Kyrgyz society has been living in a highly politically charged environment since its two revolutions in 2005 and 2010, which toppled two governments and gave rise to political activism among its population. Kyrgyzstan is arguably the only country in the Central Asian region enjoying the freedoms that democracy brings. Nevertheless, and despite the freedoms being enjoyed, the ideological vacuum formed in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union poses threats to Kyrgyz society — especially when it comes to radicalization.
The lack of national, visionary, and long-term policies in the country has meant that many have turned to religion to find the sense of identity and natural belonging that was a trademark of the Soviet Union, but disappeared with its collapse. The post-Soviet era sees the entire population of the once-giant country seeking solace in religion, whatever it may be. In this sense, Kyrgyzstan is no different from any of the republics of the former USSR.
Both the government and society in general failed to see the influence that religion could have on the population of Kyrgyzstan. Most of the population had never (officially) practiced any religion and thus were ill-equipped to judge the influence that religion could have upon themselves, much less their children or even grandchildren. The USSR was officially atheist and prohibited any public expression of or affiliation to religion. Following its collapse, many radicals from across the religious spectrum poured into the former Soviet Union looking to “attract” new members. Such is the start of the Islamization of Kyrgyzstan and the region.
There are more mosques than schools built in the country each year. There has been a marked increase in Arab Islamic fashion seen on the streets (something previously unusual in Kyrgyzstan), especially among young people. The central mosque, which used to be an empty sightseeing spot for tourists, is now packed on Fridays. Men with beards and dressed in Afghan-style clothing knock on the doors of every house offering Islamic teachings. And then there’s the darker side: Reportedly, 500 youth from Kyrgyzstan have joined terrorist groups in Syria.
All this, however, has not happened overnight — the process has been ongoing for the last 25 years. These changes were happening before the eyes of the government and the secular public.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, a number of student exchange programs became available to young people. They went to study in countries in the Middle East, as well as the United States and Asia. Today, the exposure of the youth to different countries, cultures, and mentalities can be observed through the public discussion of various political, social, and economic issues on social networks. Their views vary sharply. Now, with the availability of Internet, people do not even need to leave their homes to learn about religions. Many preachers from Islamic countries visit Kyrgyzstan or offer online teachings. In fact, many are coming to Kyrgyzstan, a country without deep knowledge of Islam, to push their own schools of thoughts, some of which are seen as radical, creating disputes among the followers of the same religion. Some of them are increasingly supportive of the idea of a caliphate replacing the secular state.
For those who never left the country, these changes may have seemed gradual, almost imperceptible. I, however, left Kygyzstan in 2003 to work as a Counterterrorism Network Coordinator of the then 55-member OSCE in Vienna, Austria. Every time I came to visit my home country, I was surprised at how things changed.
In the early days, back in 2003, 2006 or even 2009, when returning I would talk to many cab drivers who were eager to tell jokes and share with me their opinion of the political situation, the socioeconomic problems in the country, and daily life in general. In effect, they offered a window into their lives; together sometimes we could even solve all of the country’s problems. That was then and this is now. Today many of cab drivers I meet feel more comfortable talking about their visits to the mosque, the after-life, or how Islam has to define who we are as a nation (or a combination of all three). Should they choose not to talk to me, they just turn on the radio and listen to religious teachings, which mostly focus on the role of women in Islam. Interestingly, some of these people listen to these lessons in Russian, for they don’t speak native Kyrgyz — an ironic twist, for many of them claim that they turned to Islam seeking “national identity.”
Within Central Asia, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan were seen as historically more traditional and religious, the native lands for well-known religious scholars respected throughout the Islamic world. Even during the days of the Soviet Union there were underground religious madrasas in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Thus, these states were seen as more prone to Islamization than countries with historically nomadic populations. Ironically, however, it was the authoritarian regimes in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan that cracked down on Islamization, seeing it as a threat to their regimes,. Their governments banned expressions of Islamic identity (such as clothing or facial hair), outlawed Islamic political parties, and are even persecuting Islamic religious figures. Kyrgyzstan, on the other hand, took close to zero measures, due partly to the lack of expertise on religion and partly to underestimating the threat of radicalization.
The once-secular Kyrgyzstan now has a (Muslim) prayer room in its Parliament. One of the members of Parliament recently suggested a draft law to extend lunch breaks on Fridays, to allow people to attend Friday prayers in mosques. The law did not pass, mainly due to a vocal objection from MP Janar Akaev –a former presidential Spokesperson and a protegé of the president — who invoked the secularity of the state. Chubak Ajy Jalilov, the increasingly popular and influential religious leader often referred by his followers as “the Sheikh,” was outraged and condemned Paliament’s reject of the bill. He called upon his followers to shun all MPs that voted against the proposed amendment.
Before the bill’s defeat in Parliament, debate centered on a video of some Islamic youth denouncing other young Kyrgyz who were dancing in public as Western promiscuous “infidels.” Following this incident and the drama between Jalilov and the MPs, both of which demonstrated the growing divide between the religious and secular facets of society, the president had to intervene and remind the people that Kyrgyzstan is a secular state.
Radicalization in Central Asia is not a myth
In the years that followed the 9/11 attacks, the international community played an active role in Central Asia, supporting its stabilization. Both Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan hosted airbases for coalition forces. OSCE and the UN conducted and continue to support a series of national, regional, and international conferences on combating terrorism and countering violent extremism and radicalization leading to terrorism (VERLT) in the region. Recognizing the need for global counterterrorism efforts, however, the international community should take a critical look at what has been done so far, and what could be done differently or at least more efficiently. The increasing radicalization in Central Asia, including Kyrgyzstan, demonstrates that something needs to change.
Today, Central Asian youth are joining terrorist groups in Syria. The spread of religious extremism, as well as the factors that allow such developments, were overlooked by both the Central Asian governments as well as the international community. In spite of extensive research, the root causes of terrorism are still not well understood. The main cause of radicalization is not the long arm of terrorist groups and their ability to reach out to people in countries with whom they have very little in common — no shared language, no shared history. Instead, the main causes of terrorism and religious extremism are corrupt and oppressive governments with poor human rights records, high corruption rates, and poor education levels.
Western governments normally turn a blind eye to such issues in order not to jeopardize their relations with regional governments. The West often chooses to avoid discussing such “politically sensitive” issues. Western governments should ask themselves how such an approach jeopardizes efforts to combat VERLT. This dangerous approach has had poor results; it is time for a change.
Fighting against corruption is the key to succeed in counterterrorism efforts. The international community should work more to empower civil society, promote voluntarism, empower women and youth, and provide access to quality secular education for all. These are the basic building blocks for achieving responsible, cohesive societies that stand together against VERLT.
Aidai Masylkanova is formerly a Counterterrorism Network Coordinator of the OSCE. She has also served in various field missions of the OSCE and the United Nations. She holds a Master’s degree from the School of International and Public Affairs of Columbia University.