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IS In Central Asia: Existential Threat Or Convenient Enemy?

Friday prayers in a mosque in the city of Suzak, in the Jalal-Abad region of Kyrgyzstan. (file photo)

Friday prayers in a mosque in the city of Suzak, in the Jalal-Abad region of Kyrgyzstan. (file photo)

"A monster named Islamic State is threatening Kyrgyzstan!" the Russian-language Delo website proclaimed recently.

"The moment has come when everyone in Kyrgyzstan is talking about the sudden birth of a new "state" in the Middle East -- experts, politicians, and ordinary citizens. It has become clear that Kyrgyzstan won't be left on the side by the forces named IS that have horrified the world," the article continued.

Kyrgyzstan certainly has not left itself out of the global conversation about the militant Islamic State group, with daily articles on the topic becoming a staple of local media.

And as "Islamic State" hysteria continues to engulf Kyrgyzstan and other Central Asian countries, amid fears that the group's extremist ideology could take hold, and reports that hundreds if not thousands of young Central Asian men are fighting in IS's ranks, regional governments have announced measures to contend with Islamic State's radical Islam.

But to what extent are these measures designed to deal with the threat of IS, and how much is the threat of IS being employed as a "useful enemy" to allow Central Asian states to implement tighter controls on religious freedoms?

Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambaev warned recently that the danger inherent in IS's brand of radical Islam posed a "special threat" to Kyrgyz national identity.

In the light of such an existential threat, Atambayev declared last week that Kyrgyzstan would be "reexamining the relationship between state and religion."

Months before Atambaev's latest promise, however, Kyrgyzstan's State Commission for Religious Affairs (SCRA) announced new restrictions on religious freedom, by revising the existing Religion Law, which came into force in 2009.

The Kyrgyz government informed the United Nations Human Rights Committee of the proposed changes back in January.

However, the draft changes were not announced until recently, on October 9. The draft proposals require all religious organizations to re-register with the authorities. In order to do so, organizations must show that they have 500 founding members. The proposed changes also include increased fines for exercising freedom of religion or belief.

The deputy director of SCRA, Tabyldy Orozaliyev, said that Kyrgyzstan's Defense Council had recognized that it had been a "mistake" for government agencies to distance themselves from regulating religious processes.

Orozaliyev claimed this could lead to "negative consequences in the form of conflict, interfaith clashes, and the threat of a split state."

While the threat of Islamic State was not directly cited, one Kyrgyz lawmaker, Damira Niyazalieva, said recently that the new requirements would help confront extremism.

And while Atambaev's recent warnings about the existential threat posed by radical Islam have raised the specter of Islamic State, the Kyrgyz president has made similar statements in the past, before the "IS frenzy" hit Kyrgyz headlines.

Back in February, Atambaev criticized "the growing role of Islam in politics and suggested that hijabs on young women represent a foreign import that erases traditional Kyrgyz culture," Central Asian expert Matt Kupfer wrote in Qishloq Ovozi on November 9.

Such statements "feed these same religious tensions the country has long faced," Kupfer noted.

Beyond Atambaev's incorporation of the IS threat into his warnings of radical Islam, reports indicate that Kyrgyzstan's State Committee on National Security (GKNB) has also mobilized "IS frenzy" to justify budgets and arrests.

A recent report by cited an imam in a small town in Chui Province as claiming that local security officials extort money from ordinary Muslims under the pretext of fighting Islamic extremists.

"When they [GKNB] arrested my son [on charges of membership in a banned Islamic group], they told me that if I gave them $1,000, they would immediately release him.... After I saw that my son was tortured, I paid the money," the imam told

Some Kyrgyz officials have admitted that the threat of IS has sometimes been overblown.

The deputy director of SCRA, Zakir Chotayev, said on October 18 that, "the potential threat from IS to our region and to Kyrgyzstan is real but its scale is sometimes exaggerated. Someone wants to create negative propaganda for Islam, another person wants to expand forcible measures to regulate Islam and the war on extremism in the region. Yes, the situation with IS and other radical streams exists, but it is not so hopeless and terrible as it is made out to be."

According to Laurence Sheets, the former Moscow Bureau Chief for National Public Radio and a field analyst for the International Crisis Group (ICG), it is Uzbekistan that is the most concerned about the threat from radical Islam.

"Uzbekistan is where most of the concern for latent or active Islamic activity is generally linked.... It is open to debate how much of a threat radical Islam really plays," Sheets said on November 4.

Sheets conceded that IS is "definitely a threat" in Uzbekistan but echoed Kyrgyzstan's Chotayev in adding, "what's important is judging the extent of the threat and whether or not the main thrust of the perceived threat is to hang onto power."

In Uzbekistan, which rights group Human Rights Watch (HRW) has said "stands out as among the most repressive [governments] in the world", the crackdown on radical Islam (or what its president has described as such) is long-standing and began long before the rise of Islamic State.

In 1998, Uzbekistan's president, Islam Karimov, gave an address to parliament about "Wahhabis."

"Such people must be shot in the head. If necessary, I'll shoot them myself," he said.

While Karimov's administration has promoted Uzbek "traditional values" as a counterpoint to despised Western ones, the Uzbek leader fears the ideology of radical Islam even more than he does Western values.

Karimov has a reason to be concerned about IS and other radical groups. In October, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) declared its support for IS. There are hundreds of Uzbek militants fighting in Syria. Recent footage released by IS suggests that a group of militants from the Uzbek Imam Bukhori Jamaat has defected from the group and pledged allegiance to Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

Meanwhile, the main Imam Bukhori Jamaat group released a video last week showing its members in Syria re-pledging an oath of allegiance to Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar.

Whether Uzbekistan will use the threat of IS to justify clamping down on religious freedoms remains to be seen.

However, it is worth noting that, like Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan has incorporated the IS threat into its narratives and warnings of radical Islam.

On August 31, Karimov asked Muslim scholars to warn people about the dangers of IS.

"Look at what is happening in Iraq! At what the representatives of that incomprehensible, previously unknown religious current are doing!" he told them.

More recently, on November 4, Uzbekistan's Committee on Religious Affairs issued a statement warning of the threat to Uzbek citizens from IS.

The committee said that more and more Central Asians were joining the ranks of Islamic State and could pose a domestic threat. The committee warned Uzbeks against joining IS and drew on Islamic texts to make a case against traveling to Syria or Iraq to fight in the militant group.

"The terrorists use more and more new methods of agitation to expand their ranks.... A hadith says that 'if a believer takes up arms against another, the angels will curse him for it until such time as he lays down his arms.'"

-- Joanna Paraszczuk

About This Blog

"Under The Black Flag" provides news, opinion, and analysis about the impact of the Islamic State (IS) extremist group in Syria, Iraq, and beyond. It focuses not only on the fight against terrorist groups in the Middle East, but also on the implications for the region and the world. The blog's primary author, James Miller, closely covered the first three years of the Arab Spring, with a focus on Syria, and is now the managing editor of The Interpreter, where he covers Russia's foreign and domestic policy and the Kremlin's wars in Syria and Ukraine. Follow him on Twitter: @Millermena


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