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Here's an update on a question that causes anxiety from Cairo to Beijing and beyond. It's the question of how to mix politics and Islam. When an Islamist group took over Afghanistan, it became a base for al-Qaida, so this matters to people in the United States.

Farther north, governments in central Asia have cracked down fiercely on Islamist groups and today we will check in on the only central Asian nation that lets a Muslim political party operate openly. NPR's Ivan Watson reports from the capital of Tajikistan.

IVAN WATSON: Muhiddin Kabiri is the chairman of Tajikistan's Islamic Renaissance Party, the only legal Islamic political party in the Soviet Union.

Mr. MUHIDDIN KABIRI (Chairman, Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan): It's made us unique and at the same time, it's very big responsibility to show new face of Islam, especially political Islam in our region.

WATSON: Kabiri describes himself as a moderate caught between two political extremes.

Mr. KABIRI: Central Asian region need for some model, new model because the people have tired from secular authoritarian regimes and religion radicalism radial groups, extremist groups.

WATSON: The Islamic Renaissance Party started out in Soviet days as an underground youth movement. During the 90's it became a leading faction in an opposition coalition which fought a bloody civil war against the Russian-backed Tajik government.

As part of a peace deal in 1997 the party's fighters laid down their arms and promised not to try to turn Tajikistan into an Islamic republic. Roger Kangas is a central Asia expert at the National Defense University in Washington.

Mr. ROGER KANGAS (Central Asia Expert, National Defense University): They reiterated their intent that they would not restructure the state, that Islam was part of their agenda, but it was not the only element.

WATSON: But the Islamic Renaissance Party has been increasingly marginalized in the decade since the war. Kangas says its leader, Kabiri, is one of only two party members to win seats in parliament after what he called deeply flawed elections.

Mr. KANGAS: They faced some difficult challenges, but I would say, even with that, they have not radicalized. One could almost expect that to happen, but they've not.

WATSON: The Tajik government has jailed several top IRP leaders on corruption charges, while many former opposition fighters have been gradually forced out of positions in the Tajik security services.

Many Tajiks feared that a deadly clash earlier this month between rival factions within the interior ministry could reignite this civil war. In Dushanbe, more than a hundred uniformed officers turned out for this funeral of elite police colonel who was killed while trying to capture another police officer, former Islamist opposition field commander, Mirzokhujar Ahmadov, who now heads a police department in a remote mountain town north of the capital.

Islamic Renaissance Party leader Muhidine Kabiri denies any links to Ahmadov. Instead, he complains about what he says is government oppression of the young generation of devout Muslims in Tajikistan. In recent years, the government has banned woman from wearing Islamic headscarves in schools, closed a number of mosques and banned woman and children from attending mosques like this one in the town of Vahdat.

The Muslim cleric here claims observant Muslims had more freedom during the last years of the Soviet Union than they do today. Why, the priest asks, are women prohibited from entering mosques while they are allowed to go to bars and nightclubs?

As for the ban on children in mosques, that decree is largely ignored here. Many young boys at this mosque prayed and studied the Koran side-by-side with more than a hundred men. Among many secular Tajiks there is growing concern about what some describe as the creeping Islamization of Tajik society. Saifullah Safarov runs a government think tank in Dushanbe.

Mr. SAIFULLAH SAFAROV: (Through interpreter) We're scared they want to take us back to the Middle Ages. After all, we're not very far from Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Mr. PARVIS MULUJANOV (Tajik political analyst): I think there is a group of, or a fraction of (unintelligible) radical secular within the government who are afraid of Islam.

WATSON: Parviz Mulujanov is a Tajik political analyst who worries that government pressure may drive politically active Muslims under ground. That's a view echoed by Western diplomats in Dushanbe and by Islamic Renaissance Party leader Muhiddin Kabiri who says, he's come under fire from hard-line Islamist who accuse him of not being Muslim enough.

MR. KABIRI: Any violation of rights, that will help radicalism and radical groups.

WATSON: Ivan Watson, NPR News, Dushanbe.

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