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Salafism in Kyrgyzstan: Armed jihad or Muslim schism?
Other groups face restrictions, but Salafists face increasing government pressure
By Aibek Karabaev
Every year the list of banned organisations in Kyrgyzstan grows. That list is reviewed and approved by the State Commission on Religious Affairs and the Supreme Court.
To Kanybek Osmonaliyev, head of the Kyrgyzstan State Commission of Religious Affairs, the greatest danger on this list are not Satanists or members of the syncretism movement Beloye Bratstvo (White Brotherhood):
“Of the banned religious groups, the most dangerous are those that support the Hizb ut-Tahrir al-Islami (the Islamic Party of Liberation)”, he told Central Asia Online. “They are precisely the ones who most often appear in the Ministry of Internal Affairs’ reports. It is another thing altogether that the members of the party have not yet gone any farther than distributing agitational materials”.
Osmonaliyev said one movement that is gaining momentum and is continuously adapting in Kyrgyzstan is Salafism (from the Arabic for “predecessors”).
Salafists are considered fundamentalists ,and Osmonaliyev groups them with Wahhabists. They oppose any pilgrimage to the graves of saints, deem celebration of the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday as something undesirable, beliyeve in one God and do not recognise any innovation.
But not everyone agrees.
“The strangest thing in Salafism (is) one branch can transform itself into another. Salafat is a very general name. There are moderate Salafats; there are radicals. Moderates can become radicals. Radicals – moderates. And among the radicals are so-called jihadists”, said Kadyr Malikov, who conducts research on Islam at the Social Research Center at the American University of Central Asia and is a senior expert at Kyrgyz–Russian Slavonic University’s Institute of Strategic Analysis and Prognosis.
He insists that, so far, he has not encountered organized radical Islamic movements in the country.
A young man who gave his name as Sartbek is one who, in the past, actively helped Hizb ut-Tahrir supporters distribute leaflets. He said he went to a sermon by chance after his friends invited him.
“No, there isn’t anyone there who thinks this is wrong. If the mullah said that the Quran should be interpreted like he says, then that is how it should be. Oh yeah, we were asked to distribute leaflets. Sometimes we just went into the entrance of a multi-storey apartment buildings and left newspapers at the door. Did I meet representatives of other banned organisations? No. Personally, I did not meet anyone”.
Malikov said that Hizb ut-Tahrir al-Islami’s supporters can be called moderate salafists.
But Osmonaliyev said the most frightening thing about Salafism is the group’s intended methods for coming to power: armed jihad.
According to Osmonaliyev, the first Salafists appeared in Kyrgyzstan seven years ago, but their influence has spread slowly. The movement’s leaders had more important work to do in places such as Dagestan or Chechnya.
“Back then, in the beginning of this decade, they built several mosques here in our country that could become some sort of ideological centres. Today we can say that 30 percent of Muslims in the country are of the Salafat persuasion. Additionally, the leaders of the organization are trying to work with residents in the north of the country because in the south there was no demand for the ideas of the Wahhabists”, Osmonaliyev said.
According to Malikov’s estimates, the Salafists might be operating in 80 countries around the world, with Al-Qaeda being the most aggressive organisation preaching this movement.
Osmonaliyev said significant funding is coming from private sponsors in Saudi Arabia. Attracting Muslims with financial problems to their movement is their greatest weapon.
Kyrgyz National University theologian Evgenia Nuranskaya said, “There is no precise information on the amount of funding the Salafists have, neither globally, nor in Kyrgyzstan. Banned religious organisations that are extremist — particularly Wahhabi organisations, which include the Salafists — are completely secretive about this information. The same goes for the number of supporters in the movement. Another matter is what they could do in Kyrgyzstan... ”.
Osmonaliyev suggested that the influence of Salafists on the Muslim community can be so grave that it leads to problems, such as “mass psychosis”.
He said it is possible that there will be a schism among the Kyrgyz diaspora because among those entering into the ranks of the Salafists are the country’s young citizens.
Daniyar Muradilov, an expert at the independent analytical research centre of Religion, Law and Policy, said such fears are groundless: “Such conflicts in the country have been noted, but at the level of the small diaspora. Take, for example, Uyghurs: their older generations profess one approach to Islam, but some young people have already become Salafists. However, even there, no serious conflicts have come up—though, this is a theoretical possibility. On top of this, it is unlikely that Salafists will be able to somehow destabilise the political situation in the country. We do not think that the movement’s supporters can make any claims on the country’s government”.
And this, according to Nuranskaya, is a two-fold problem: in all neighbouring states, Salafists are prosecuted.
“Understandably, with its social and economic instability, Central Asia is a tasty morsel for all sorts of extremist currents. This is especially the case for the south of Kyrgyzstan. But, while our neighbours are somehow fighting them, in Kyrgyzstan they are actually trying to imprison only those who are connected to Hizb ut-Tahrir or the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan."
Sartbek left the ranks of Hizb ut-Tahrir shortly before the so-called Nookat Case.
He said he decided to continue his studies in one of the capital’s universities and his major is not connected to religion:
“After I left, I started finding out that this was a party of illiterate imams. Knowledgeable people say they have not read the Quran and do not know the surahs. Probably, this is the same for other similar organisations—maybe even for the Salafists”.
The Nookat Case was the highest-profile trial involving supporters of banned religious groups. Forty supporters of Hizb ut-Tahrir were tried. Some of them received life terms in prison. Whether or not the courts will go after the Salafists is an unanswered question.
But both Malikov and Osmonaliyev agree that to identify the radicals among the Islamic population of Kyrgyzstan is, at present, impossible. -