Tajikistan – Cage fighting and Extremism in Central Asia

Cage fighting and combat sports have long been associations of angry young men. With the proliferation of televised bouts of Mixed Martial Arts being projected across the globe, the entrance of combat sports into the family home is wide spread and shows no signs of slowing. In Central Asia, a region often ignored by the Western media, the effects are no different. However, with a spate of discussion in the international press regarding the role of Central Asian citizens and episodes of extremism over the last year, one of the five former Soviet states is taking control of an issue they believe to be influencing a wave of extremism in the region by banning certain combat sports.

Nestled between Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan, China, and Uzbekistan, the small and economically poor country of Tajikistan is not one that most are familiarised with. In the era of the Soviet Union, Tajikistan was a Soviet Republic along with its other Central Asian counterparts. A history of economic reliance on the former Soviet Russia, combined with a brutal civil war (1992-1997) in the years following its independence, has not served this small mountainous state well. With an economy now heavily reliant on remittances from Tajik men working in Russia, China, and other Central Asian states, there is a fragility to the social sphere underwritten by absent fathers, husbands, and sons. In a country with such strong patriarchal values, it is unsurprising that there is such a vital link between masculinity and physical representations of strength through combat.

The Tajik national sport of Gushtingiri is a traditional style of wrestling akin to the Japanese art of Judo, heavily imbibed with strength and prestige. On a national sports level, several of Tajikistan’s Olympic medals have been won in boxing, wrestling and judo. Which begs the question, why would the Tajik government impose a de facto ban on certain combat sports if it is such a point of national pride?

Palace of Nations and the Flagpole, Dushanbe, Tajikstan, Image Courtesy of Rjruizii via Wikimedia Commons, © 2012, some rights reserved

Traditional patriarchal values are important to Tajikistan, not only as a crucial part of internal family dynamics, but extending to stability in politics. The term ‘strong-man’ is not amiss when referring to President Emomali Rahmon, the long serving President who has been the leader of country as head of the People’s Democratic Party since 1992, a year after the country declared independence from Soviet rule. Given the fragile nature of power in Tajikistan, legitimacy is often reproduced through inflation of outside threats. One crucial example of this is the perceived threat of Islamic extremism. A border of roughly 1300km with Afghanistan has been a point of concern for the government first with the Taliban and increasingly the so-called Islamic State. It has played into the hands of the establishment allowing them to take extreme measures for what the West is led to believe is a legitimate threat to the Tajik state.

The Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), up until late 2015, was the opposition party to President Rahmon and the Peoples Democratic Party. However, in September 2015, the Tajik Supreme Court officially labelled the IRPT a terrorist organisation. Following this, there has been a notable increase in laws regarding Islamic practice in the country, resulting in the public shaving of 13,000 beards, banning ‘Arabic sounding names’, and police ‘persuasion’ encouraging women in the streets to adopt traditional headscarf styles over the Hijab. The language used to describe the ban on certain combat sports takes a similar shape as the so-called ‘secular laws’ instated over the last few years; a fear of outside influence and violent behaviour.

To be clear, this ban has not been implemented yet. It was announced in November 2017, and has changed in shaped and remit since it received a backlash from professional combat practitioners after its announcement by the Tajik Committee of Youth, Sports and Tourism. The shape of the ban now extends to forbidding the performance and teaching of combat sports such as mixed martial arts, pankration, grappling arts, and kickboxing in public schools, but allows professionals to continue practising and competing in private gyms. This is, however, significant because it broadly speaks to several government worries; the power of outside influence (read: Western) upon Tajik youth and the perceived strength of Islam in the public and private domain.

Central Asian Islamic extremism does not tend to originate from within the Central Asian states, much of the radicalisation of Central Asian citizens takes place when men are forced to seek work outside of the region. A heady mixture of racism, Islamophobia, and economic pressure produces the perfect conditions for radicalisation. Chechnya has long been a hotbed for such activity and continues to educate and radicalise the majority of fighters we see coming out of region today. For Alan Chekranov, a three time Mixed Martial Arts Tajik national champion – a pressure for work led him to Russia as a labour migrant. This introduced him to youth from the North Caucasus upon which he made a transition from obsession with MMA to Islamic extremism. After travelling to Iraq from Moscow to fight against the Kurdish army, Chekranov was reportedly killed in an air strike in Mosul, Iraq in 2013. Numbers of Tajik fighters in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan vary as to the source, the Tajik interior ministry claim roughly 1000 fighters of Tajik descent are currently abroad, but these figures are widely thought to be inflated to legitimise the crack down on Islamic practice.

Crucially, the recent de-facto ban signals a link being made between violence, education and youth. A common argument made against the practice of combat sports is that it leads for further violent behaviour; that you give people a tool set to commit aggression. Although, for the case of combat sports and extremism, very little work has been carried out to suggest that this is the case, there is some suggestion that refined combat sports actually encourages restraint.

Mahmadovud Odinayev, a Gushtingiri trainer in support of the government’s plans argues, ‘their trainers didn’t go through the traditional sports channels. They learned combat sports somewhere abroad and returned with their belts and opened their own schools.’ Given the nature of anti-Islamic laws and the focus on restricting practice of Islam, it is not a particularly large jump to assume that this combat sports ban is linked to a broader fear of extremism. Questioning whether the ban is a rational act is not particularly helpful, given that the shaving of beards on the street is a current initiative in the country. But what this issue speaks to on a larger scale is the broader curbing of citizens’ rights in the face of government fears and struggles for legitimacy.

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