During the Soviet era, a systematic campaign was launched by the authorities to undermine the religious and cultural traditions of Muslims in Tajikistan and other Central Asian republics and to erase their Islamic identity. Islamic books were banned and madrasas were closed down. Hundreds of mosques were forcibly closed down or converted into secular buildings. A number of religious leaders were arrested. The Perso-Arabic script of the Tajiki language was replaced by the Cyrillic script.
However, these repressive measures failed to obliterate the deep-seated loyalty and commitment of Muslims to their faith and their religious and cultural traditions. They imparted Islamic instruction to their children at home or in small neighbourhood Islamic schools (maktabs), which were hidden from the authorities. Despite the Communist regime’s relentless atheistic propaganda, Islam remained a central part of the individual and collective identities of Muslims in Tajikistan and other Central Asian republics.
On the eve of the imminent disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1989-90, Tajikistan experienced a revival of Tajik nationalism and the resurgence of Islamic consciousness and identity. An increasing number of Tajiks came to view Islam as a key component of Tajikistan’s cultural and national identity. Many mosques, which were forcibly closed down during the heyday of Soviet rule or had fallen into disrepair, were renovated and opened. By 1991 there were nearly 3,000 functioning mosques in the country. A new, large madrasa opened in Dushanbe shortly after independence. A Muslim political party called the Islamic Renaissance Party was established in 1990.
The Islamic Renaissance Party was established in the context of the policy of glasnost (openness) introduced by then Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev. The main goals of the Islamic Renaissance Party were spiritual revival and regeneration and economic and political development and progress of Muslims in accordance with the teachings of the Quran and the Precepts of the Prophet. The party emphasized the observance of prayers and fasting and modest Islamic attire for women. The party drew a fairly large number of youth, particularly students, to its fold.
Shortly after independence, Tajikistan was plunged into a protracted and violent civil war, which raged from 1992 to 1997 and took a toll of nearly 100,000 lives. More than a million people were displaced as a result of the war. The civil war was sparked by a political confrontation between Tajik nationalists, who were supported and joined by Islamic-minded groups and organisations, and the supporters and beneficiaries of the old Communist regime. In the course of time the conflict assumed ethnic overtones with Tajiks and Uzbeks pitted against each other. The scars of the civil war have not yet healed.
Tajikistan’s current population is a little over 8 million. Tajiks, who are of Iranian origin and speak a variant of Persian known as Tajiki, constitute 84.3 per cent of the population. The Uzbeks, who form the largest ethnic minority, account for 13.8 per cent of the population. There are small minorities of Russians and Kyrgyz people. Nearly 98 per cent of the population are followers of Islam. The overwhelming majority of Muslims follow the Sunni creed and the Hanafi school of Islamic jurisprudence. Sufism, particularly the Naqshbandiya order, has exercised a profound and enduring influence on Tajikistan and other Central Asian republics.
Central Asia has been home to some Jewish communities for hundreds of years. In 1989, before the disintegration of the Soviet Union, there were 15,000 Jews in Tajikistan. Following independence, most of them migrated to the US, Israel, Europe and Australia. Now the population of Jews in Tajikistan is less than 300.
Tajikistan is a predominantly rural country. Less than 30 per cent of the population live in cities. Life expectancy at birth is 67.39 years and the total fertility rate is 2.71 children per woman of child-bearing age, well above the replacement level. Nearly 70 per cent of the population are under the age of 30 and 35% between the ages of 14 and 30. The literacy rate in Tajikistan is almost hundred per cent, one of the highest in the Muslim world.
The most widely spoken language in Tajikistan is Tajiki, which is one of the dialects of Persian. Until the early 1930s, Tajiki was written in the Perso-Arabic script. Under the policy of Russification, the Perso-Arabic script of Tajiki was replaced with the Cyrillic script. Russian, which was introduced as a link language across the Soviet Union, is still widely used in government and in business.
Tajikistan has abundant natural resources, particularly water, cotton and aluminium. With the Amu Darya River Basin under its control, Tajikistan has the eighth highest water supply in the world and about 4 per cent of the world’s fresh water supply. Most people are engaged in cotton farming, mountain farming and livestock herding. Cotton accounts for over 60% of agricultural output and more than 75 per cent of the rural population are dependent on it for their livelihood.
A highly important source of revenue is the remittances sent by Tajiks working in Russia and other Central Asian republics. Tajikistan is the world’s most remittance-dependent economy, accounting for over half of the GDP. In 2013 Tajikistan received a total of $4 billion by way of remittances, accounting for 52% of the GDP. Tajikistan receives substantial international aid from 39 countries, mostly from the USA, Russia, China and Iran. Another significant, but illegal, source of income is drug trafficking. Tajikistan is the main transit point for drug trafficking from Afghanistan. It is estimated that nearly 80-90 tonnes of drugs, worth billions of dollars in the international market, are smuggled each year from neighbouring Afghanistan, which are then rerouted to Russia, Europe and other parts of the world. A number of government officials in Tajikistan are said to be involved in this lucrative clandestine trade.
Tajikistan’s GDP (PPP) in 2014 was $22.32 billion and per capita income $2,700. Tajikistan is the poorest member of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and one of the poorest countries in the world. More than 35% of the population live below the poverty line. Tajikistan, which was the breadbasket of the erstwhile Soviet Union, is dependent on imports for more than 60% of its food requirement. The unemployment rate in the country is over 20%. Industrial growth in the country is stagnant and negligible. Faced with grim economic prospects, hundreds of thousands of Tajiks have migrated to Russia, Kazakhstan and other Central Asian countries in search of livelihood. It is estimated that nearly 2 million Tajiks are working abroad. Nearly half of working-age men, most of them under 30, are working abroad.
The large-scale migration of Tajik men has created a host of problems for Tajik society, particularly for women. Nearly one-third of men who have migrated never return home or fail to support their families, leaving the women, particularly wives, vulnerable to economic hardships, destitution, health problems and depression. Some of the men divorce their wives. Thousands of children in the country are growing up without their fathers. Many mothers, who find it extremely hard to support their children, put them in orphanages. In the absence of men, women are forced to work on farms or to sell fruits and vegetables in the streets to support their families.
The political scenario in Tajikistan is fraught with authoritarian rule, corruption, nepotism and suppression of human rights and civil liberties. President Emomali Rahmon, who enjoys the backing of Russia, USA and China, has ruled the country with an iron hand since 1992. He has strengthened his position by eliminating political rivals. Loans and grants provided by international financial institutions, aid agencies and Western governments are often misused by high-ranking officials with impunity. The ruling establishment has placed wide-ranging restrictions on Islamic expression. The hijab has been banned in educational and public institutions and private Islamic instruction is prohibited. Children are prevented from attending prayers in mosques.
The Islamic Renaissance Party, which has been the main opposition party since independence and has been critical of President Rahmon’s authoritarian style of functioning and the corruption of the ruling regime, was banned in August 2015. A month later it was declared a terrorist organisation. At least 13 members of the party and the defence lawyer have been detained and charged with a conspiracy to overthrow the government.
The USA, Russia and Western governments have turned a blind eye to the gross violation of human rights by Tajikistan’s ruling regime because of their stake in the country and due to Tajikistan’s strategic location and geopolitical importance. Russia, which is faced with insurgency in the Muslim-dominated regions of Chechnya and Ingushetia, believes that a ruthless and secular-minded ruler like Rahmon will manage to keep radical Muslim groups at bay. Tajikistan has entered into several military and economic alliances with Russia and China.