the basics of Islam to society and reintroducing Islamic knowledge and values into public life (Khalid, 149-50). The IRP did attempt to contribute to the formation of Tajik national identity by reminding people of their Islamic heritage and building upon the symbolic rituals of Islam that were preserved in private during Soviet rule, but it and its nationalist party partners faced an entrenched conservative element without the benefit of a pre-existing national history to mobilize for their advantage. The IRP experience shows that Islam did survive under Communism, but its political potential was significantly blunted among the majority of the population who received no formal religious training. Tajikistan continues to search for its past. The nation created by the Bolsheviks has so far been unable to produce a convincing justification for its post-Soviet existence or inspiration for national unity. If the legacy of Islam under Communism is any indication, however, Islamic ritual will have to be a part of that Tajik identity, even if only superficially and recast as local or national tradition.
- Paul Bergne, The Birth of Tajikistan: National Identity and the Origins of the Republic (London: I. B. Tauris, 2007).
- The CIA World Fact Book. The Central Intelligence Agency 2009 6 Apr 2009.
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- Glenn Curtis, “Country Studies: Tajikistan,” GPO for the Library of Congress 1996 4 Apr 2009.
- Stéphane A. Dudoignon, “Political Parties and Forces in Tajikistan, 1989-1993,” in Tajikistan: The Trials of Independence, edited by Mohammed-Reza Djalili, Frédéric Grare, and Shirin Akiner, 52-87 (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997).
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- Barnett R. Rubin, “Russian Hegemony and State Breakdown in the Periphery: Causes and Consequences of the Civil War in Tajikistan,” in Post-Soviet Political Order: Conflict and State Building, edited by Barnett R. Rubin and Jack Snyder, 128-161 (London: Routledge, 1998).