Tajikistan youth turn to radical Islam
Bahrom is 34 years old and has just been released from jail.
For someone who has spent the past five years in a grim Tajik prison he looks pretty upbeat.
“When I was caught… [the penalties] weren’t as harsh as they are now.
“Today you can get a 15- or 20-year sentence for belonging to Hizb ut-Tahrir,” he says.
Hizb ut-Tahrir is an Islamic organisation which has swept across Central Asia over the past decade, attracting thousands of young recruits.
It is openly critical of the Tajik regime and is outlawed in the country.
It does not advocate violence but wants to overthrow the current leadership to establish an Islamic state across the Middle East and Central Asia – something known as a “Caliphate, or Khilafah in Arabic.
Bahrom’s story is a typical one. Born into a secular middle-class family in northern Tajikistan, he left school at the end of the 1990s.
Like many young men from his generation, he could not find work and found it difficult to make sense of life in the chaos of post-Soviet Tajikistan. Then he met someone who introduced him to Islam, and suddenly he felt his life had meaning.
“I used to think Islam was about fasting and praying,” he says, his face lighting up.
“But I realised that Islam is the most important thing in your relationship with yourself, with Allah and with other people. It’s the answer to everything.”
It is this sense of belief and purpose that is key to understanding the influence of groups like Hizb ut-Tahrir in Tajikistan.
They offer hope in a world where hope often seems to be in short supply.
The prospects facing the average 16-year-old school leaver are bleak, Bahrom says.
“In Tajikistan nowadays there are no choices.
“If you want to go to university, you have to bribe teachers to get a place. If you have a diploma and want to get a job, again, you need to pay corrupt officials. Corruption is everywhere.”
All over Tajikistan it is now possible to see evidence of the renewed interest in Islam.
CDs and DVDs of radical preachers are openly on sale at markets and outside mosques.
In some areas it is no longer possible to buy alcohol or tobacco. And on the streets the Central Asian version of the burka – the paranja – is making a comeback.
“Even in Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan, people are more religious now than than they used to be,” says Shahobiddin Farrukhyor, an Iranian academic who has lived in Tajikistan for the past 15 years.
“Two years ago, there were a couple of restaurants with a no alcohol policy. Today almost in every corner of the city you can find such ‘Islamic’ restaurants. You can’t find many officials at their desks during Friday prayers too. And this is all happening in what’s supposed to be a secular state.”
At Friday prayers in the main mosque in Bahrom’s home town, there are so many worshippers that people spill into the square outside.
In the last sunshine of the day, hundreds of mainly young men in crisp white shirts line up in orderly rows.
Very few of them have jobs. And for most, the only realistic prospect of making some money is to go to Russia, where there are now hundreds of thousands of Tajiks doing so-called “3D jobs” – dirty, difficult and dangerous.
For some of these young people, though, Friday prayers at the local mosque are not enough.
Curiosity about Islam has led them to internet cafes, where they have quickly tapped into a darker world.
Furqon.com is the website of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), an al-Qaeda-affiliated Central Asian group that now fights alongside the Taliban from a base in northern Pakistan.
Written in local and Arabic languages, it offers a mix of Islamic texts, atrocity videos and exhortations to join the jihad.
It is dangerous material in the hands of disaffected teenagers looking for something to believe in.
“My 17-year-old nephew thinks 9/11 was organised by the Israeli and US secret services,” says a local journalist who has been following the rising popularity of militant sites.
“Recently, I found a picture of Osama Bin Laden on his phone…Where do you think he is getting that kind of propaganda from? Certainly not from our village mullah, who doesn’t know much about either country.”
Of course, it is a big step from reading radical websites to taking up arms against the government. But it is evident that militant groups operating inside and outside Central Asia see poverty-stricken and fragile Tajikistan as a weak spot in the regional armour.
Over the past 18 months there have been reports of IMU fighters moving across Afghanistan into the northern districts bordering Tajikistan.
In early September, IMU fighters were involved in a violent jail break in Dushanbe that left six prison guards dead.
They are also thought to be behind last week’s attack on a Tajik army convoy in a remote eastern area which killed at least 25 soldiers.
These incidents are just the latest in a string of militant attacks across Tajikistan in the past year.
The government’s response has been to crack down on the Islamists. Hundreds of young people have been arrested and jailed, and some allegedly subjected to brutal treatment.
But the hardline approach does not seem to be working.
If anything, it is only hardening the resolve of a new generation who sees their government as corrupt and morally bankrupt, and Islam as the only real alternative.
Despite his time in prison, Bahrom has no intention of giving up his struggle.
“In prison I was really free. I had time to learn about the Koran and Arabic,” he says.
“More and more people are coming to join our cause. If they arrest one of us, four new people will join. It will never stop.”