In Ta­jik­istan, in­cen­tive to join Is­lamic State is mon­e­tary

Ide­ol­ogy is not im­pe­tus for poor cit­i­zens to en­list to fight in Syria

The Washington Post Sunday - - THE WORLD - BY KAROUN DEMIR­JIAN karoun.demir­jian@wash­post.com

dushanbe, ta­jik­istan— When Amer­i­can-trained Ta­jik spe­cial forces com­man­der Col. Gu­murod Khal­imov de­fected to the Is­lamic State a few weeks ago, he is­sued a clar­ion call for hun­dreds of thou­sands of his coun­try­men work­ing as mi­grant la­bor­ers in Rus­sia to fol­low him.

“Stop serv­ing the in­fi­dels,” he said in a video that ap­peared online, prompt­ing the Ta­jik gov­ern­ment to block ac­cess to Face­book, YouTube and other so­cial net­works for sev­eral days.

But lo­cal mi­grants and re­li­gious ad­vo­cates say that if the Is­lamic State is re­cruit­ing from Ta­jik­istan, it is driven more by eco­nom­ics than ide­ol­ogy.

Since the start of the year, a new Rus­sian mi­gra­tion law has re­quired for­eign work­ers from coun­tries out­side the Eurasian Eco­nomic Union cus­toms bloc to pass Rus­sian lan­guage and history tests, ac­quire ex­pen­sive per­mits and pay steep monthly fees to keep the jobs they have been do­ing for years. The lawhas had a par­tic­u­larly se­vere ef­fect on Ta­jik­istan, where re­mit­tances ac­count for al­most half the na­tional in­come. The World Bank ex­pects them to drop by 23 per­cent this year.

Mean­while, Is­lamic State re­cruiters are at the ready, of­fer­ing large sums of cash to des­per­ate, un­em­ployed work­ers to go fight in Syria. And many — given the lack of op­tions in the poor­est of the for­mer Soviet re­publics— are an­swer­ing the call.

“If our cit­i­zens who are with­out work, who are young, who don’t have a salary, who don’t have a life, are of­fered a golden city and told ‘ you can earn more money, you can im­prove your con­di­tions’ — nat­u­rally he would feel that he would be much bet­ter off go­ing to fight in Syria,” Mavjuda Az­i­zova, of the In­ter­na­tional Or­ga­ni­za­tion for Mi­gra­tion’s Ta­jik­istan of­fice, said in an in­ter­view re­cently. “More than 400 of our cit­i­zens are in Syria, of­fi­cially, and it could be even more. Those are just the ones we know by name.”

Dil­shod Saliev, 22, re­turned from Moscow to Sar­band in south­west­ern Ta­jik­istan about three months ago, af­ter he was forced to leave his job at a fur­ni­ture fac­tory. He says that if Is­lamic re­cruiters came to him of­fer­ing cash to join their ranks, he wouldn’t take the money. But he knows some­one who did, just a month ago — and un­der­stands why oth­ers would.

“Of course, there is a threat of ex­trem­ism— many peo­ple in this sit­u­a­tion are very des­per­ate,” he said. “They need land, they need to build their houses, they have chil­dren, schools to pay for; they need money so badly that they could fol­low some groups that would of­fer them money. So there is a risk.”

Saliev says his for­mer boss with­held his pay and re­placed Ta­jik em­ploy­ees who com­plained with Ukraini­ans, who have been flood­ing the Rus­sian job mar­ket since war in eastern Ukraine be­gan dis­plac­ing the lo­cal pop­u­la­tion.

Be­fore the new Rus­sian la­bor pol­icy, Saliev’s salary — roughly 29,000 rubles a month, or about $900 be­fore the ru­ble crashed — let him pay for his wed­ding and his sis­ter’s wed­ding and even buy a plot of land, But now, if Saliev wants to go back to Rus­sia, he would have to save ev­ery penny of the ap­prox­i­mately $100 per month he makes do­ing odd con­struc­tion jobs for at least half a year to pay for the new work per­mits, be­cause a high school dropout such as him can’t pass the en­try test with­out a prep course or pay­ing a bribe. His salary isn’t even enough to sup­port his wife and two chil­dren, he says.

The ex­tent of the Cen­tral Asian re­cruit­ing threat is un­clear. Rus­sian diplo­mats rou­tinely warn of a pipeline of fight­ers run­ning from Cen­tral Asia to ex­trem­ist groups in Syria and Iraq, and there is am­ple anec­do­tal ev­i­dence of Ta­jiks — from the se­cu­rity of­fi­cer to univer­sity stu­dents and mi­grant work­ers — join­ing the Is­lamic State. But Western aca­demics study­ing the re­gion say such warn­ings are overblown — bol­stered per­haps by na­tional agen­das and global se­cu­rity con­cerns.

The idea that Is­lamist ex­trem­ist groups would seek Ta­jiks as foot sol­diers in their armed quest for a caliphate is both ob­vi­ous and para­dox­i­cal.

Ta­jik­istan has a long, largely un­se­cured bor­der with Afghanistan that could be as open to ex­trem­ist transit as it has been to an il­licit re­gional drug trade.

But Ta­jik­istan’s re­li­gious Mus­lim pop­u­la­tion ex­ists un­der the fiercely sec­u­lar au­thor­i­tar­ian gov­ern­ment of Emo­mali Rah­mon, which banned face veils for women and chil­dren at­tend­ing mosques, shut down scores of re­li­gious schools and is re­ported to sup­port forced shav­ings of men with beards, to keep the re­li­gious look off the streets of Ta­jik­istan.

The anti-Is­lamist mood has be­come so strong that the Is­lamic Re­vival Party — an op­po­si­tion group that has par­tic­i­pated in Ta­jik pol­i­tics since the coun­try’s post-Soviet civil war— com­plains that the gov­ern­ment is scape­goat­ing them in­stead of ad­dress­ing the so­cioe­co­nomic roots of in­sta­bil­ity they say are fu­el­ing ris­ing in­ter­est in the Is­lamic State.

“If the author­i­ties could make it pos­si­ble for peo­ple to work and live, I do not think there would be any rad­i­cal groups — peo­ple would not want to join,” said Hik­mat­ullo Sai­ful­lo­zoda, head of the an­a­lyt­i­cal cen­ter of the Is­lamic Re­vival Party, which he de­scribed as “a shield against spread­ing rad­i­cal­ism” that dis­pro­por­tion­ately tar­gets “very vul­ner­a­ble” mi­grant la­bor­ers.

“If you can’t find work, if you can’t pro­vide for your­self, and you live in this sys­tem with a high level of cor­rup­tion— a per­son will ei­ther be­come a crim­i­nal or go to sup­port the Is­lamic State,” said Oini­hol Bobonazarova, a well­known hu­man rights ac­tivist who ran as the main op­po­si­tion can­di­date for pres­i­dent a fewyears ago.

“In most cases, those peo­ple that go are very poor. It’s not about re­li­gion, it’s about poverty.”

Bobonazarova likened Ta­jik­istan’s de­pen­dence on the Rus­sian mar­ket to a “hostage sit­u­a­tion.” In fact, Rus­sia’s role in per­pet­u­at­ing the in­sta­bil­ity roil­ing Ta­jik­istan goes deeper than this mi­gra­tion law: It’s in Rus­sia, ex­perts say, where Ta­jiks and other Cen­tral Asian mi­grants are ex­posed to ex­trem­ist ide­olo­gies, in the mosques they at­tend along­side Chechens and other Mus­lim com­mu­ni­ties with closer ties to the Is­lamic State.

“If mi­grants are go­ing to Syria from Rus­sia, no­body will know howthey got there,” said Muzaf­far Olimov, di­rec­tor of the SHARQ Re­search Cen­ter in Dushanbe, who said that while rad­i­cal­ized Ta­jiks may head to Syria, they won’t in­spire wide­spread so­cial sup­port for re­li­gious fun­da­men­tal­ist groups or an Arab Springstyle so­cial upris­ing on the home front. “For that you would need dif­fer­ent cir­cum­stances, dif­fer­ent facts — peo­ple just don’t want to go for that here.”

Still, in a coun­try where the av­er­age age is un­der 24, salaries are a small frac­tion of what they are in Rus­sia and nearly 20 per­cent of young men who stay in­coun­try are un­em­ployed, grow­ing in­sta­bil­ity is a real con­cern that al­most cer­tainly can’t be set­tled do­mes­ti­cally.

“Ta­jiks ba­si­cally rely on God and the hope that ev­ery­thing will be okay,” said Muhammed Ziyo, 26, a for­mer mi­grant worker who now ped­dles his skills as an elec­tri­cian and tech­ni­cian in Dushanbe’s in­for­mal day-la­bor mar­kets.

Ziyo re­turned two years ago, when his fa­ther be­came ill. Then his son was born. Now he would go back to Rus­sia, but with five mouths to feed on about $250 a month — if he’s lucky enough to get work — he could never af­ford the new per­mits.

Ziyo sees only one way out: If Ta­jik­istan joins Rus­sia’s cus­toms union, all bar­ri­ers to work el­i­gi­bil­ity would be lifted. Over 70 per­cent of the coun­try fa­vors that op­tion, ac­cord­ing to Olimov. But fornow, Ziyo plans to just hang on and avoid any high-pay­ing of­fers for high-risk re­wards.

“I be­lieve in God, and so I just say thanks to God, even if I find only a crust of bread in a day,” he said. “That’s how I avoid this temp­ta­tion, even if life is not easy.”

PHOTOS BY KAROUN DEMIR­JIAN/THE WASHINGTON POST

A city worker mops a foun­tain at a park in Dushanbe, Ta­jik­istan. The Is­lamic State has been re­cruit­ing Ta­jiks to join the fight in Syria.

A man walks in front ofHaji Yak­oubMosque in Dushanbe. A new Rus­sian mi­gra­tion law that in­cludes ex­pen­sive per­mits and steep monthly fees has made it cost-pro­hib­i­tive for many Ta­jiks to work in Rus­sia.

Emo­mani Kur­banov, 50, works in Rus­sia, but he will be able to send less money home now be­cause of the fallen ru­ble and the steep fees.

Muhammed Ziyo, 26, a day la­borer, used to work in Rus­sia, but the cost of se­cur­ing a work per­mit now makes re­turn­ing very dif­fi­cult.

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