After the July 29 attack on foreign cyclists in the district of Danghara, a number of people have written to me, asking if it is still safe to travel to Tajikistan.
As the editor of Caravanistan, a site I am sure the murdered cyclists were using to plan their trip, it feels like I should provide an answer.
Although I know a lot about visas and trains to Tajikistan, I don’t know much about risk assessment. All I can say is what happened, why it happened, what I feel the threats are, and what I would personally do. The final responsibility lies with yourself.
First, let’s back up a moment and explore the reasons the attack happened.
Why did this happen? Why now?
Although most Tajiks oppose violent extremism, it’s well-known that IS has a support base in Tajikistan. There are many paths that lead young men to radicalise, but it’s fair to say Tajikistan ticks all the boxes.
First off, Tajikistan is very corrupt. There is no sense of justice in Tajikistan, and all the spoils go to the ruling Rahmon family. The absence of a level playing-field generates a lot of anger. Young men leave for Russia to find work, where they are treated as second-rate citizens. Labour migration rips families apart. Angry, spat upon and cut off from traditional family ties, young Tajiks become more vulnerable to radical preachers.
Thirdly, there are no credible religious voices in Tajikistan. The state manages who is allowed to teach Islam and what they can say, which turns out to be, not much. Young people, finding no answers in the government’s version of Islam, look to Youtube, a powerful radicalisation engine.
The human rights situation has been getting progressively worse over the last 5 years: arbitrary detentions have been ramped up, including family members and lawyers of government targets. A 4-year-old with cancer is denied to leave the country to seek medical treatment because his grandfather is an enemy of the dictator.
No verbal criticism of the government whatsoever is tolerated anymore, even if it does not touch the Rahmon clan directly. We advise you to listen to the recent Majlis podcast on the worsening human rights situation in Tajikistan to understand the extent of the political repression against ordinary Tajiks.
Religious repression has been growing more heavy-handed as well. Funerals and weddings are strictly regulated. Young people are not allowed to participate in religious ceremonies under the age of 18, and cannot go to hajj under the age of 35. Women cannot wear a hijab, men cannot wear a beard. Giving your child an Arabic name is forbidden too.
But don’t be too modern either: shorts, birthday parties, Halloween, New Year and Holi, boxing, MMA and naming your kid John are all forbidden as well.
In short: Tajikistan became a pressure cooker with no way to let the steam off.
The tipping point
According to Bruno De Cordier from the University of Ghent, new measures to protect tourists might have been the tipping point for the attackers:
“Last week Emomali Rahmon held a speech that prompted a lot of anger among the population. He announced that police officers and officials who are guilty of corruption against tourists will from now on be severely punished. He wants to polish the country’s image for tourists. But the general population suffers every day under the heavy corruption. Nothing is being done about that. Perhaps this was the turning point for IS sympathizers to take action.”
Why in Danghara region?
It was just 3 weeks ago that I found myself in Danghara. We decided to stop over to have a look at the place, famous for being the home town of the Rahmon clan. It was a balmy summer’s evening, and the central park was alive with the buzz of local families enjoying a night out. We rode the ferris wheel and the bumper cars with the kids, and chatted to older men about their army service in Kazakhstan.
The park’s focal point was a gigantic, incredibly opulent tea house. It was only the third-biggest in Tajikistan, we learned. A bit further off, in the center of town, a hulking palace dominated the scene, with a second one under construction nearby. You did not need to ask who owned the place.
I am not saying it could not have happened elsewhere in Tajikistan. But it is much less likely to happen in the Pamirs, where locals are further removed from the excesses of the state. Also keep in mind that unlike Tajiks, Pamiris are Shia Ismaili, and radical Islam has no support amongst them.
Would I still go to Tajikistan?
Like I said at the beginning of this article, I don’t want to advise travelers on whether or not to go to Tajikistan. Have a look at your government’s MFA website to read their official advice. I assume it will be negative.
As for me: sure, I will still go. I am not a risk-taker and I don’t enjoy danger: I have never been to Afghanistan or Somalia and I am not planning to go anytime soon. But I will continue to visit Tajikistan.
Firstly, I don’t feel the risk for attacks has increased since this week. It was there when I was in Danghara a few weeks ago, and I think it has stayed the same. There is a broadly similar risk across Central Asia by the way: corruption and authoritarianism, religious repression and the stifling of criticism are not exclusive to Tajikistan. They are destabilising elements all Central Asian countries share.
If you are worried about Tajikistan, you should also be worried about Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan – it could happen there all the same.
Secondly, I got used to it. I live in Belgium in winter, and I still take the metro in Brussels, even after it was bombed in 2016 by religious extremists. I still use the airport, even though it too was bombed in 2016, and people lost their lives. I have been back to Paris, after the Bataclan and Charlie Hebdo attacks. I feel Paris and Brussels are just as likely to suffer another terrorist attack as Tajikistan, if not more. I don’t feel the danger has subsided, or that it will subside anytime soon.
It could happen again. I’ll still visit, though. What else should a traveler do?
A thoughtful discussion has been going on in the forum, where you are welcome to chime in.