An Islamic Enigma Rises in Central Asia

A Tajik ex-rebel leader who spent time in Iran rules as deputy premier. His alleged extremism may upset peace.

Tajikistan's controversial yet beguiling Muslim leader appears to revel in the enigma he poses.

Dressed in a neat suit and tie, Khaji Akbar Turajonzodah - portrayed by detractors as a fearsome zealot plotting to sweep the country in Islamic revolution, thereby destabilizing the rest of former Soviet Central Asia - appears in person as the epitome of quiet civility.

"It is a pity that the West always seems to associate Islam with extremism, as something dangerous, when that is clearly not the case," he says, pausing as an assistant pours tea into small bowls.

"Extremism only exists where democracy is not allowed to prevail, as in Algeria," he adds.

Mr. Turajonzodah only recently returned from exile in Iran, from where he organized Islamic resistance against Tajikistan's pro-Communist regime as deputy leader of the United Tajik Opposition (UTO) during a five-year civil war that left an estimated 50,000 dead and 20 percent of the 5.6 million population displaced. As part of a United Nations-mediated peace agreement signed last June, Turajonzodah now serves as deputy prime minister in a government his militia members continue to fight in some parts of the country.

Since independence in 1991, Central Asia's poorest former-Soviet republic has moved slowly on economic reforms, with as much as a third of the population unemployed or underemployed, according to government estimates. The rates of crime and politically inspired violence remain high.

The charismatic Turajonzodah's much-publicized return to Tajikistan in February 1998 was expected to provide a major boost toward peace and reconciliation. Yet two months later the entire peace process is in danger of collapse. Unresolved issues include not only a power-sharing agreement with the UTO, but the reintegration and disarming of militias, as well as legalization of UTO political parties and a free press.

More crucially, an upsurge in fighting between UTO armed groups and government troops east of the capital - described by the UN as a grave violation of the peace agreement - has reopened old wounds.

"If the UTO leadership fails to bring these groups under control we must ask how sincere they are in their proclaimed aims to achieve peace in our country," says Zafar Saidov, spokesman for President Imomali Rakhmornov.

Clash of ideologies

The clash of secular and Islamist ideologies appears to be the source of disunity in the government. "According to our Constitution the concept of secularity is inseparable from democracy and legality," says Mr. Saidov.

"The government and the UTO have fundamentally different viewpoints on this matter ... [although] unfortunately we still have not received any official declaration by the UTO regarding their intentions," he adds.

Turajonzodah responds, "We have a clear program, which we will pursue through democratic means." But Turajonzodah adds he would only declare his manifesto in the run-up to parliamentary elections scheduled for later this year.

"It is naive to ask whether we will take the Iranian model of Islam. There are many different kinds of Islamic states in the world and we have our own model," he says.

Whatever his particular brand of Islam, Turajonzodah has spent a lifetime formulating it. Raised in what he calls a "pious" family, he trained in Islamic law, or sharia, in Uzbekistan and Jordan and subsequently was appointed to the Muslim Spiritual Directorate of Central Asia.

Through his own organization, the Kaziat (Muslim administration), Turajonzodah effectively coordinated the rise of Islamists and Tajik nationalists against the Soviet authorities in the late 1980s and early 1990s, capitalizing on the Soviet debacle in Afghanistan as well as the deteriorating economic situation at home.

Russia's role

Russia would also react with displeasure to any attempt by the UTO to introduce Islamist policies. Along with Kazakstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan, Russia has supplied troops to the peacekeeping force in Tajikistan and continues to have a strong commercial hold over the former Soviet republic - a country rich in natural resources with considerable potential for foreign investment.

Wary of fundamentalism

Devastated by civil war, most Tajiks are concerned with survival rather than religious dogma. Although the overwhelming majority is Sunni Muslim, the affiliation is often more cultural than religious, and many people are wary of a swing toward fundamentalism.

"Fundamentalism will come to Tajikistan slowly and subtly, not by someone waving a big stick," says one schoolteacher, who asked to remain anonymous.

"For example, many young women are starting to dress more conservatively. Increasingly, alcohol is not served at official gatherings - all of this not to offend a conspicuously Muslim minority," she says.

"Moreover, our young people lack education and job prospects, so they are like sponges to new ideas and ideologies. An Islamic state here is only a matter of time," she says.

Turajonzodah remains diplomatic. "I believe that in the future, Islam will help to solve the social and moral problems in our country, although we aren't going to force our ideas on people.

"We will respect the people's choice," he says. "Just because we're Muslim doesn't mean we don't believe in democracy. It's a shame the Western world doesn't seem to understand that."

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