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Kyrgyzstan’s Next Battleground

Roiled by a government overthrow and ethnic violence, Kyrgyzstan could be headed for a new wave of religious repression. From EurasiaNet.

by Alisher Khamidov 7 December 2010

Kyrgyzstan’s provisional leaders initially courted public support by taking steps to reverse many of the previous regime’s policies. But as they have settled in to power, provisional leaders have started to emulate former President Kurmanbek Bakiev’s tendency to blame Islamic radicals for the country’s security woes. As a result, many mainstream believers in Kyrgyzstan remain wary of the government.

 

Many observant Muslims in Bishkek are now worrying about a rise in repression following a 30 November bomb blast in Bishkek and a shootout in the southern city of Osh the previous day. Security officials were quick to blame Islamic militants for the two incidents.

 

Law enforcement agencies have tightened security in Osh and other southern towns since the 29 November incident. Eyewitnesses told EurasiaNet.org that authorities continued to conduct search-and-seizure operations in southern Kyrgyzstan, targeting alleged members of the Islamic Movement of Turkestan and the banned Islamist group Hizb-ut-Tahrir. Local media reported on 2 December that authorities also had detained several human rights activists in Osh.

 

Speaking with EurasiaNet.org on condition of anonymity, an Osh-based member of Hizb-ut-Tahrir denounced the clashes and denied his group’s involvement in them, insisting that the underground organization adheres to the use of nonviolence to achieve its political aims. “The balance of power is on [the government’s] side. All we can do is weather the storm  and hope that the truth will reveal itself soon,” the Hizb-ut-Tahrir activist said of the last few years.

 

No serious injuries resulted from the 30 November blast, which occurred outside a courtroom where a high-profile and controversial trial was due to resume. Independent observers believe the explosion was linked to a mood of unfairness that surrounds the trial, which is connected to the April violence in the capital. No one has claimed responsibility for either the Osh or Bishkek attacks.

 

On paper, Muslims make up the majority of Kyrgyzstan’s population. Many believers associated Bakiev’s rule with intolerance and increasing restrictions on religious expression, including stiff registration rules and bans on private religious instruction, proselytizing, and the distribution of religious literature.

 

After assuming power amid violent street demonstrations in April, the provisional government made a break with the Bakiev legacy in a bid to boost its popularity among believers. In late April, for example, authorities announced a general amnesty of hundreds of alleged members of banned Islamic groups, including suspected Hizb-ut-Tahrir members who had been jailed during Bakiev’s presidency. Bishkek also instructed the country’s security services to tone down the harassment of believers, while officials turned a blind eye to the active involvement of some religious leaders in the October parliamentary election campaign. (A constitutional provision prohibited the involvement of religious leaders in politics.)

 

Even so, believers say these days that the security services’ immediate attempts to link the recent violence to radical Islamists offer reasons to remain concerned about the state of religious liberty in Kyrgyzstan. Despite government pledges, the harassment of believers continues and has acquired an ethnic overtone, believers in Osh told EurasiaNet.org. In recent weeks, Osh officials have stepped up accusations that local religious leaders used mosques to incite rioting in June and have arrested several imams. Human rights activists in Osh see a link between the sweep and the 29 November clashes.

 

“We already know which two mosques incited the June hostilities. We cannot say that imams of these mosques are directly complicit in these crimes, but allowing strangers to use [mosque] microphones is a cause for their dismissal,” state-appointed Mufti Chubak Jalilov, the head of the Muslim Spiritual Board, said at a news conference in July.

 

“Things were quiet for a while. But in mid-October, the police and prosecutors resumed their crackdown [on Hizb-ut-Tahrir members]. Police are accusing them of masterminding the Osh events with the goal of overthrowing the government,” a prominent Osh-based human rights activist who has represented Hizb-ut-Tahrir members in court told EurasiaNet.org.

 

The Hizb-ut-Tahrir member told EurasiaNet.org that when “preoccupied with political squabbles in Bishkek,” the government did not have time for dealing with religion. He predicted an “all-out crackdown” on religious practice once the incoming government consolidates its authority. “They say they are democrats, but they are the same people [as Bakiev’s entourage]. I don’t expect a warming of relations between our party and them,” the Hizb member said.

The best way for Bishkek to reduce tensions is to scuttle the Bakiev-era restrictions and involve believers more fully in decision-making, suggested Kadyr Malikov, the head of the Religion, Law, and Politics think tank in Bishkek. Successive Kyrgyz governments have failed to understand the strong hold that faith has on society; authorities confuse belief and extremism, Malikov told EurasiaNet.org.

 

“The fact is that our state cannot divide itself from the religion of its own society. Hence, sooner or later we have to find new ways of accommodating relations based on consensus between the state and religious communities,” Malikov told journalists in October.

Alisher Khamidov is a Central Asia analyst and a lecturer at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C. This is a partner post from EurasiaNet.

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