Eye of a Potential Storm

[Fabled to be founded by Alexander the Great, the Tajik city of Khojand is a mishmash of Soviet and Islamic ideas. Dorzhiev reports from the front. (See his earlier post here) – YH]

Could the clash of civilizations be resolved by a beard growing contest?
Could the clash of civilizations be resolved by a beard growing contest?

Khujand is the capital of Tajikistan’s northern Sogd province that presides over the country’s share of the Fergana Valley. The Fergana has a reputation as a Central Asian flashpoint owing to the convergence of multiple countries, ethnicities, and ideologies that cohabitate within its gerrymandered borders. In the past months it has grabbed headlines for skirmishes between Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan that escalated into violence. Additionally there have been several IMU related incidents in the nearby Uzbek cities of Khanabad and Andijan fueling speculation of the repatriation of insurgents feeling the squeeze in the Northwest Frontier Province of Pakistan. Elsewhere in Tajikistan the apparent return of warlord Mullo Abdullo in the Rasht Valley has sparked fears that civil war era malcontents are regrouping in the Gharm region. Fueling the trend, officials announced June 24th the arrest of 40 alleged extremists in Dushanbe. Given these recent developments one might be tempted to think of Khujand as a potential Kandahar or Peshawar. Such fears are stoked when we read that in recent months police in Khujand have rounded up at least two dozen members of Hizb Ut-Tahrir — an outlawed political party who encourages the re-establishment of the Caliphate.

For the time being, however, Khujand seems to be towing the party line — as might be expected from a city that has historically been a darling of Moscow. During Soviet times Tajikistan’s leadership was almost exclusively cultivated from the ranks of Khujand’s party apparatus. The current president Emomali Rahmon from the southern city of Dangara was the first to buck this trend. Additionally Khujand was largely spared the effects of a bloody civil war that racked the country from 1992-1997. The conflict that destroyed much of the countries aging infrastructure started out as a tribal affair between the regions of Gharm and Kulyab, but quickly conformed to the prevailing “Islam v. Slavic Orthodoxy” narrative that was evolving in Nagorno-Karabakh, Chechnya and the Balkans. Whether or not the civil war fits into this paradigm is debatable, and demands a careful examination of the sometimes bizarre dynamics involved. Whether its roots were regional, ethnic, or “civilizational”, however, the conflict did not spill over into Khujand tucked safely behind the Fann mountains. In this case the geographic buffer proved useful, but there is no such barrier separating Khujand from its cantankerous neighbors in the Fergana Valley.

Khujand is a city suffering a bit of an identity crisis — even if you look beyond the obvious problems presented by its ethnic stew. During Soviet times it was called Leninabad, a moniker you can still hear circulated by youth too young to have a concrete memory of the USSR. As an homage to its past, a huge statue of Lenin stands proudly in the middle of town (the tallest of its kind in Central Asia). Other Soviet regalia is maintained such as the 20 foot hammer and sickle that guards the entrance to the bridge over the Syr Daryo. In the capital of Dushanbe, by contrast, Lenin has been replaced by the Persian hero Somoni, and the main street has been rechristened Rudaki after the national poet. Ironically though, it is only in Khujand that you can stand on Lenin Street and hear the 5 daily calls to prayer ringing out from local mosques—a practice not done in Dushanbe. Additionally, walking around Panjshanbe bazaar ones sees a higher percentage of bearded youths sporting skull caps, a sign not necessarily of extremism, but at least of those who take their faith seriously.

At first glance it seems unlikely that Khujand’s cosmopolitan (for Tajikistan) and well educated citizens could be courted by religious fanatics. This belief, however, assumes that fanaticism and backwardness are inextricably linked. One need only be reminded of the fate of Beirut (“The Pearl of the Orient”) and the largely bourgeois movements of the Muslim Brotherhood and Iranian student revolution to give pause to this assumption. Given Tajikistan’s current economic problems, frustration over the status quo could prove fertile ground for recruitment. Currently Khujand’s trajectory seems clouded. Whether it will remain a bulwark of the “Near Abroad” or drift in a more other worldly direction remains to be seen.

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