The Danger of “Islamophobia” in Kyrgyzstan

Zarinam Turdieva cautions against automatically equating the growing prominence of Islam in Kyrgyzstan with extremism. Rather it is Islamophobia which has greater potential to incite the very radicalization that politicians and other observers fear.

Islam has played an increasingly significant role in Kyrgyzstan since independence with a surge of interest among the Kyrgyz population in recent years. As such, Islam’s historical and contemporary role is being reappraised more favorably by many and the construction of mosques and proliferation of Islamic institutions and religious centers has flourished.

According to the State Commission on Religious Affairs under the President of the Kyrgyz Republic (SCRA), there are presently 2,422 mosques (compared to 39 in 1990) and 81 Islamic schools, as well as 68 registered Muslim centers, foundations, and associations in the country.

At the same time, however, there are fears of some Kyrgyz citizens increasingly turning to radical or militant Islam, whether by joining proscribed organizations at home or abroad such as Islamic State (IS) in Syria.

This begs the question of what is underpinning the rise of Islam in Kyrgyzstan, wherein the dangers lie for radicalization, and how the government is responding. Indeed, the assumption that the growth of Islam in Kyrgyzstan (and wider Central Asia for that matter) holds the seed for extremism and instability necessitates further scrutiny.

Islamic Radicalization?

Nineteen religious organizations and movements are currently proscribed in Kyrgyzstan with the majority of nearly two thousand individuals registered as holding “extremist views” belonging to Hizb ut-Tahrir, which claims itself to be an avowedly non-violent organization; other proscribed organizations include Al-Qaeda, the East Turkistan Islamic Movement, and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.

According to the most recent statistics of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Kyrgyzstan, during a period of eight months in 2015 there were 264 “acts” of extremism, 231 people were arrested, and over 7,000 copies of “extremist” materials were seized. Furthermore, according to interior ministry data from May 2015, more than 352 Kyrgyz citizens are allegedly fighting in Syria, of whom 30 have been killed.

It is necessary to view such figures with circumspect, however. For one, confirming the participation of Kyrgyz citizens fighting alongside IS in Syria is almost impossible. As Aman Saliev, an expert from the Institute of Strategic Analysis and Prognosis in Bishkek, has commented, official statistics are unreliable – which also includes figures on membership in terrorist organizations and dissemination of extremist literature.

For instance, as pointed out by Vitali Ponomarev, the director of the Central Asia human rights program of the NGO “Memorial,” no court decision has come into legal force on extremist literature. Accordingly, an official list of banned extremist materials does not exist. Rather, there have been complaints of law enforcement authorities “planting” such materials on individuals, albeit such cases are impossible to confirm.

Focusing on a tiny minority who have turned to radical Islam – and for whom statistics remain untrustworthy – obscures the bigger picture.

The main reason for increasing self-identification with Islam lies, I believe, in the domestic socio-political situation in Kyrgyzstan. Amidst systemic corruption, a lack of confidence in state constitutions, and economic hardships, Islam offers an alternative means of coping and support in people’s lives as well as confers social status. While this has little or nothing to do with extremism, repressive government policies and actions may inadvertently serve to inculcate such.

Threat of Islamophobia

Kyrgyzstan remains a secular state wary of organized religion, which it sees as a potential threat to society. This position has hardened in recent years largely due to external factors: military conflicts in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, the intensification of religious radicalism, the wave of refugees from Muslim countries to Europe, and the recruitment of Kyrgyz citizens by IS.

In March 2013, a draft bill “On religious education and religious institutions in Kyrgyz Republic” was put forward in the Kyrgyz Parliament, which, among other, seeks to provide standards regarding religious education, introduce a government-approved curriculum, as well as register foreign-funded religious schools (including centers, representative offices, branches) and exert greater controls on individuals going abroad for the purposes of religious education.

However, the Spiritual Administration of Muslims of Kyrgyzstan has complained that many items within the law severely restrict freedom of religion, which it charges amount to interference in the faith and in the internal affairs of religious communities. The OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights has also flagged up that the bill runs counter to the human rights commitment of Kyrgyzstan. While the bill has not yet been officially ratified as law, it has already passed two readings in Parliament without revision.

Furthermore, law enforcement authorities remain wary of Islamic attributes such as beards and hijabs, with individuals liable to harassment, while the wearing of headscarves is banned in schools. Negative Islamic stereotypes are also commonly depicted in the Kyrgyz media.

While tackling any real threat of Islamic-inspired militancy is an issue for law enforcement, the danger also lies in religious repression and the negative portrayal of Islamic followers serving to generate grievances and providing fertile ground for the radicalization of the religious part of society.

A particular worry is where religious identity intersects with ethnicity in the south of Kyrgyzstan. The Uzbek part of the population is traditionally more religiously conservative than their Kyrgyz counterparts, a fact which has been used by some Kyrgyz state authorities to blame religion for ethnic clashes which occurred in 2010. The issue of religion can also therefore be used to stoke tensions.

The government needs to be attuned to the need for developing mechanisms to build trust between citizens and the state, providing a just framework between the state and religious organizations, as well as between religion and society. Islamophobia in the media and society also needs to be tackled, for example, by introducing the subject of history of religion in schools and higher educational institutions, as well as better media responsibility exercised in refraining from propagating anti-Islamic stereotypes when covering religious issues.

While Islam is undoubtedly enjoying a renaissance of sorts, it is important to appropriately attribute the sources for its increasing popularity and critically evaluate any connection with the much vaunted fear of Islamic radicalization. Indeed, it is arguably Islamophobia – and how the government and society treats religion – that has greater potential to incite the very radicalization that politicians and other observers fear.

Dr. Zarinam Turdieva holds a PhD from the Kyrgyz-Russian Slavic University in Kyrgyzstan.