Kyrgyzstan: Kyrgyzstan vs. the Islamic State: The Capacity of the New Concept of State Policy in the Sphere of Religion to Curb the Threat of Religious Radicalism. By Nurbek Bekmurzaev.

Nurbek Bekmurzaev, MA in Politics and Security, OSCE Academy, Kyrgyzstan.

Introduction

On July 25, 2015, a terrorist organization self-proclaimed as the Islamic State (IS) published a video on YouTube called “An address to people of Kyrgyzstan”, which was “an address to Muslims of Kyrgyzstan from their brothers in the Islamic State”.[i] The IS – also known as ISIS and ISIL – positions itself as a caliphate with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as its head. It came to global prominence on June 14, 2014, when it captured Iraq’s second largest city Mosul, and has since expanded into new territories in Iraq and Syria.[ii] The main message of this nine minutes long video was to call Muslims of Kyrgyzstan to move to the territory of the IS from the land of kufr – where “people live according to man-made rules and laws, such as democracy”.[iii] This video came not long after the anti-terrorist operations in the north of Kyrgyzstan conducted by the State Committee of National Security (GKNB) on July 16, during which six alleged members of the IS were killed and five were detained.[iv] According to the GKNB spokesman Rakhat Sulaimanov, these alleged terrorists belonged to the IS and planned terrorist attacks on the Old Square in Bishkek – during the Eid prayer celebrating the end of the holy month of Ramadan – and on the Russian military air base in Kant, a small town near the capital.[v]

Regardless of the GKNB reports’ validity on the matter, it remains clear that religious radicalism is one of the genuine security threats in Kyrgyzstan and the region overall. Approximately 200 Kyrgyz citizens have already left to Syria and Iraq to wage jihad,[vi] and their eventual return has significant risks for the country. Militants from Kyrgyzstan will receive training and combat experience and establish connections that can be effectively used to further terrorist cause in their home country.

The above-mentioned events have turned the summer of 2015 into a spring board for reconsideration of the state policy towards religion. On November 17, 2014, President Almazbek Atambayev signed the decree approving the new Concept of State Policy in the Sphere of Religion (the Concept).[vii] The deteriorating situation in Iraq and Syria and Kyrgyz citizens’ increasing involvement in the armed conflict alongside the IS militants served as the main motivation behind the adoption of the new state religious policy. Faced with real life major events, the state religious policy’s capability to curb and withstand the challenges that religious radicalism entails is under scrutiny. This article reevaluates the measures taken in the newly adopted Concept to combat religious radicalism. Given the fact how little we know about the causes of religious radicalism and extremism, the methods devised by the government of Kyrgyzstan and laid out in the Concept form the optimal approach to deal with the threat of religious radicalism.

Background to the Concept

The adoption of the Concept heralded an important change in the government’s approach towards religion. The Concept recognizes the complexity and sensitivity of the challenges religious extremism contains and provides an adequate framework for cooperation between the state and religious organizations. Unlike the lenient state religious policy under Kyrgyzstan’s first president Askar Akayev or the represssive methods used during the reign of the second president Kurmanbek Bakiyev, the current religious policy searches for balance and aims at creating “a model of a secular democratic state with a predominantly Muslim population in the Central Asian region through effective state regulation of the religious sphere and increase in the level of cooperation between public authorities and civil society, especially religious organizations and associations”.[viii]

The government under Akayev waved away the threats of religious radicalism, claiming that the IMU’s (Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan) campaign against the Karimov regime in Uzbekistan and the Tajik civil war were foreign problems impotent of causing harm to the state and people in Kyrgyzstan. When asked about Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism during the interview by a Russian newspaper, Akayev plainly stated: “If I do not have a real problem of religious extremism, why would I create an artificial one?”[ix] The reason for the absence of rigor in the state policy against religious radicalism during the Akayev rule was the president’s belief that it was imported and vastly exaggerated.

In contrast to his predecessor, Bakiyev expressed less tolerance towards religious extremism and pursued more repressive counterterrorism methods. A year after Bakiyev won the presidential elections, Rafiq Qori Kamalov, a popular imam from southern Kyrgyzstan, was killed in August, 2006, during the joint operation conducted by the Kyrgyz and Uzbek special forces.[x] Rafiq Qori lived and preached in Kara Suu, a small town near Osh, which is considered a hotbed of religious radicalism in the country, and was a sound critic of the policy adopted against Hizb ut-Tahrir in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. The death of Rafiq Qori was the first sign of the major change in the government policy against religious extremism. In 2008, the government held a crackdown of the protest against the ban of public celebration of an Islamic holiday in Nookat. Following a campaign of indiscriminate arrests, the authorities prosecuted and convicted – based on tenuous evidence – 32 Nookat residents to lengthy prison sentences.[xi]

The new Concept avoids the pitfalls of Kyrgyzstan’s first two presidents. It neither denies the presence of a genuine threat in religious radicalism and transnational nature of modern-day Islamic militancy, nor borders extreme measures that only exacerbate religious situation in the country. The unfolding events in Iraq and Syria have reminded the government of Kyrgyzstan about the importance of proper religious policy for the sake of national security. Following the adoption of the Concept the Head of the Department of Ethnic and Religious Policies and Interaction with Civil Society under the Office of the President of the Kyrgyz Republic, Mira Karybaeva, stated: “The development and adoption of the document is associated with events occurring not only in Kyrgyzstan, but also worldwide. We all see, in order to preserve the sovereignty and independence of the country, you must pay great attention to the issues of religion”.[xii] The comprehensive way, in which the government plans to tackle religious radicalism, transforms the Concept into a valuable document capable of making a significant contribution to the national security of Kyrgyzstan. However, it is necessary to note that the Concept “should not be viewed as the key to solving all the problems in this field, but only as part of, or even the beginning of attempts to solve the topical issues of this delicate and sensitive aspect of social life”.[xiii] The Concept serves as a road map for the government in terms of religious regulation. It has set out ambitious and yet feasible goals, and now it is up to the government to create and implement new laws and procedures to achieve the declared goals.

Creating a Religious Monopoly

The government’s decision to support the so-called traditional religions in the country promises to result in depolitization and the subsequent decrease in the level of radicalization and extremism. Two religious denominations that the majority of people in Kyrgyzstan belong to are Sunni Islam of Hanafi School and Orthodox Christianity.[xiv] The Concept emphasizes the special role Hanafi Islam has played in the cultural and historical development of the country and states that the government will create conditions for its strengthening and development. The authorities’ choice to support Hanafism will present the government in the positive light and enhance the relationship with religious leaders who attempt to sooth the state-religious bond.

In its quest to create a religious monopoly the government turned to the Spiritual Administration of Muslims of Kyrgyzstan, or simply Muftiat. Independent body only de jure Muftiat is one of the main tools the authorities use to control religion. According to the Concept, Muftiat will undergo serious reforms, which are designed to eliminate extremist religious activities. Two most important reforms that will establish Hanafism as a religious monopoly in the country are the nation-wide attestation of all religious servants and the presidential decree ordering to pay salaries to imams. At the next stage of counteracting religious extremism through the support of Hanafism, the government will pay salaries only to those imams who have registered their mosques within the State Commission for Religious Affairs and have passed the attestation exam. These two elements are intertwined. Muftiat is now in the last third stage of the attestation process, during which imams from the regions are undergoing attestation exam that is heavily oriented on the Hanafi school of Islam.[xv] In 2014, a presidential decree established a special fund called “Iman” that is responsible for finding donors for the payment of salaries for imams.[xvi] The process of paying salaries has already started. Through the appointment and funding of attested imams the government not only creates a religious monopoly capable of significantly influencing religious situation, but also a large group of loyal servants to help to prevent religious extremism.

As early as the eleventh century the Hanafi clerics have accepted the idea of a non-sharia rule as long as Muslims were provided religious freedom.[xvii] Thus, Hanafism has a considerable capacity to eliminate conflicts between state and religion by legitimizing a non-sharia rule and obliging Muslims to obey it, given it does not close mosques and madrassas and allows Muslims to observe their rituals. The Concept rightly notes that “in contrast to other schools of Islamic jurisprudence, due to its tolerance Hanafism does not bring national traditional and Islamic values into conflict and has an ideological base for the development of partner relations with the state”.[xviii]

The government’s hand of support to Hanafism is timely, for one of the reasons Central Asians join the IS is the terrorist organization’s strong anti-secular rhetoric.[xix] The IS’s members from the Central Asian region do not bother themselves with what is very shallow radical ideology. Instead, it is the anti-secular discourse that acts as a powerful factor for Central Asians to become jihadists in foreign lands. If the government of Kyrgyzstan stays true to the laid out precept in the Concept and genuinely supports Hanafism, it will gain an important ally in the theological debate it cannot win on its own.

An Attempt to Educate and Bring Order and Peace

The level of importance given to the topic of religious education in the Concept will inherently contribute to the government’s anti-radicalism efforts.  Educational reform – both in secural and religious educational institutions – is one of the major themes on the state agenda for religious policy now. The Concept’s educational reform entails introducing a class that explores religion  at schools and universities and systematizing study curriculum of religious educational institutions.[xx] According to the State Commission for Religious Affairs employee Bakyt Osmonov, the Ministry of Education plans to introduce a course called “History of World Religions” at schools and unversities.[xxi] Muftiat has already introduced a unified study curriculum for all religious educational institutions in the country. Currently, it is at the stage of monitoring and analyzing the results of this major overhaul, in order to bring necessary adjustments.

The unified study curriculum serves as a shield from possible radical influence teachers might have on students from studying abroad. In addition, the state is to introduce more stringent educational qualification requirements for clergy and oblige government officials, whose work is related to combatting religious radicalism, to undergo a special training, which is supposed to equip them with necessary religious knowledge.[xxii] According to the Concept, the responsibility to enhance educational base of religious leaders will lie on the shoulders of theologians from various local universities; it is not clear who will teach matters of religion to the government officials.

Given how little is known about the causes of religious radicalization, it is hard for any government to come up with pinpoint measures to combat it. The more scholars research the reasons Central Asians join the IS, the more they admit how little progress has been made in this field due to the multifaceted nature of this topic. Popular explanations such as political repression and dire economic situation are outdated and fail to provide an explanation. In its latest January, 2015 report on religious radicalization in Central Asia, the International Crisis Group (ICG) admits that the IS call appeals to a wide range of people by stating: “Rich or poor, educated or not, young or mature, male or female, there is no single profile of an IS supporter”.[xxiii] Furthermore, a researcher who has carried out an onground study on the IS militants in Kyrgyzstan and Central Asia, Tatyana Dronzina, notes that “Central Asian militants join ISIS for different reasons.”[xxiv] According to Dronzina, lack of religious education serves as a common denominator for all Central Asian members of the IS. She hints that Muslims without a proper understanding of Islam, which form the majority of Muslims in the region, are an easy target for the terrorist organization.

In these circumstances it is promising that the government of Kyrgyzstan has chosen to avoid repressive measures popular in the neigboring states and has instead opted to prevent religious radicalism and extremism through focus “on educational and outreach activities, analyzing and eliminating the causes of radicalization”.[xxv] Combatting radicalism through education will bore both short and long term results. In the short run, it will help to sustain a relatively positive image the state has among its people and will prevent possible exacerbation of the state-religion bond. Any case scenario entailing the worsening of the relationship between the state and religious organizations will come handy for the IS recruiters. Therefore, it is key for the government to make a transition as smooth as possible. In the long-run, Kyrgyzstan will be able to boast a generation of government officials, religious leaders, and ordinary citizens profoundly knowledgeable in the sphere of religion. More importantly, this new generation will be substantially less susceptible to religious radicalization.

Conclusions                             

The Concept seeks to address the existing issues in the sphere of religion at the root level. It is aimed at preventing religious radicalism instead of dealing with its outcomes – fighting Islamic militants. The authorities in Kyrgyzstan did not adapt repressive policy popular in the neighbring states; instead of ignoring the challenges Islam currently entails, or pursuing an intrusive and repressive religious policy found in neighboring states, the Concept puts the country on the course for healthy and productive relations with religion. The adoption of the Concept is important for the Central Asian region as well. We are now left to watch the govenrnment of Kyrgyzstan. If it acts persistently according to the Concept and gains considerable success, Kyrgyzstan’s example may as well become a much better  and sustainable alternative for addressing religious extremism than its neighbors in the region currently entail.

 

Works cited:

Bayaz, Malika. “The Islamic State Published its First Addressing to People of Kyrgyzstan [IGIL vpervye opublikoval “poslanie narodu Kyrgyzstana].” Kloop Media, July 26, 2015, http://kloop.kg/blog/2015/07/26/srochno-igil-vpervye-opublikoval-poslanie-narodu-kirgizii/ (accessed August 10, 2015).

Dettoni, Jacopo. “Interview: ISIS in Central Asia.” The Diplomat, August 11, 2015, http://thediplomat.com/2015/08/interview-isis-in-central-asia/ (accessed August 10, 2015).

Esenamanova, Nurgul. “How the Concept in the Religious Sphere Can Solve the Problem of Radical Islam?” Central Asian Bureau for Analytical Reporting, March 1, 2015, http://www.cabar.asia/en/kyrgyzstan-en/210-nurgul-esenamanova-how-the-concept-in-the-religious-sphere-can-solve-the-problem-of-radical-islam (accessed August 10, 2015).

Gordts, Eline. “Everything You Need to Know About the Islamic State.” The Huffington Post, October 14, 2014, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/10/14/isis-landing-page_n_5983226.html (accessed August 10, 2015).

Heathershaw, John and David W. Montgomery. “Why Do Central Asians Join ISIS?” Exeter Central Asian Studies Network, July 17, 2015, http://blogs.exeter.ac.uk/excas/2015/07/17/isis/ (accessed August 10, 2015).

International Crisis Group. “Syria Calling: Radicalisation in Central Asia.” January 20, 2015, http://www.crisisgroup.org/~/media/Files/asia/central-asia/b072-syria-calling-radicalisation-in-central-asia.pdf (accessed August 10, 2015).

KABAR, “Kyrgyzstan Approves the Concept of State Policy in the Sphere of Religion,” November 17, 2014, http://www.kabar.kg/eng/society/full/11456 (accessed August 10, 2015).

Khamidov, Alisher. “The lessons of the ‘Nookat events’: central government, local officials and religious protests in Kyrgyzstan.” Central Asian Survey, 32:2, 148-160,  June 14, 2013 (accessed May 25, 2014).

Mambetova, Aigerim .“Imams Will Be Paid Salaries to Help Prevent Religious Extremism [Imamam budut platit zarplatu dlya profilaktiki religioznogo ekstremizma].” Vechernii Bishkek, August 18, 2015, http://www.vb.kg/doc/323258_imamam_stanyt_platit_zarplaty_dlia_profilaktiki_religioznogo_ekstremizma.html (accessed August 20, 2015).

Olcott, Martha. “The Roots of Radical Islam in Central Asia.” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, January 2007, http://carnegieendowment.org/files/olcottroots.pdf (accessed August 10, 2015).

Omelicheva, Mariya. “Convergence of Counterterrorism Policies: A Case Study of Kyrgyzstan and Central Asia.” Studies of Conflict and Terrorism, 32:10, 893-908, 2009 (accessed August 10, 2015).

Putz, Catherine. “Several Suspected Terrorists Killed by the Kyrgyz Police.” The Diplomat, July 17, 2015, http://thediplomat.com/2015/07/four-suspected-terrorists-killed-by-kyrgyz-police/ (accessed August 10, 2015).

Saidazimova, Gulnoza. “Kyrgyzstan: Prominent Imam Killed in Security Raid.” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, August 7, 2006, http://www.rferl.org/content/article/1070381.html (accessed May 3, 2014).

Salimzyanov, Aidar. “Imams of Mosques in Kyrgyzstan Will Be Paid Salaries [Imamam mechetei Kyrgyzstana budut platit zarplatu].” Info Islam, August 18, 2015, http://www.info-islam.ru/publ/statji/imamam_mechetej_v_kyrgyzstane_budut_platit_zarplatu/5-1-0-35464 (accessed August 20, 2015).

Veitsel, Roman.“New Concept of State Religious Policy of Kyrgyzstan and the Future Reform of Muftiat [Novaya kontseptsiya gosudarstvennoi politiki Kyrgyzstana i budushaya reforma muftiata].” Islam v SNG, May 13, 2014, http://www.islamsng.com/kgz/report/7833 (accessed August 10, 2015).

 

[i] Malika Bayaz, “The Islamic State Published its First Addressing to People of Kyrgyzstan [IGIL vpervye opublikoval “poslanie narodu Kyrgyzstana],” Kloop Media, July 26, 2015, http://kloop.kg/blog/2015/07/26/srochno-igil-vpervye-opublikoval-poslanie-narodu-kirgizii/ (Accessed August 10, 2015).

[ii] Eline Gordts, “Everything You Need to Know About the Islamic State,” The Huffington Post, October 14, 2014, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/10/14/isis-landing-page_n_5983226.html (Accessed August 10, 2015).

[iii] Malika Bayaz, “The Islamic State Published its First Addressing to People of Kyrgyzstan [IGIL vpervye opublikoval “poslanie narodu Kyrgyzstana”],” Kloop Media, July 26, 2015, http://kloop.kg/blog/2015/07/26/srochno-igil-vpervye-opublikoval-poslanie-narodu-kirgizii/ (Accessed August 10, 2015).

[iv] Catherine Putz, “Several Suspected Terrorists Killed by the Kyrgyz Police,” The Diplomat, July 17, 2015, http://thediplomat.com/2015/07/four-suspected-terrorists-killed-by-kyrgyz-police/ (Accessed August 10, 2015).

[v] Malika Bayaz, “The Islamic State Published its First Addressing to People of Kyrgyzstan [IGIL vpervye opublikoval “poslanie narodu Kyrgyzstana”],” Kloop Media, July 26, 2015, http://kloop.kg/blog/2015/07/26/srochno-igil-vpervye-opublikoval-poslanie-narodu-kirgizii/ (Accessed August 10, 2015).

[vi] These are the estimates of the State Committee of National Security of the Kyrgyz Republic.

[vii] Roman Veitsel, “New Concept of State Religious Policy of Kyrgyzstan and the Future Reform of Muftiat [Novaya kontseptsiya gosudarstvennoi politiki Kyrgyzstana i budushaya reforma muftiata],” Islam v SNG, May 13, 2014, http://www.islamsng.com/kgz/report/7833 (Accessed August 10, 2015).

[viii] Nurgul Esenamanova, “How the Concept in the Religious Sphere Can Solve the Problem of Radical Islam?,” Central Asian Bureau for Analytical Reporting, March 1, 2015, http://www.cabar.asia/en/kyrgyzstan-en/210-nurgul-esenamanova-how-the-concept-in-the-religious-sphere-can-solve-the-problem-of-radical-islam (Accessed August 10, 2015).

[ix] Mariya Omelicheva, “Convergence of Counterterrorism Policies: A Case Study of Kyrgyzstan and Central Asia,” Studies of Conflict and Terrorism, 32:10, 893-908, 2009, (Accessed August 10, 2015).

[x] Gulnoza Saidazimova, “Kyrgyzstan: Prominent Imam Killed in Security Raid,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, August 7, 2006, http://www.rferl.org/content/article/1070381.html (Accessed May 3, 2014).

[xi] Alisher Khamidov, “The lessons of the ‘Nookat events’: central government, local officials and religious protests in Kyrgyzstan,” Central Asian Survey, 32:2, 148-160,  June 14, 2013, (Accessed May 25, 2014).

[xii] KABAR, “Kyrgyzstan Approves the Concept of State Policy in the Sphere of Religion,” KABAR, November 17, 2014, http://www.kabar.kg/eng/society/full/11456 (Accessed August 10, 2015).

[xiii] Nurgul Esenamanova, “How the Concept in the Religious Sphere Can Solve the Problem of Radical Islam?,” Central Asian Bureau for Analytical Reporting, March 1, 2015, http://www.cabar.asia/en/kyrgyzstan-en/210-nurgul-esenamanova-how-the-concept-in-the-religious-sphere-can-solve-the-problem-of-radical-islam (Accessed August 10, 2015).

[xiv] Ibid.

[xv] Aidar Salimzyanov, “Imams of Mosques in Kyrgyzstan Will Be Paid Salaries [Imamam mechetei Kyrgyzstana budut platit zarplatu],” Info Islam, August 18, 2015, http://www.info-islam.ru/publ/statji/imamam_mechetej_v_kyrgyzstane_budut_platit_zarplatu/5-1-0-35464 (Accessed August 20, 2015).

[xvi] Aigerim Mambetova, “Imams Will Be Paid Salaries to Help Prevent Religious Extremism [Imamam budut platit zarplatu dlya profilaktiki religioznogo ekstremizma],” Vechernii Bishkek, August 18, 2015, http://www.vb.kg/doc/323258_imamam_stanyt_platit_zarplaty_dlia_profilaktiki_religioznogo_ekstremizma.html (Accessed August 20, 2015).

[xvii] Martha Brill Olcott, “The Roots of Radical Islam in Central Asia,” Carnegie Endowment for

International Peace, January 2007, http://carnegieendowment.org/files/olcottroots.pdf (Accessed August 10, 2015).

[xviii] Nurgul Esenamanova, “How the Concept in the Religious Sphere Can Solve the Problem of Radical Islam?,” Central Asian Bureau for Analytical Reporting, March 1, 2015, http://www.cabar.asia/en/kyrgyzstan-en/210-nurgul-esenamanova-how-the-concept-in-the-religious-sphere-can-solve-the-problem-of-radical-islam (Accessed August 10, 2015).

[xix] John Heathershaw and David W. Montgomery, “Why Do Central Asians Join ISIS?,” Exeter Central Asian Studies Network, July 17, 2015, http://blogs.exeter.ac.uk/excas/2015/07/17/isis/ (Accessed August 10, 2015).

[xx] Nurgul Esenamanova, “How the Concept in the Religious Sphere Can Solve the Problem of Radical Islam?,” Central Asian Bureau for Analytical Reporting, March 1, 2015, http://www.cabar.asia/en/kyrgyzstan-en/210-nurgul-esenamanova-how-the-concept-in-the-religious-sphere-can-solve-the-problem-of-radical-islam (Accessed August 10, 2015).

[xxi] Aidar Salimzyanov, “Imams of Mosques in Kyrgyzstan Will Be Paid Salaries [Imamam mechetei Kyrgyzstana budut platit zarplatu],” Info Islam, August 18, 2015, http://www.info-islam.ru/publ/statji/imamam_mechetej_v_kyrgyzstane_budut_platit_zarplatu/5-1-0-35464 (Accessed August 20, 2015).

[xxii] Nurgul Esenamanova, “How the Concept in the Religious Sphere Can Solve the Problem of Radical Islam?,” Central Asian Bureau for Analytical Reporting, March 1, 2015, http://www.cabar.asia/en/kyrgyzstan-en/210-nurgul-esenamanova-how-the-concept-in-the-religious-sphere-can-solve-the-problem-of-radical-islam (Accessed August 10, 2015)..

[xxiii] International Crisis Group, “Syria Calling: Radicalisation in Central Asia,” January 20, 2015, http://www.crisisgroup.org/~/media/Files/asia/central-asia/b072-syria-calling-radicalisation-in-central-asia.pdf (Accessed August 10, 2015).

[xxiv] Jacopo Dettoni, “Interview: ISIS in Central Asia,” The Diplomat, August 11, 2015, http://thediplomat.com/2015/08/interview-isis-in-central-asia/ (Accessed August 10, 2015).

[xxv] Nurgul Esenamanova, “How the Concept in the Religious Sphere Can Solve the Problem of Radical Islam?,” Central Asian Bureau for Analytical Reporting, March 1, 2015, http://www.cabar.asia/en/kyrgyzstan-en/210-nurgul-esenamanova-how-the-concept-in-the-religious-sphere-can-solve-the-problem-of-radical-islam (Accessed August 10, 2015).

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