International Media and the Securitization of Islam: The Case of The New York Times and Tajikistan Prison Deaths

My academic expertise is on authoritarian regimes and the securitization of Islam. My work in Kazakhstan and Russia has shown how unverified links and overly broad references to “terrorism” and “extremism” are often used as a pretext by each regime to achieve other policy objectives, including portraying opposition as extremist. In Kazakhstan for example, religious leaders outside of the state sponsored religious institution for Islam, the Spiritual Association of Muslims in Kazakhstan, have been labeled as “extremists” and subsequently forced into exile, jailed, or otherwise suppressed. A similar campaign has been waged in Tajikistan.

Therefore, I find it particularly concerning to see an article in The New York Times (from Reuters) participate in this process of securitizing Islam in Tajikistan.  The article, about the killing of over 30 inmates and guards in a Tajik prison, regurgitates narratives from the Tajik regime, without providing context, other sources of corroboration, or alternative narratives.

Among those killed in the prison were members of the opposition, including party members of the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT). While the New York Times article mentions that IRPT is banned in Tajikistan, the article neglects to mention that this was politically motivated.

The prison riot and subsequent deaths have been blamed on ISIS by the Tajik regime. Attributing the deaths of opposition members to ISIS would be politically expedient. While it is possible that this violence was instigated by ISIS, this is impossible to verify by individuals or news media outlets at this time. No other corroborating sources have been reported to support this claim. Joanna Lillis, a reporter based in Almaty, Kazakhstan, has also criticized the article, and similarly emphasized that at this point it is not possible to independently verify whether these prison protests can be linked in ISIS.

The lack of context provided in The New York Times article and the reproduction of Tajik government narratives contributes to this process of securitizing Islam. While the article written by Reuters and published in the New York Times on May 20, 2019 does denote when each assertion was made by the Ministry of Justice, no other narratives or alternatives are provided. Given the newspaper’s audience’s lack of familiarity with Tajikistan or Central Asia more broadly, readers would have no reason to not accept the narratives generated by the Tajik regime. 

Rebecca Fradkin