Kyrgyz security services say the banned Yakyn Inkar religious group remains active in the country, running underground schools and promoting its ideology despite being outlawed as an extremist organization five years ago.
At least two suspected cell leaders of Yakyn Inkar were arrested in separate raids in the southern Osh Province and the northern Chui region in late March and May, respectively.
The security services say Yakyn Inkar has at least 50 “active members” in Chui alone, despite efforts by the government and state-backed religious authorities to root out the group deemed a “threat” to Kyrgyzstan’s secular system.
The suspected local leader in Chui allegedly operated several underground Islamic schools, or madrasahs, and dormitories in the province. The 51-year-old man -- whose name hasn’t been made public -- was detained along with four other suspected Yakyn Inkar members, police said.
In a series of raids in Chui, authorities confiscated books, flyers, and computer-data storage devices containing material that promotes the Islamic fundamentalist group’s ideology, regional police said earlier this month.
Yakyn Inkar was designated an extremist organization by a Bishkek district court on June 15, 2017. In 2018, it was also banned in neighboring Kazakhstan.
The Kyrgyz government accuses the relatively unknown movement of seeking to ultimately topple the secular government and install an Islamic caliphate.
The government’s view of Yakyn Inkar is shared by the country’s highest Islamic authority, the state-backed Spiritual Administration of Muslims of Kyrgyzstan (DUMK), as well as many experts.
But many people in Kyrgyzstan believe Yakyn Inkar poses no direct threat to the government and that there’s no evidence the group has a political agenda.
They add that the members of the organization should be allowed to practice Islam as they wish, citing most Western countries’ practice of allowing conservative Christian and other nonmainstream religions to exist if they do not harm anyone.
Yakyn Inkar first appeared in 2014 in the Issyk-Kul and Naryn regions and quickly spread to other parts of Kyrgyzstan, including the Jalal-Abad, Chui, and Osh provinces.
At the time of the court ruling, some experts estimated that Yakyn Inkar had gained about 1,000 members in Kyrgyzstan, though the actual figure is unknown.
Yakyn Inkar loosely translates from Arabic as “complete disavowal,” and the group uses the phrase as a shorter version of “denying everything except God.”
Yakyn Inkar followers say they adhere to a pure form of Islam and eschew all worldly affairs.
They reject material and cultural values and shun modern health care and secular schools. According to Kyrgyz media, they also deny the right of other religions to exist.
Kyrgyz authorities raised an alarm when it became known that hundreds of children were barred from attending schools by their families due to their parents’ religious beliefs. Many of the parents were identified as Yakyn Inkar supporters.
Male followers of Yakyn Inkar often wear a shalwar kameez -- a long, loose shirt with ankle-length, wide pants -- commonly worn in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The wives and other female relatives of some Yakyn Inkar members have been seen in all-covering garments and veils.
Tablighi Jamaat Offshoot
It’s not known if Yakyn Inkar is still operational in Kazakhstan, where the group was banned in 2018.
Kazakh state media reported that several “members of the Yakyn Inkar radical group” were detained in connection with the deadly riots in Kazakhstan that began with anti-government protests in early January.
It said various weapons and religious literature were confiscated from the group members but didn’t provide further details.
Yakyn Inkar is viewed as an offshoot of Tablighi Jamaat, a Sunni Islamic missionary movement that says its aim is to build an Islamic society based on Koranic teachings, while avoiding political activities.
Kyrgyzstan's neighbors Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, as well as Russia and Saudi Arabia, have banned Tablighi Jamaat, declaring it an extremist organization.
After several debates in parliament, Kyrgyzstan decided not to outlaw Tablighi Jamaat, which has about 20,000 followers in the country, according to some experts.
Tablighi Jamaat members reportedly assisted the government in identifying and hunting down Yakyn Inkar members after the ban was announced.
Following the court ruling on Yakyn Inkar, Kyrgyzstan’s law-enforcement agencies arrested an unspecified number of its members across the country for preaching extremism.
'Schools Aren’t Compatible With Islam'
Several followers of Yakyn Inkar have faced fines and even prison terms for denying their children a secular education in recent years.
Among them were a married couple from the village of Ananyevo in the Issyk-Kul region -- Zhyrgal Asanbekov and Baktygul Abdrakhmanova -- who were sentenced to two years in prison each for not allowing their two daughters to attend school.
Unmoved by the punishment, Abdrakhmanova told RFE/RL at the time that she stood by her opinion that secular school programs are not compatible with Islam.
“I would like to send my children to school, I would like to live according to the constitution. But the constitution and Shari’a [law] are not in tune with each other,” she said. “I cannot go against the laws of God.”
Similar cases were reported in other parts of Issyk-Kul and also in the western Jalal-Abad Province, prompting calls to deprive such parents of their parental rights.
To combat groups like Yakyn Inkar, the government has also launched a nationwide campaign aimed at preventing the spread of extremist religious ideologies, especially among young people. Mainstream Islamic figures were made an integral part of the campaign.
Officials and imams conduct meetings with people to warn them about the dangers of being brainwashed by various radical groups, including Yakyn Inkar, Hizb ut-Tahrir, and the Salafi movement, police said.
Imams and other religious figures have been tasked with conducting so-called explanatory work among the people attending mosque prayers.
Some Kyrgyz experts and officials have warned that religious extremism cannot be eradicated by outlawing certain groups and clamping down on their followers.
“One of the main reasons why people follow groups like Yakyn Inkar is our people’s religious illiteracy,” says Jorobay Shergazyiev, a department head of the DUMK.
“Because of their lack of knowledge of religion, they fall victim to such preaching and trust all kinds of unverified information.”
The DUMK has been working in all provinces to promote mainstream, moderate Islamic teachings, Shergazyiev said.
Kyrgyzstan, a predominantly Muslim nation of some 6.7 million, has banned more than 20 religious groups it has designated as an extremist and/or a terrorist organization.