Muhiddin Kabiri’s reelection as chairman of the Islamic Revival Party of Tajikistan signals that he has managed to foster internal cohesion within the party and consolidate his power. It also signals that Kabiri’s efforts to reform the group find broad support. Kabiri appears set to use this support to continue transforming the IRPT into a conventional political party, including by deemphasizing its Islamic identity. The transformation of the party is watched closely by the government, which sees the IRPT as the only political force with a potential to challenge President Emomali Rahmon’s grip on power.
BACKGROUND: On September 24, Muhiddin Kabiri was reelected chairman of the Islamic Revival Party of Tajikistan (IRPT). His reelection serves as an important indication that Kabiri has managed to repair internal divisions which threatened to split Tajikistan’s strongest opposition party for most of the past decade. The rift emerged soon after the party’s long-running leader, Said Abdullo Nuri, was diagnosed with cancer in 2004, and Kabiri – then first deputy chairman – became its de facto leader. His leadership was highly controversial within the party. Unlike many in the party hierarchy, Kabiri did not play any role in the Islamic opposition’s conflict with the government in 1992-1997 and had no Islamic education. Besides, Kabiri was known as a moderate and pragmatic politician with explicitly pro-Western views, which many of the more conservative party members, particularly those with links to Iran, found difficult to accept.
Despite the resistance of the conservatives, Nuri explicitly recommended Kabiri as the next leader of the party. Therefore, when Nuri died in August 2006, Kabiri was elected chairman for his first four-year term. Kabiri has since managed to transform the party in several important ways. First, he has to some extent turned the IRPT into a conventional political party by deemphasizing the group’s Islamic roots and placing greater emphasis on its role as a political institution. As a result, the party now has a more contemporary image in public opinion. This is not to suggest that the party has fully parted with its Islamic identity. Kabiri has continuously grounded his policies in Islamic principles and the party gained substantial public support for actively defending Muslim rights. Yet, the IRPT has steadily moved from being primarily “Islamic” to being primarily a “party.” Second, Kabiri has managed to increase the party’s support base by attracting many new young followers, including from outside of IRPT’s traditional constituencies in rural and conservative regions of Gharm and Qurghonteppa. Third, he has managed to minimize the influence of conservatives within the party.
The party’s transformation and the generational change within its hierarchy alienated some veteran members. They have criticized Kabiri for not standing firm enough against the government’s growing repression against Islam and electoral fraud. In June 2011, Mirzomuhammad Navid, member of IRPT’s political council and Kabiri’s advisor on cultural affairs, announced he was leaving the party, citing his frustration with Kabiri’s “disregard of alternative opinions in decision making.” Navid also accused Kabiri of being a politician who uses religious slogans only for political purposes.
Following Navid’s departure, many analysts suggested that conservatives within the party would seek to challenge Kabiri’s bid for reelection. It appears that some veteran members of the party did in fact consider nominating Nuri’s eldest son, Muhammadjon Nuri, an Iranian-educated cleric, as a potential challenger to Kabiri’s leadership. Their failure to do so indicates that Kabiri’s moderate and pragmatic policies enjoy broad support within the party. It also indicates that the power within IRPT has effectively shifted from the “old guard” towards a younger generation of leaders.
IMPLICATIONS: Kabiri’s reelection as chairman of the IRPT signifies a vote of approval for his policies and gives him a clear mandate to continue reforming the party. Kabiri has already unequivocally stated that he would use this mandate to strengthen the party further as a political institution, including by delinking to a greater extent its platform and ideology from Islam. Speaking to media shortly after his reelection, Kabiri said: “The motto of our party reads, ‘Trust in Allah, loyalty to the Motherland, service to the people.’ The emphasis will change now. Our relationship with Allah is our personal matter. There is no need [for the party] to continue announcing [its Islamic origins], that is, emphasizing the first part of the motto. We now need to focus our efforts on the second and the third parts of the motto.”
There are of course obvious limits to how far Kabiri can go about reforming IRPT without alienating the rest of the party leadership, both conservative and moderate. For instance, Kabiri has recently mentioned that he favored an even greater secularization of the party, including allowing non-Muslims to become members of the party. Yet, he made it clear that he would not push for this change because of a considerable opposition to this plan within the party. Veteran party member and political analyst Qiyomiddin Sattorzoda notes that IRPT is not an Islamic group, but it is important to restrict party membership to Muslims. “Most people fail to understand that we are not an Islamic party,” said Sattorzoda. “We are a ‘party of Islamic revival,’ an essentially secular party composed of devout Muslims. The religiosity of party leadership at all levels is important because it ensures that they will act in line with Islamic principles.”
Kabiri’s bid to reform and strengthen the party further will be closely watched by the government of President Rahmon. Rahmon appears to view opposition parties in Tajikistan as largely irrelevant, an unavoidable evil that the regime has to tolerate to demonstrate its democratic façade to the western governments and international financial institutions. The IRPT clearly stands out as the only opposition force with a potential to challenge Rahmon’s grip on power. The party has about 40,000 members and a significantly greater number of supporters, who do not want to become formal members for various reasons. While still lagging behind the ruling party in membership, IRPT has witnessed a steady increase in public support and has acquired genuine social roots. The party has recently intensified its work among Tajik labor migrants in Russia, a sizeable group which, if organized, can become an important political force.
Rahmon cooperated well with the IRPT when Nuri was alive, partly because he wanted to gain credit for allowing Central Asia’s only legal religious party, partly because he knew that Nuri was too polarizing as a political figure to ever gain sufficient public support to challenge his power. In contrast, Kabiri, who does not appear any more pious than an average Tajik and is increasingly popular among people, might emerge as a strong rival to Rahmon or any other person he would wish to designate as his successor. There are no reliable indicators of presidential approval by the public in Tajikistan. Many analysts believe that the broad support enjoyed by President Rahmon for about a decade after the end of the civil war has largely eroded. Poverty, rampant corruption, cronyism and nepotism in government, declining quality of public services, and the government’s restriction of religious expression cause widespread frustration with Rahmon’s government. Against this background, Kabiri is increasingly viewed as a dedicated reformer who can present a viable alternative to the incumbent president. This view is also prevalent in western embassies and capitals where Kabiri is always given warm reception.
CONCLUSIONS: It remains to be seen whether the government would simply watch Kabiri reforming IRPT into an increasingly strong political party or interfere at some point to curtail its growing influence. In any case, the transformation of the IRPT under Kabiri’s leadership will have important consequences for the future political landscape in Tajikistan. While major opposition parties of the post-independence period have either lost their relevance or were impaired by the government, and the president-led ruling party remained merely an artificial group, the IRPT has emerged as an effective and well-established political party. As a result, the government will find it increasingly difficult to disregard the party’s criticism and demands for representation in the government and legislature.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Alexander Sodiqov taught at the Russian-Tajik Slavonic University in Dushanbe, Tajikistan in 2009-2010. He is now an independent analyst, studying for a PhD in Comparative Politics at the University of Toronto.