When it was announced in April 2020 that the German authorities had arrested four Tajik citizens who were planning an attack on an American military base in Germany, many wondered: “Where did these people come from? What country is this? Is it yet another hotbed of Islamic terrorism?”
These are not the questions we will seek to answer. Instead, we will attempt to understand why a country deep in the heart of Central Asia is only known for its Islamic fundamentalists. This concern is legitimate in light of the murder in July 2018 of tourists from the United States, Switzerland and Holland. Even in a country like Poland, where you would think it unlikely to find Islamic terrorists, some Tajik citizens were arrested in May 2020 trying to set up a terrorist network.
Yet Tajikistan – a relatively small country nestled in the mountains of the Pamir (“the roof of the world”) and heir to an ancient culture – deserves our attention, and not only because of a group of extremists. It is true that it is torn apart by contradictions: on the one hand, there is the authoritarian power of the president and his family, and the clandestine Islamist movement that offers those who are dissatisfied with the current government an opportunity to take action, even providing them with religious motivations; on the other hand, Tajikistan is a country where they dared to experiment with integrating an Islamist party into the secular political process, redefining the Islamist political movement not only in terms of politics, but also theologically, and seeking to reconcile the moral values of Islam with a democratic and pluralistic society. This particular effort unfortunately failed, but the experiment continues, with many other movements in the Islamic world attempting to do the same.
Most Tajikistanis believe in an open and tolerant society, in particular toward other religions, thanks to the secular education tradition from the Soviet era. But it is also a further example of a Muslim country that, like many others, lives the dilemma of choosing between Islamism and a secular dictatorship.