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Muslim Missionaries Make Kyrgyz Inroads Through Bangladeshi Madrasah

A boy yawns during Islamic prayers at a square in the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek.
A boy yawns during Islamic prayers at a square in the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek.
A conservative Sunni Muslim movement that is banned in most of Central Asia has made inroads into Kyrgyzstan with recruiting efforts that include offers of a free Islamic education in Bangladesh for children from poor, rural families.

Documents obtained by RFE/RL confirm that security officials in Kyrgyzstan are increasingly concerned about a movement called Tablighi Jaamat, which means "Messengers' Assembly" in Arabic. Authorities have been alerted about the movement and told to monitor the activities of its members.

Although it proclaims to be pacifist and apolitical, Tablighi Jamaat has been banned in Russia as an extremist organization. It also is prohibited in Iran, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.

The chairman of the Kyrgyz parliament's Education, Science, Culture, and Sports Committee, Kanybek Osmonaliev, says the government in Bishkek should prevent Kyrgyzstan from being a Tablighi bastion in Central Asia.

Osmonaliev says the Kyrgyz government should enforce existing legislation that bans children younger than 16 from being sent to religious schools abroad.

"Unfortunately, there are vested interests who make a business out of sending children to Islamic schools in Bangladesh," Osmonaliev told RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service. "Our special institutions such as the National Security Service, the Interior Ministry, the Education Ministry, and local governments don't pay enough attention to what is happening. In some cases, they even close their eyes. Some members of parliament are trying to raise public awareness and draft legal instruments on this issue. But no one in the government is taking this into consideration."

Narrow Field Of Study

No one can say exactly how many Kyrgyz families have sent their children to Islamic schools in Bangladesh, where the Tablighi Jaamat is strongest, because privately funded religious schools in Bangladesh are not monitored by any government regulatory body.

But RFE/RL has learned that at least 55 young Kyrgyz students are now enrolled at the Tablighi's Kakrail Markaz madrasah in Dhaka.

One of those students is a 23-year-old who began calling himself "Ahmad" after enrolling there.

Ahmad was 17 years old when Tablighi missionaries recruited him from his village in Kyrgyzstan and sent him to study in Dhaka.

Coming from a family that could not afford to pay for his education, the offer of free schooling in Bangladesh was seen as an opportunity they couldn't refuse.

Now, after six years at the madrasah, Ahmad is nearing the completion of his studies.

He has learned to read and write in Arabic and is able to recite the Koran from memory.

But the school hasn't prepared Ahmad for any work except teaching the Koran and conducting "Khuruj" missionary tours to further spread the Tablighi's principles.

Ahmad says he is ready to become a Tablighi missionary in Kyrgyzstan. He says he will carry out the movement's recommended missionary work at least one night each week, one weekend per month, and for a continuous 40-day stretch every year.

He also plans to complete a 120-day missionary tour that is recommended by the movement at least once in a lifetime.

"Memorizing the Koran is your diploma. It is proof. If one can recite the Koran from beginning to end, that is his diploma. The state [of Bangladesh] doesn't give us any documents [for our studies]. Allah gives us our diploma."

Taliban Comparisons

Tablighi Jaamat is an offshoot of Hanafi jurisprudence within Islam's Deobandi revivalist movement. It was founded in northern India in 1926 with the aim of reaffirming the religious and cultural identity of Muslims on the Indian subcontinent. It stresses individual faith and spiritual development, encouraging a return to orthodox Sunni Islam by what it considers to be wayward Muslims.

The movement works at the grassroots level by sending groups of 10 missionaries from village to village where they give sermons at local mosques. It now operates in 200 countries and is thought to have more than 100 million adherents worldwide.

Like the Taliban movement in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Tablighi Jaamat embraces the lifestyle and practices of the Prophet Muhammad. Male members grow beards and, regardless of their nationality, don the flowing white robes worn by Arab men when they do missionary work.

The Tablighi's opposition to women's rights also has led to comparisons with the Taliban.

But unlike militant Islamists, the Tabilghi Jaamat maintains a neutral political stance and condemns violence carried out in the name of Islam.

That fact has helped Tablighi stretch its global reach. But it also has brought criticism from Al-Qaeda and other militant Islamists who accuse the movement of abandoning jihad.

Some Sunni Wahhabi ulema in Saudi Arabia have issued fatwas prohibiting Tablighis from preaching in the country or importing the movement's literature.

'The Connection'

Rafiqul Islam, chairman of the Peace and Conflict Department at the University of Dhaka, has done extensive research on militancy and madrasahs in Bangladesh.

He says there is no evidence of direct links between Tablighi Jaamat schools and Islamic militancy.

"If I analyze the history of Bangladesh, I can rightly point out that all students who are studying in the madrasah system in Bangladesh are not widely involved in militant activities," Islam says. "The history and social and economic condition of Bangladesh do not favor this kind of militancy in Bangladesh. But the people who are educated and influenced by the Wahabbi and Maududi ideology -- I mean those who actually took part in the Afghanistan war and studied in different madrasahs in Pakistan -- they come to Bangladesh. This is the connection if some of these people are involved in bringing students from Central Asia, teaching them in Bangladesh, and then taking them back to Central Asia. And this is happening."

But Stratfor security analysts say there are "indirect links" between Tablighi Jaamat and militancy. They say the movement unintentionally offers a place where jihadists look for potential recruits.

Examples of disillusioned Tablighi who have become militants include members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), Taliban fighters in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and two British suicide bombers in the London terrorist attacks of July 7, 2005 -- Mohammed Siddique Khan and Shahzad Tanweer.

Written and reported by Ron Synovitz, with additional reporting by RFE/RL Kyrgyz Service Director Venera Djumataeva in Prague and Gulaiym Ashakeeva in Bishkek