The unique Pamiri culture is under threat as a brutal state crackdown targets religious leaders and practices
It’s a year since Muzaffar Davlatmirov, a respected religious leader in the Gorno-Badakhshan region in Tajikistan, witnessed Tajik state forces brutalise his community as part of a long-running attempt to suppress the area’s religion, culture and anti-government protests.
Now, the 59-year-old Ismaili khalifa (cleric) from the regional capital, Khorog, is in prison, as are hundreds of other locals.
Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast (GBAO), a mountainous and sparsely populated region covering the eastern half of Tajikistan, is home to the Pamiris, a minority ethnic group that follows the Ismaili branch of Shi’a Islam, who the central authorities have long distrusted.
On 16 May 2022, Davlatmirov saw the start of efforts by the Tajik military and law enforcement to tear Khorog apart. They killed at least 25 people in the process. Another 32 people were killed in the nearby village of Rushon, according to local journalist Anora Sarkorova.
It was the culmination of a long-running and violent attempt by the authorities in Dushanbe, the Tajik capital, to take control of GBAO.
Davlatmirov reportedly did not want to deal with Tajik state officials, and wanted to preserve the form and practice of the Ismaili faith; in short, he was dedicated to Pamiri culture.
This was bound to put him in conflict with the authorities – the majority of whom are Tajiks (the largest ethnic group in the country) and Sunni Muslims. Davlatmirov was arrested last July, towards the end of the law enforcement operation. Eight days later, at a closed trial, he was convicted of publicly calling for extremist activities and sentenced to five years in prison.
“In his sermons, [Davlatmirov] urged residents to be calm, but he also often criticised the illegal actions of the authorities,” said a close associate of Davlatmirov, speaking under condition of anonymity to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Tajik service.
But no evidence has been produced to show that Davlatmirov was calling for extremism. He never did so during previous periods of violence in GBAO – for example, in 2012-13, when dozens of people were killed in fighting between government forces and local groups in the aftermath of the killing of a local security chief.
“So many of our people were killed,” one person (who asked to remain anonymous) told openDemocracy. They knew Davlatmirov and remembered that time, adding that he “was one of those bearing the bodies [to the grave].”
Many in GBAO believe Davlatmirov was imprisoned for performing funerals for influential local leaders killed during the 2022 security operation, despite the government warning him not to do so.
“Law enforcement agencies did not like his fight for justice, and the fact that Davlatmirov was respected by both residents and informal leaders of the region,” the RFE/RL source said.
Once again, Davlatmirov put his faith and people before the state, but it seems it was one time too many for the government.
A unique culture under threat
Difficult to reach even now, the rugged landscape of GBAO is home to a unique culture. Pamiris are a pocket of Shiite Muslims surrounded by Sunni Muslims, though their presence in the region is believed to predate Islam by several hundred years. Pamiris speak eastern Iranian languages that are distinct from the two main Iranian languages of the region, Tajik and Dari.
Now this culture in the high mountains of Central Asia is heading towards extinction, and Davlatmirov might end up being one of the last khalifas of GBAO.
Several influential community leaders were killed in the events of May/June 2022, while hundreds of GBAO’s best and brightest — journalists, bloggers, activists, lawyers, even a poet – are now in prison, following secret trials similar to that of Davlatmirov.
The Tajik authorities initially said the security operation was targeting “terrorists acting with foreign support”, but that claim soon disappeared from the state’s narrative. Most of the 100-plus Pamiris now in prison have been convicted of “extremism” or connections to “extremist groups”.
In the past, the Tajik government has accused informal local leaders in GBAO of running “criminal groups”. Residents turn to these people for help when dealing with state-appointed local officials, or finding employment; they are not considered criminals by the local population, who tend to view the soldiers and security forces as the lawless element in the region.
The most likely reason for the Tajik government’s brutal campaign is that it was never able to control GBAO to the extent that it does the rest of Tajikistan. Despite being neglected economically – it’s the poorest region in the country – it had one of the liveliest civil societies in Central Asia. Until last May, it was the only region where there were still protests against government policies.
That culture is now under direct assault. The authorities ordered the closure of Ismaili prayer houses in May 2022 as the violence started, and then proceeded to ban prayer meetings in private homes. People can still pray at official centres – but there are only two of these in the whole country, in Khorog and Dushanbe – and they are no longer allowed to run cultural and educational activities.
Davlatmirov was at the forefront of the resistance to this, according to an independent journalist from GBAO. The Tajik government did not like Davlatmirov, they claimed, because he “did not accept their interference in religious affairs”.
Khorog officials have told Ismaili elders to inform their community that all portraits of their spiritual leader, the Aga Khan, must be removed from homes. Most of the improvements in GBAO since Tajikistan became independent in 1991 are due to the Aga Khan’s philanthropic foundation, the Aga Khan Development Network (ADKN).
The AKDN funded the construction of hydropower plants that provide electricity to remote communities, parks and the University of Central Asia in Khorog. It has also funded research into hybrid crops that can grow at the region’s high altitudes.
The Aga Khan was once welcomed in Tajikistan, even by President Rahmon (who has been in power since the fall of the Soviet Union), but since 2012 he has not been allowed to visit the country and the government is working hard to reduce his influence in GBAO.
This is all happening in plain sight. There has been strong criticism from international rights agencies over events in GBAO, but the Tajik government has shrugged this off.
There have not been any serious diplomatic repercussions for Tajik authorities for their brutal campaign against the Pamiris. If the Tajik state’s policies continue unabated, this ancient culture of the remote mountains will cease to exist.