By Daisy Sindelar
Several dozen men gathered for midday prayers on a recent Sunday afternoon at the Alai central mosque in the southern Kyrgyz city of Osh.
The mosque once had the reputation of attracting worshippers from Osh's Kyrgyz and Uzbek communities in nearly equal proportions. On this day, however, there are only a handful of Uzbeks attending prayers.
The drop could be blamed on the still-simmering tensions between the two groups following the outbreak of deadly ethnic clashes in the country's south last June. But one Uzbek, 50-year-old Bakhadyr Tajibaev, says it's jobs, not emotions, that are behind the dwindling number of Uzbeks at the Alai mosque.
"Many of them left, they emigrated," says Tajibaev, a distinguished-looking man with a full white beard and a pressed blue shirt. "They went to Russia to look for work. Since the conflict, there hasn't been much work here. That's why a lot of them are leaving."
Tajibaev expresses faith that many of his fellow Uzbeks will soon return to the scarred city as the local economy returns to normal. And when they do, he says, they'll return to this mosque for prayers with their Kyrgyz neighbors.
In Kyrgyzstan, where 85 percent of the population is Muslim, many looked to mosques as a place for reconciliation after the summer violence left a bloody divide between the country's ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks. Special prayer sessions were held in a number of mosques to bring together members of both communities and call for respect and mutual tolerance.
But mosques have also been viewed with suspicion, with some suggesting they're a breeding ground for extremist groups who may have played a role in the June events and are intent upon further destabilizing the country.
Officials in Bishkek have blamed religious extremists for a recent spate of explosions and other attacks, including a massive bombing that disrupted court proceedings in November and a January 4 firefight that left four law enforcement officers and two alleged militants dead. Interior Minister Zarylbek Rysaliev said in a statement that "a war has been declared on all of us" and that "evil is wearing the mask of a believer."
Marat Imankulov, the deputy chairman of the State Committee for National Security, says that the single greatest security threat facing Kyrgyzstan today is religious extremism promoted by organizations like Hizb ut-Tahrir, whose call for a global Islamic caliphate has deeply unnerved governments in Central Asia despite the group's formal renunciation of violence.
Hizb ut-Tahrir filtered into Kyrgyzstan from Uzbekistan and Tajikistan in the late 1990s, and is currently banned in Kyrgyzstan and other Central Asian states. Imankulov says mosques played a role early on in boosting the group's influence in the south.
"They would meet up with them at the mosques on the pretext of needing to teach them more about the canons of Islam, and then at night they would gather together at someone's home to study the Koran and the rules of Islam. And then, like salt and pepper, they would start to sprinkle in extremist dialogue. A lot of people crossed over to extremism in that way."
Some observers have objected to authorities like Imankulov raising the specter of religious extremism, saying they have been militaristic in their response and too quick to ratchet up the tension by citing not only known groups like Hizb ut-Tahrir, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), and Islamic Jihad, but also unnamed radical groups with ties to Pakistan and Afghanistan as the source of the threat. Rysaliev last week announced there were nearly 1,300 known terrorists operating in Kyrgyzstan, the vast majority of them from Hizb ut-Tahrir.
Human rights activists have also claimed that suspects held in connection with a November bomb attack were falsely accused and offered confessions only under torture.
Such claims have prompted concerns that Kyrgyzstan -- considered by some the most progressive of the Central Asian states -- may be backsliding on its political achievements, even as it takes its first gingerly steps as the region's first parliamentary democracy. But Kyrgyz officials are nonetheless reexamining the role of Islam on their territory, and recently enacted reforms to put the country's imams, mosques, and madrasahs under greater centralized control.
Nearly all religious authorities in the country -- including all but the top two members of the Spiritual Board of Kyrgyzstan's Muslims, the country's central religious authority -- will be subjected to special screenings. Efforts will also be made to establish unified supervision over the Islamic charities and other organizations currently operating in the country.
Perhaps most significantly, the authority of the country's grand mufti will be scaled back from chairing all three of the country's top Islamic bodies to just one, the Spiritual Board. The change is meant to diffuse the absolute authority of the grand mufti's post while ensuring that critical decisions, like the appointment of new imams, are still channeled through a single body.
Similar initiatives in other post-Soviet Muslim-majority states have been criticized as an attempt to promote an "official" form of Islam that protects the secular interests of authoritarian regimes and discourages dedication to religion over state. But Kadyr Malikov, the director of the Religion, Law, and Politics think tank in Bishkek, says the changes are consistent with Kyrgyzstan's democratic principles and are aimed at not only fighting the spread of extremism, but also purging the country's Islamic institutions of corruption and basic religious illiteracy.
"Frequently, the people who ran mosque administrations were imams who were inexperienced and uneducated -- uneducated in a religious sense. Or imams who were connected to extremist groups," Malikov says.
"And now the muftiate is assuming the responsibility for the imams' reeducation. So naturally, they've created a system of coursework, exams, and recertification for all imams -- on their level of professionalism, their level of education, behavior, ethics, everything."
'They're Here, They're Working'
All five were Uzbek, a fact that is likely to stir resentment among local Uzbeks, who say members of their community faced disproportionate prosecution and scrutiny following the June violence. (A sixth Uzbek imam from the southern district of Kara-Suu was arrested last week on fraud charges; local authorities have warned the move could spark anti-Bishkek protests by local Uzbeks.)
It is also likely to heighten suspicions that the government's religious reforms are a thinly disguised attempt to silence opponents -- many of them Uzbek -- on the pretext of fighting terrorism. City and religious authorities in Osh have already proposed that Friday Prayers, which are often accompanied by a lengthy sermons by an imam, be permitted only in central mosques.
The muzzling of Friday sermons could ultimately prove highly demoralizing, particularly in the south, where many Uzbek communities feel betrayed by the government in the wake of the June violence and may be turning increasingly to local mosques as a source of guidance and comfort. But proponents of the idea say the move was prompted by revelations that some mosque officials were involved in extremist groups, and that the measures would help make the activities of religious organizations more transparent.
Suyun-haji Kalykov, the Osh region's leading Muslim spiritual authority, or "kazy," is responsible for supervising the region's more than 720 mosques, 16 madrasahs, and two Islamic institutes, and is also meant to serve as a channel of communication between the muftiate in Bishkek and local imams. As such, he is a critical gatekeeper in the government's efforts to purge the south's Islamic structures of groups like Hizb ut-Tahrir.
Kalykov says he does what he can to keep extremists out of the mosques, but that it's not always easy. He says extremist groups have become so active in Kyrgyzstan that it is time for the government to deal openly with the question.
"If we're talking about Hizb ut-Tahrir, they're definitely here at the given moment. Maybe it's because the laws are weak," Kalykov says. "Yes, they're here, they're working, they're promoting their ideology. Before, they just handed out pamphlets, but now they're working in a different way. Now they have new plans. Right now they're here, in Osh region, but also all over Kyrgyzstan. We shouldn't hide this. If we hide it, the problem will just explode. So it's not worth hiding anything."
With the reform's new screenings and certification due to commence in March, Muslim authorities will face an especially delicate balancing act in the south, where the continued climate of instability may allow the IMU, Hizb ut-Tahrir, and other groups to gain strength if Uzbeks continue to feel they are the target of discrimination.
At the same time, he acknowledges the small mosque he was currently visiting -- located in an all-Uzbek neighborhood that was the site of some of the worst violence in June -- is attended almost exclusively by Uzbeks. "But I also come here," he says. "Anyone who needs to pray can come here."
An Uzbek acquaintance at the mosque, Khashimjan-haji Umarov, confirms the sentiment, saying the mosque remains the best hope for a renewed sense of community in the fractured city.
"If a person goes to mosque every day and prays five times a day every day, that means five times a day people are saying to each other, 'Let's live together peacefully and not let anything come between us,'" Umarov says.
Sabyr Abdulmomunov and Ernist Nurmatov of RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service contributed to this report