‘Islamic revolution in Central Asia not possible’

Afghanistan, first occupied and now cast adrift by the United States, is a destabilizing influence in Central Asia, the head of Tajikistan's Islamic Renaissance Party, Muhiddin Kabiri, said in an interview with RT’s Nadezhda Kevorkova.

­The Islamic Revival Party of Tajikistan, the only legal religious opposition party in the post-Soviet space, has held its first convention in the city of Dushanbe since the beginning of the Arab Spring. The event opened up with tragic news. Burhanuddin Rabbani, the first post-Soviet president of Afghanistan and the mastermind of Tajikistan’s national reconciliation process following the civil war of 1992—1993, who was supposed to attend the convention as an honorary guest, lost his life to a suicide bomber in Kabul two days short of the event. There was also speculation about a possible change of party leadership that added to the agitation.

The convention eventually kept Muhiddin Kabiri in charge, the leader who has presided over the party ever since the death of Saeed Abdullah Nuri in 2006.

Muhiddin Kabiri, 45, earned a degree in economics in Tashkent, majored in political science and diplomacy at a Moscow school, and studied Islam in Yemen.

Mr. Kabiri told RT that a possible spread of the Arab uprisings to Central Asia is not the main challenge for this part of the world, since it won’t be an Islamic revolution anyway, and liberal “color revolutions” have already been rocking various post-Soviet countries for a number of years. Kabiri sees the greatest threat to regional stability in Afghanistan, which is about to be left to its own devices following a decade of American occupation.

The Islamic Revival Party of Tajikistan emerged in 1992 by splitting from the Islamic Revival Party of the Soviet Union, which was formed in 1990. Following the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991, Tajikistan descended into a civil war, which lasted for two years and claimed about 200,000 lives, according to various estimates. Former Soviet troops stationed in Tajikistan chose to back the Popular Front, which later evolved into the People’s Democratic Party of Tajikistan and is currently running the country. The Islamic party lost the war. Many of its activists were executed, and many more had to flee to Afghanistan and Iran and stay there until a national reconciliation process was launched in Tajikistan. The reconciliation effort was proposed and directed by then-President of Afghanistan Burhanuddin Rabbani, who happened to be an ethnic Tajik himself. In 2010, the Islamic Revival Party won two seats in the national parliamentary election.

Now, in the wake of the Arab Spring, many observers are predicting that Central Asia is heading for the same scenario.

­Muhiddin Kabiri, 45
Leader of Tajikistan's Islamic Renaissance Party since 2006
A trained economist, he studied in Tajikistan, and later underwent religious education in Yemen and undertook political studies in Moscow

­RT: Do you feel encouraged by the Arab Spring?

Muhiddin Kabiri: We are watching these developments, of course, but I don’t think they will trigger a revolution in Central Asia. We’ve seen three “color revolutions” erupt much closer to us – in Georgia, Ukraine and twice in Kyrgyzstan – yet nothing happened in Tajikistan. Anyway, the people are keeping track of the events, and we analyze them. Central Asia probably does have the preconditions for a revolution, but our region’s distinctive feature is the fact that the people here are more patient and less emotional, in my opinion, than the people in Arab countries.

RT: So you don’t consider an Islamic revolution to be a realistic scenario for Central Asia?

MK: Even if there is a revolution in Central Asia, it will not be Islamic. Islam may be an element within a revolutionary movement, the way it was in Egypt or Tunisia. But this kind of developments definitely won’t be purely Islam-driven.

RT: The recent IRPT convention attracted quite a few participants besides party members, including a lot of people from Iran, and a number of people from Afghanistan, Egypt, Malaysia and Russia. Was it a deliberate move to invite those people, exactly in these numbers?

MK: We originally invited a lot of people. Not all of them were able to obtain a visa in time, and traveling to Tajikistan proved to be a problem for many as well. So we didn’t get all of our guests. As for the Iranian delegation, it only consisted of a single person who arrived from Iran: the rest of the Iranians were embassy people who accompanied him in Dushanbe. We were glad to see that the Russian delegation was so large: it consisted of six groups from various cities in Russia, including a few of our fellow countrymen. There were also people from other embassies attending the event, including the UK, the United States, France and Germany.

Needless to say, this was our first convention of such a scale, and I believe it has been successful. What’s most important, we held this convention in collaboration with all parts of Tajikistan’s society, including the government, political parties, the media, etc. Despite the challenges, we are happy with the results.

RT: How would you explain those American diplomats attending an Islamic party meeting?

MK: We generally get many diplomats attending our events: British, American, German and sometimes French officials. Indeed, this year’s convention drew significant attention from the diplomatic corps and local media. There was a lot of speculation prior to the convention on who was going to head the party, and what changes there would be in the party leadership. Therefore, there was a lot of interest in our meeting, and it doesn’t surprise us that there were so many people from embassies and from the press. Embassy officials even used to deliver speeches at some of our previous events, but this time they were merely observers. Nonetheless, we are happy they came.

RT: How do you view the situation in Afghanistan following the assassination of Rabbani, considering that a large share of that country’s population is ethnic Tajiks?

MK: I believe the situation in Afghanistan has aggravated after the terrorist attack that killed Teacher Rabbani. He was supposed to be a guest at our convention, and we were expecting him. Now, we can say Afghanistan has entered into a new, post-Rabbani era. Rabbani was a very influential figure, even though he wasn’t holding any official position in recent years. His assassination will complicate the situation even more, now that the US government is contemplating a withdrawal. All the different groups in Afghanistan are waiting for that opportunity to fill the vacuum. I don’t know how NATO’s military presence has benefited Afghanistan, but I believe their hurried pullout will lead to another military conflict. This is what makes it a vital necessity for all the major international players to collaborate over Afghanistan. China, Iran, Russia and the neighboring countries, all should come together to discuss what is to be done for Afghanistan once the NATO troops are gone. So far, nobody has a plan. The United States are determined to pull out of Afghanistan as quickly and with as little casualties as possible. But no one has any agenda for Afghanistan once the Americans leave.

RT: The Americans are currently setting up a massive “training facility” on the border between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. In essence, it is going to be their new military base. Doesn’t that look like a plan for the future?

MK: Given that the Americans have been unable to make a change in Afghanistan while actually being there, they will hardly manage to influence the situation from outside the country, even if they are stationed at the border.

RT: And why does the US need a new base?

MK: Most likely, for the balance of power.  

RT: To counter-balance Russia?

MK: I don’t think it’s against Russia. The American military presence in the region promotes the United States’ political, economic and commercial presence.

RT: What is the situation with the uranium mines in Tajikistan?

MK: I don’t have enough information to comment on this issue.

RT: There is abundant speculation about a drug trafficking route that starts from Afghanistan and passes through Tajikistan. Could you clarify this matter?

MK: There are a lot of myths about drugs in the region, and there is very little information on what’s actually going on. But there are two facts that nobody can deny. First, drug trafficking volumes did drop significantly in Afghanistan and Central Asia while the Taliban was in power. Secondly, in the post-Taliban period, drug production increased by several times. As for those involved in drug trafficking and profiting from it, there has been a lot of speculation and rumors, but there are no reliable facts available.  

RT: Going back to your party, how do you see its current objectives?

MK: In the previous years, we had been preoccupied with preserving the party’s unity, and with maintaining our presence in the parliament, us being the only opposition party there. Now that these objectives have been accomplished, we are thinking of the best ways to fulfill our mission as the only religious party in the post-Soviet space. This unique status probably determines our objectives; we believe it’s important that we introduce the region to the moderate Islam that our party represents. This is what distinguishes a religious party – not necessary an Islamic one – from secular parties, both leftwing and rightwing: a religious party has a mission apart from politics, which is to introduce people to religion. Without such a mission, our party would have turned into an ordinary political party.

RT: Who are your opponents, and who are your allies?

MK: We don’t have any definite partners or opponents. Sometimes we work together with the ruling party on specific issues, such as the construction of the Rogun hydroelectric power plant and other strategic projects. We often side with the Communist Party on social issues. We collaborate with liberal parties on issues such as human rights and the promotion of democracy in Tajikistan. Our party has quite a flexible attitude. We don’t bear any grudges with other political parties. And we cooperate with other parties on particular matters.      

By the way, during the latest election, many Russian-speaking citizens supported us, and some remained neutral. You probably won’t believe it, but we had ethnic Russians working in our election headquarters, and there were Russians who would come to tell us they were going to vote for us.

RT: And what are the reasons for Russians to vote for an Islamic party?
MK: It probably isn’t that they like us. There were particularly many Russians who came to us and offered their services. They told us they were disappointed with the ruling party, and that they were willing to vote for any party except that one. I suppose they voted for us because we are the strongest opposition party. I won’t argue that we are backed by the majority of Russians, but we’ve seen them make their first steps in our direction, and I think that has been a significant landmark for our party.

RT: How many seats can you win in the parliament in 4 years?

MK: Provided there is a fair and transparent election, our party can win at least 30 percent of the ballot. In the previous election in 2010, we won between 30 and 35 percent of the vote, according to various estimates. We have been preparing for the 2015 parliamentary election. The 2012 presidential election is a very serious matter, and the party is yet to decide whether we will participate in it. So far, it hasn’t been on the agenda.

RT: Is there any pressure on you from the ruling party?

MK: Our situation is volatile: sometimes there is more pressure, sometimes there is less. So far, there is hope that things are getting better. Our recent convention was attended by a number of high ranking officials. We’ve also had some cooperation with government agencies. All of this testifies to the fact that the government is taking the right steps to cooperate with our party, however reserved they initially are.

RT: The word “Islamic” in your party’s title makes many people uneasy, suggesting there is an agenda for an armed struggle.

MK: Sometimes it’s incredibly difficult to prove that you’re not a bad guy. Sometimes it would even make it easier for yourself and for your opponent if you admitted that you really are a bad guy. We’ve been working hard to prove that we are a regular political party, with sane members and rational ideas. But we still experience this pressure. Sometimes we are referred to as the Wahhabis, or the Shiites, or the Tahrirs (Hizb ut-Tahrir is a London-based Islamic party that aspires to establishing a worldwide caliphate – comment by RT). However, this doesn’t affect our party’s work in any way, since we ourselves know what we are, and most intelligent people in Tajikistan and in Central Asia are aware that we are a faith-based political party that relies on national and religious values. The number of people accusing us has been declining by the year. But accusations are a natural element of political competition, and we are not afraid of them.

RT: Is it true that over a half or your party members are women?

MK: It is true, more than a half of our members are women. First, a large number of men in Tajikistan have emigrated – what’s left is a lot of women, children and elderly people. Secondly, many men are afraid to become our formal party members for fear of losing their jobs and careers. Therefore, they recommend their wives and daughters for membership in our party, while remaining mere informal supporters themselves. The actual popular support for our party is much more than the official 40 thousand party members, it is dozens of times more. 

Nadezhda Kevorkova, RT