Islamic Renaissance Party

[H. Joseph Ware]

Muhiddin Kabiri, leader of the IRPThe Islamic Renaissance Party (IRP) is an opposition party in Tajikistan.  It is the only legal religiously oriented party in post-Soviet central Asia. During Tajikistan’s civil war from 1992-97, the party allied with secular and democratic movements against the neo-Soviet government. Since the war, it has been increasingly marginalized under the regime of Emomali Rahmonov.

The introduction of glasnost into Central Asia saw the widespread restoration and rebuilding of mosques. By 1992, as many as 130 large town mosques were open in Tajikistan. This coincided with the establishment of Islamic opposition parties across the region. In most cases these parties were quickly suppressed, with the notable exception of the Islamist Renaissance Party in Tajikistan (Tazmini, 66).

The IRP traces its lineage to the Nahzati Javononi Islamii Tojikiston (Renewal of the Islamic Youth of Tajikistan), an underground organization from 1972 which pushed for a stronger social role for Islam. Originally conceived in 1990 as a multinational party concerned with freedom of conscience and practice for Muslims, only the Tajikistani contingent of the IRP succeeded in forming a local branch. Reformist mullahs operating in Gharm and Hisor built local support for the party. Its immediate goal was the restoration of the Islamist influence on Tajik society lost during seven decades of Soviet rule (Khalid, 147). At this point the IRP worked toward a Tajik democracy in which Islam would have a significant role, but would be represented by a party willing to cooperate with other, more secular democratically elected parties (Wright, 141). However, the ruling Leninobodi clique stubbornly held onto power (Khalid, 149). In September of 1991, the IRP coordinated an action with the new democrats, and thousands gathered outside of Dushanbe in a peaceful vigil, demanding the president’s resignation. In the spring of 1992, they conducted a prolonged sit-in, also peaceful, that forced the president to form a coalition government (Wright, 142).

In May, this coalition began to break down, and fighting broke out between the government and a loose association of disenfranchised groups from Gharm, Hisor, and Badahkshan. The IRP fought alongside reformist secular nationalists and the Isma’ilis, and the war was just as ethnic and regional as it was religious, with the dominant Uzbek minority, a holdover from the Soviet days, playing a significant role in supporting the neo-Soviets. After initial successes, the IRP was driven underground with the arrival of Russian military intervention in late 1992. The civil war wore on, however, until 1997, when a second Russian military intervention led to the formation of coalition that gave the IRP representation (Khalid, 149,151, Tazmini, 74).

Sold largely in the West as a battle against radical Islamicization, the civil war largely fed narratives of the clash of civilizations germane to the era. Even scholars not averse to Islam’s position in Central Asia have claimed that the IRP alone “played up the ideological dimensions of the conflict, deploy[ing] the whole vocabulary of Islamic symbolism” (Tazmini, 69), although all sides used Islamic symbolism (Khalid, 151).

In 1997, the neo-Soviets and the United Tajik Opposition (UTO), which included the IRP, reached a power sharing agreement, but in many ways this has been a disappointment to the IRP.  Its hold in its home regions declined with the inevitable demilitarization brought about by the end of the civil war, and  it claims that elections under the government of Emomali Rahmonov were, and continue to be, corrupt (Khalid, 153, Watson). Since 2005, they hold only two seats in the currently nearly hundred member legislature (Watson, Najibullah). Rahmonov’s government has solidified control of religious institutions, including Islam, whose Islamic Center of Tajikistan, which is responsible for imams, is “completely subordinate to the government” (Khalid, 186). In recent years, the government banned the headscarf in public schools, and has prohibited women and children from attending mosques (Watson).

The IRP is split about how to respond to this challenge. Muhiddin Kabiri, the party’s chairman, describes himself as a moderate, but some in the party speak of the creation of a nebulous Islamic state (Khalid, 187). According to a recent report from Radio Free Europe, the IRP hopes to raise its visibility in Tajikistan by community work and social projects, such as disaster relief. It also began using social media to spread its message to the young (Najibullah). Despite its weakness, the IRP is seen as the only force able to threaten the regime of Rahmonov, and the recent reselection of Kabiri as chairman perhaps evidences a repair of internal breaches and a readiness to seek a more representative place in Tajikistan’s government (Sodiqov).


Works Cited

  • Adeeb Khalid, Islam after Communism: Religion and Politics in Central Asia (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007).
  • Alexander Sodiqov , “Kabiri Reelected as Islamic Revival Party Leader in Tajikistan.”Tajikistan Monitor (blog), October 22, 2011. (accessed February 24, 2012).
  • Farangis Najibullah, “Tajikistan’s Islamic Renaissance Party Rebrands, Using Social Projects To Reach Voters”, Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty, May 01, 2011.
  • Ghoncheh Tazmini, “The Islamic revival in Central Asia: a potent force or a misconception?” Central Asian Review 20.1 (2001), 63-83.
  • Ivan Watson, “Islamist Political Party Faces Conflict in Tajikistan”, National Public Radio, February 21, 2008.
  • Robin Wright, “Islam, Democracy and the West”, Foreign Affairs 71.3 (1992), 131-145.