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 law has 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 well-known human rights activist who ran as the main opposition candidate for president a few years 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 how they 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 Spring-style 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 in-country 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 for now, 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.”