Karim Zidan looks at why the Tajik government would suggest a ban on various combat sports.
Tajikistan, the world’s leading exporter of suicide bombers to the Islamic State, has proposed a ban on various martial arts as a retaliatory measure to quench the domestic rise in extremism.
A newly published draft order prepared by the Tajikistan Committee of Youth, Sports, and Tourism shows plans for the isolated nation to ban nine different combat sports, including boxing, MMA, pankration, grappling arts, kickboxing, and other forms of hand-to-hand combat. The order has been submitted to the Ministry of Justice for state registration. If approved, the combat sports in question will be forbidden from holding professional events or offering classes in the disciplines across educational institutions.
The committee’s decision to ban the nine combat sports was taken to quell the rise in extremism, increase participation in national and Olympic sports, and “prevent the humiliation of honor and dignity in sports.” Athletes have until September 30 to offer their thoughts on the proposed ban.
However, following immediate backlash over the proposed draft order, the committee backtracked and adjusted their ban to specifically affect children, not professionals.
“First of all, this is only the draft order, which starts the discussion, and secondly, it does not concern everyone in the industry,” Nazarzoda Rizo, the Deputy Chairman of the Committee on Youth, Sports and Tourism, explained in an interview with Sputnik Tajikistan. “If it is adopted, the introduction of such sports will be prohibited only in those sports educational institutions that function at the expense of the state budget, as well as those private schools that deal with underage children.”
According to Rizo, the rise of MMA and martial arts tournaments has contributed to the popularity of the sports in Tajikistan. However, his reasoning for the proposed ban is that more children are attracted to these violent sports, which “negatively impacts the child’s psyche” and “fosters hostility.” Instead, Rizo would prefer to see more children take up tennis, volleyball, and chess.
Tajikistan’s proposition to ban certain combat sports for underage children is an interesting study in the nation’s anti-radicalization measures. The Tajik government is increasingly concerned about the influence of radical forces in the Muslim-majority nation. The proposed ban highlights the lengths in which the government is prepared to deal with the crisis.
MMA Champion to ISIS Fighter
On February 3, 2015, Alan Chekranov, a Tajik national MMA champion, was killed in an airstrike in Iraq while fighting for the Islamic State.
Chekranov – an Islamic militant who took the name Abu Muhammad al-Tajiki after defecting to Iraq – was confirmed dead following an air strike near Kirkuk, according to RFE/RL. Prior to his pivot towards extremism, Chekranov was a three-time MMA national champion in his home country, and though he does not have an official Sherdog or Tapology MMA page, Radio Ozodi confirmed that he was a national champion in the 54kg weight category.
The 21-year-old attended the Tajik-Russian Slavic University but was expelled two years later for absenteeism. Once Chekranov was expelled, he moved to Russia as a labor migrant and stayed in the country for a year. It was there that he met several North Caucasus youth, and through them, was able to leave for Iraq in 2013. According to his longtime friend Sharfor Tagoev, Chekranov was an entirely different human being once he returned from Russia.
“Before, he used to go to training all the time and he only talked about mixed martial arts,” Tagoev told RFE/RL. “But when he came back from Russia, he had a little beard, and he used different words.”
Chekranov’s path to the extremist group is not an uncommon one in the post-Soviet region. In fact, it is a pattern viewable across Central Asia. Poverty, state-sponsored suppression of Islamic freedoms, and romanticized visions of an Islamic caliphate helped encourage the vast majority Islamic State defectors from the region. Estimates suggest that over 4000 Central Asians of various nationalities are currently fighting for the radical group. Even Russian president Vladimir Putin publicly noted the threat of terrorism in the region during a speech at the UN General Assembly in 2015.
The rise of terrorism in Central Asia took center stage again when Akbarjon Djalilov, a Kyrgyz-born Russian citizen, carried out a suicide bomb attack that killed over a dozen people in St. Petersburg, Russia, earlier this year. The attack was plotted and claimed by the Islamic State. Reports later emerged that he was also a mixed martial arts enthusiast.
Despite the extremist tendencies emerging in Central Asia, combat sports such as MMA and boxing remain popular among the nation’s youth. Three of Tajikistan’s four Olympic medals were attained through a combat sport (bronze in Judo and Boxing; Silver in Freestyle Wrestling). Tajikistan also played host to the 2015 Asian MMA Championships, an amateur event attended by delegations from Kazakhstan, South Korea, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, Iran, and Russia, as well as legendary Russian heavyweight Fedor Emelianenko.
In March 2017, two of Russia’s top MMA organizations hosted events in Tajikistan. On March 4, Fight Nights Global went to in Dushanbe, Tajikistan’s capital, for their 60th event featuring UFC veteran Fabio Maldonado. Exactly 20 days later, Chechen promotion ACB also held an event in the Tajik capital. It was the promotion’s second event in Tajikistan and featured several of their top stars, including Yusuf Raisov and Sergey Khandozhko.
Given that Tajikistan is the poorest of the former Soviet states, the added attention from foreign MMA promotions makes a noticeable difference in enhancing its image abroad. Therefore, it is clear why the Tajik sports committee reconsidered banning the professional aspect of these sports.
Curbing a Deadly Export
As a country that shares a 1,300-km border with Afghanistan to the south, Tajikistan is in a particularly fragile geopolitical position. The isolated mountainous country has arguably become the region’s hotbed for extremism, with the highest percentage of Islamic State fighters emerging from Tajikistan.
The Islamic State, a radical militant group positioned in Syria and Iraq, rely heavily on foreign recruitment. Tajikistan’s Interior Ministry suggested in January 2017 that approximately 1,100 Tajik citizens are estimated to be currently fighting for the Islamic State. An additional 300 have been pronounced dead. While there are more Tunisians (6,500) and Saudis (2,500) represented in the Islamic State, a report by the International Center for Counter-Terrorism (ICCT) revealed that Tajiks led suicide bombings from December 2015 to November 2016 in 27 operations, significantly higher than any other foreign nation identified, including Saudi Arabia (17), Russia (13), Egypt (11), and Iran (7).
As a result of this disturbing trend, Emomali Rakhmon, Tajikistan’s strongman ruler who has been the country’s president since 1994, has curtailed religious freedom by characterizing religiosity as a gateway to fundamentalism. Over the past few years, Tajikistan has shut down hundreds of non-government sanctioned mosques, and imposed a dress code that included a ban on Islamic dress in schools and offices. The Tajik government also limited public prayers, banned children under 18 from mosques, and even forcibly shaved tens of thousands of heavily bearded citizens.
While Rakhmon’s anti-radicalization measures have been in full force for several years, there is little evidence to support their effectiveness. State-sponsored repression of unofficial Islam can arguably lead to more radicalization and defections and has already created a schism between secular citizens and conservative Muslims in Tajikistan. Coupled with with the perpetual poverty forcing thousands of Tajik nationals to work under abysmal conditions as migrant laborers in Russia, it is evidently clear why some are enticed by a romanticized image of an Islamic caliphate. The humiliation of second-class citizenship, an issue facing all Central Asian migrants looking for work in the Russian Federation, is a significant factor in the rise of extremism in the region.
By comparison, the proposed ban on combat sports because of their potential as a gateway to extremism is hardly the most stringent of Rakhmon’s authoritarian policies. However, it emphasizes the desperate situation facing Tajikistan, and how government authorities will continue to curtail basic rights and freedoms in the name of security.