Monday, May 10, 2010

Window on Eurasia: Bishkek’s Handling of Religious Issues May Be Opening the Way for an Islamic Revolution

Paul Goble

Vienna, May 10 – In order to reinforce its secular image abroad, the Kyrgyz Provisional Government has adopted a hands off approach to religious issues, one that has already led to the opening of a split “between the secular powers that be and the religiously inclined majority of the population” and could spark an “Islamic revolution,” some analysts say.
In a commentary on, Yekaterina Shtolts argues that Rosa Otunbayeva and her regime have compounded this danger by the way in which they have dealt with those charged and in some cases incarcerated for a mass fight that took place in the Kyrgyz city of Nookat in 2008 (
In October of that year, Shtolts recounts, a group of Muslims clashed with local officials during the Orozo-Ayt (Uraza-Bayram) religious holiday when the authorities refused to allow the celebrants to hold their meeting in the city center. As a result, approximately 100 people threw stones at the militia and city hall.
Following these clashes, the local militia detained 32 people, charging them with involving minors in the commission of crimes, mass disorders, intentional destruction of property, and attacks on government officials. “As a result,” the Moscow analyst says, “all the arrested were given gigantic prison terms – from five to 20 years incarceration.”
After the Bakiyev government was overthrown, the Provisional government agreed to amnesty these people. Aziza Abdirasudolova, head of the Kylym Shamy Human Rights Center, said that was appropriate because Nookat officials used this occasion not to punish those directly involved but to arrest those suspected of being members of Hizb ut-Tahrir.
As a result of the Provisional Government’s actions in this case, that Muslim party, which officially calls for “the peaceful construction of a caliphate,” not only recovers some of its leaders who likely were radicalized while in prison but also “more than 100 others,” who will no longer be pursued abroad.
According to Shtolts, “a great many specialists on Islam viewed and continue to view the Nookat events” as a reflection of “the irresponsibility of local officials. One who holds that view, she says, is Kadyr Malikov, director of the Religion, Law and Politics Center at the University of Madrid.
Malikov told her, Shtolts continues, that the Nookat officials acted as they did because “they complete failed to take into account that already 98 to 99 percent of the population of the South defines themselves as Muslims.” If the authorities had allowed the official Islamic leadership to be involved, things might have been different, but the powers that be didn’t.
And by their actions, these officials made the Hizb ut-Tahrir Party a hero in the eyes of the people, who the Madrid-based scholars says, began as a result of the Nookat events “to sympathize with the Hizb ut-Tahrir leaders and were converted into the potential supporters” of this movement. The release of such people will only strengthen those feelings.
Because of poverty and the Kyrgyz state’s inability to fund many parts of the social sector, the population already has a reason to turn to the Hizb ut-Tahrir. Government institutions of social support are completely inactive, Shtolts points out, and the Muslim party is winning backers by filling in the gap and could do well in any upcoming elections as a result.
Trying to contain Hizb ut-Tahrir by arrests or repression is “ineffective,” Shtolts says. Instead, she and Malikov argue, the government must address social problems and ensure that pro-Provisional Government meetings are not marked by drunkenness, something never found in Hizb ut-Tahrir actions.
Obviously, the Provisional Government is aware of the importance of dealing with Muslims, but to date, she writes, it has “consistently avoided making contacts with the religious sphere, thus spiritually cutting itself off from the people. As a result, a civilizational split has taken place between the secular powers and the religious majority.”
The only way out, Shtolts argues, is for the Government to build its ties with “official Islam,” something it has not yet done, and do more in the social sphere, something Bishkek appears to lack the money for. But if it does not take those steps, others like Hizb ut-Tahrir or even more radical groups are going to gain and the current regime is going to lose support.
Unfortunately, as M.Nurmagambetov, a Kyrgyz blogger observes today, the regime is under pressure to burnish its secular credentials with foreign governments. Indeed, it has no choice but to do so if it hopes to get the funds it needs to deal with the enormous social problems of Kyrgyzstan (
Given its desperate situation, the Provisional Government will say whatever it has to, but as it does, Nurmagambetov continues, “the character of the dissatisfaction of the Kyrgyz crowd has begun to acquire a religious dimension,” and that in turn means “a spectre is haunting Kyrgyzstan, the spectre of religious extremism.”
And given the weakness of Bishkek, “in a large part of the country, religious fanatics striving for power dominate the scene,” a situation that he too suggests in the near future “could lead to the next revolution,” one in which people like Otunbayeva and her colleagues would be swept away.

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