When people in Tajikistan discuss whether the celebration of New Year can be reconciled with religious beliefs of the country’s population, it is one thing. But when angry youths kill a man dressed as Santa Claus, calling him an “infidel”, you know that things are getting worrisome.
Parviz Davlatbekov, 24, was murdered in a knife attack in a residential area of Dushanbe early in the morning on January 1. He had dressed as Santa Claus (known more commonly in Tajikistan by its Russian name, ‘Ded Moroz’ or ‘Father Frost’) and was on his way to a party at his relatives’ place when some 30 young men attacked him. According to witnesses, the men shouted “infidel” as they beat Davlatbekov, referring to the Christian origins of Santa Claus as a character. Davlatbekov was rushed to the hospital, where he died the next day of wounds inflicted in the attack.
Tajikistan was part of the officially atheist Soviet Union for almost 70 years. During the Soviet rule, most Tajik families began celebrating the New Year and accepted Santa Claus as the holiday’s main attribute. Following the country’s independence in 1991, most Tajiks continued celebrating the New Year, and Santa Claus remained a widely accepted symbol. However, the increasing religiosity of Tajikistan’s population, more than 95 percent of which are Muslims, has recently given rise to debates over whether the celebration of the New Year and the holiday’s attributes contradict Islamic beliefs. For instance, Saidmukarram Abdulkodirzoda, the head of the Council of Ulems (the highest religious authority in Tajikistan), recently announced that the New Year holiday is “alien to our people and our religion.” Yet, New Year has remained an official holiday in the country, and Tajikistan’s President Emomali Rahmon delivers a televised New Year address every year.
Muhiddin Kabiri’s reelection as chairman of the Islamic Revival Party of Tajikistan signals that he has managed to foster internal cohesion within the party and consolidate his power. It also signals that Kabiri’s efforts to reform the group find broad support. Kabiri appears set to use this support to continue transforming the IRPT into a conventional political party, including by deemphasizing its Islamic identity. The transformation of the party is watched closely by the government, which sees the IRPT as the only political force with a potential to challenge President Emomali Rahmon’s grip on power.
BACKGROUND: On September 24, Muhiddin Kabiri was reelected chairman of the Islamic Revival Party of Tajikistan (IRPT). His reelection serves as an important indication that Kabiri has managed to repair internal divisions which threatened to split Tajikistan’s strongest opposition party for most of the past decade. The rift emerged soon after the party’s long-running leader, Said Abdullo Nuri, was diagnosed with cancer in 2004, and Kabiri – then first deputy chairman – became its de facto leader. His leadership was highly controversial within the party. Unlike many in the party hierarchy, Kabiri did not play any role in the Islamic opposition’s conflict with the government in 1992-1997 and had no Islamic education. Besides, Kabiri was known as a moderate and pragmatic politician with explicitly pro-Western views, which many of the more conservative party members, particularly those with links to Iran, found difficult to accept.