By: WEA RLC Principal Researcher and Writer, Elizabeth Kendal
-- Threat to Kyrgyzstan is severe but repression is not the solution.
-- A window of opportunity remains open; but not for long.
On 12 January 2009 Kyrgyzstan's President, Kurmanbek Bakiev, signed a new Religion Law despite it having been widely condemned as unconstitutional and contrary to internationally accepted human rights standards. (Link 1)
The repressive new Religion Law, which passed through the parliament under a cloud of secrecy on 6 November 2008, is highly repressive. Forum 18 reports: "Provisions that have caused concern to religious communities and human rights defenders include: a ban on children being involved in religious organisations; a ban on 'aggressive action aimed at proselytism'; a ban on the distribution of religious literature, print, and audio-video religious materials; and de facto compulsory re-registration of all registered religious organisations.
"The 12 January announcement on the presidential website trumpets the fact that 200 adult citizens permanently living in Kyrgyzstan will now be required before a religious community can apply for state registration, compared to 10 in the current Law. It says 10 registered religious organisations will be needed to form a 'religious association'." (Link 1)
Such restrictions virtually guarantee that small non-"traditional" fellowships -- i.e. those outside the state-approved traditional Muslim and Russian Orthodox structures -- particularly those in small towns and remote villages, will simply be ineligible for registration.
According to another source, the law further stipulates that the Minister of Justice can only register a religious organisation/church after local authorities, and then regional authorities, have approved the membership list, and local authorities have the power to decide if a particular religious organisation is needed in their area. The ban on children being involved in religious organisations puts an end to children's ministries such as summer camps and Sunday Schools, and even means parents cannot take their children to church with them. Religious organisations are obliged to report all donations for the purpose of taxation. Police and former KGB have the right to interrupt services and conduct searches at their will.
According to Forum 18, Kyrgyzstan's Human Rights Ombudsperson, Tursunbek Akun, condemned the signing of the law and has pledged to press the government for amendments.
In Kyrgyzstan, as in numerous other states, the decrease in liberty is directionally proportional to the increase in corruption.
As corruption increases, enriching and empowering an elite at the expense of the disenfranchised poor, grass roots' dissatisfaction and anger mount until the state's stability is threatened.
Corrupt, dictatorial regimes react to the threat by increasing repression. If the primary source of opposition comes from religious groups or religious parties, then religious repression will intensify.
However, such reactionary repression only serves to popularise and empower the opposition. Reactionary repression thus fuels an escalating cycle of violence where protest leads to repression which leads to greater protest and more intense repression and so on.
Only good governance (which lessens grievance) with liberty (which provides outlets for grievance to be lawfully expressed and ideas to be openly debated) can break the cycle. A corrupt regime that is deaf to its citizens and resistant to reform is vulnerable to revolution!
Herein lies the great threat to Kyrgyzstan. Escalating, endemic, systematic corruption is empowering the Islamic fundamentalist revolutionary group Hizb ut-Tahrir (HuT). HuT, which has perfected the art of exploiting grievance and victimhood for its own political ends, is a legitimate threat to the peace, security and secularity of Central Asia.
HuT INCITING REVOLUTIONARY VIOLENCE
Just like the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), Hizb ut-Tahrir (HuT) promotes Islam as the solution and advocates the establishment of an Islamic State ruled by Sharia Law. However, while the IMU is militant and engages in terrorism, HuT is political and advocates peaceful means to Islamic revolution. According to HuT ideology, when the Caliphate is restored it will establish a conventional Islamic Army that will advance Islam globally.
Since its emergence in Central Asia in the 1990s, HuT has espoused peaceful means. Furthermore it has employed peaceful means to further its radical, Islamist ideology: literature and audio-visual distribution, proselytism and teaching in small groups. However, over recent years HuT has become not only more sophisticated (branching into humanitarian relief and development), but more aggressive. HuT has begun inciting revolutionary violence.
Two events have emboldened HuT in this regard:
1) Krygyzstan's March 2005 "Tulip Revolution",
2) the propaganda coup secured in Andijan, Uzbekistan in May 2005.
Kyrgyzstan's 2005 "Tulip Revolution" was quite different from the so-called "colour revolutions" in Georgia (Rose, 2003) and Ukraine (Orange, 2004) as it was thuggish and violent. Furthermore, whilst the "revolutions" (regime changes) in Georgia and Ukraine were effected by genuinely pro-West (pro-NATO) forces, the "Tulip Revolution" was effected predominantly by poor HuT-incited Muslims bussed up to Bishek from the south, predominantly from Osh Province in the Fergana Valley.
Despite these glaring deficiencies, the "Tulip Revolution" was applauded in and legitimised by the West as yet another example of people-power democracy, simply because a "regime change" had occurred.
Immediately after the 14 March 2005 "Tulip Revolution", EurasiaNet's editor Justin Burke warned that it could turn out "that Islamic radicalism emerges as the ultimate winner of the Kyrgyz revolution".
Burke explained: "Allegations of vote-rigging served as the catalyst for the Kyrgyz revolution. But it was pent-up frustration among the population over persistent poverty and pervasive government corruption that packed the revolution with its explosive power. Many supporters of the revolution aren't necessarily interested in democracy; they are preoccupied simply with providing for themselves and their families.
"It is not too early to start worrying about the nightmare scenario of the Kyrgyz revolution -- one in which early hopes for a democratic transformation mutate into anxiety about the spread of Islamic radicalism. [. . .] In recent years, an extremist group that espouses non-violence tactics, Hizb-ut-Tahrir, has intensified its agit-prop activities aimed at overthrowing all the existing regimes in Central Asia and establishing an Islamic caliphate. The next few weeks are critical. If the provisional government can harness the revolutionary forces and keep political infighting to a minimum until new presidential and parliamentary elections are held, Kyrgyzstan will stand a chance of establishing Central Asia's first genuinely pluralistic political system. However, there is no guarantee at this time that the provisional government can accomplish these basic tasks. If it falters, and if Kyrgyzstan is saddled with a weak central government, Islamic radical groups may find themselves a new safe haven for international terrorist operations." (Link 2)
It was the "success" of the March 2005 "Tulip Revolution" that motivated Akramiya -- an offshoot of Hizb ut-Tahrir in Uzbekistn -- to attempt a "colour revolution" of its own. In May 2005, Akramiya organised a peaceful rally for justice in Andijan, in the Fergana Valley in Uzbekistan, which it then used as a cover for its violent coup d'etat attempt. When the security forces arrived to contend with the armed Islamic revolutionaries who had set fire to the court house and jail, killing guards and releasing prisoners, the militants, in an act of unspeakable betrayal and evil, used peaceful protestors as human shields, guaranteeing a high civilian death toll. While the Islamists failed to topple the government, they scored a major propaganda coup when the West, which was all too quick and eager to swallow the Islamist deception wholesale, reacted with strong one-sided condemnation of and sanctions against the Uzbek authorities.
Uzbekistan, believing its ally in the War on Terror had abandoned it, withdrew from Western rapprochement and assumed an anti-West and anti-Protestant stance. The break down in Uzbekistan-West relations had negative consequences on religious liberty. Years of slow but certain religious liberty reform were instantly undone and severe persecution returned. (For full background and analysis, see Link 3.)
Meanwhile in Kyrgystan, HuT has gone from strength to strength, popularised and empowered by escalating corruption and repression.
A "DECEPTIVE CALM" INDEED
On 14 August 2008, International Crisis Group (ICG) published a report entitled "Kyrgyzstan: A Deceptive Calm". (Link 4)
ICG describes a government lurching towards totalitarianism over a sidelined and increasingly apathetic opposition. ICG remarks: "A superficial calm has overtaken the usually boisterous political scene.
This calm may, however, prove deceptive, given worsening corruption, increasing disillusionment with politics and a series of major economic crises that could strike before year's end."
The ICG report goes to great lengths to paint a picture of Krygyzstan: a power-hungry government; rising HIV/AIDS due primarily to drug trafficking (from Afghanistan, through Osh to Russia and the West) and soaring drug addiction; growing north-south tensions; endemic and systematic corruption; looming food and energy crises; and widespread poverty -- around 40 percent of the population live below the poverty line while the standard "basket" of goods and commodities costs ten times the minimum wage. Yet, for all this excellent background, the ICG report makes not one single mention of Hizb ut-Tahrir -- or even "Islam".
On 1 October 2008, only six weeks after ICG reported on Kyrgyzstan's "deceptive calm", a reported 1000 Muslims rioted in the strongly Muslim southern Fergana Valley town of Nookat in Osh province.
(Whilst Kyrgyzstan's capital of Bishek and the rest of the north comprises largely Russiafied Kyrgyz, the south has a large ethnic Uzbek minority and is increasingly staunchly Muslim.)
Nookat Muslims had asked the local authorities to sponsor the Muslim community's Eid al Fitr celebrations -- which traditionally mark the end of Ramadan -- in the city centre. When the local authorities refused and offered a local sports stadium as an alternative venue, a riot ensued.
(Note: most human rights groups say "protest".)
With incitement from elements of Hizb ut-Tahrir, a reported 1000 Muslims rioted, throwing stones at police and smashing the windows and doors of the local government offices. Five police were injured and riot police had to be brought in from Osh city to disperse the mob with tear gas.
Numerous reports, including Kyrgyz ones, blame the riot on "government insensitivity" towards Muslim needs, as if destructive, violent rioting can ever be justified. (Link 5)
Thirty-two Uzbek and Kyrgyz Muslims, all reportedly members of Hizb ut-Tahrir, were arrested and subsequently charged with incitement to cause mass unrest, overthrow the authorities and create ethnic or religious strife. They were sentenced to long, harsh prison terms which advocates hope will be reduced upon appeal, particularly in the case of minors. (Link 6)
The local, provincial and central authorities should all have seen this coming. Indeed they should have spent the year preparing for Eid 2008, building relationships and negotiating, with the aim of marginalising HuT and circumventing a repeat of the debacle of Eid 2007.
In October 2007 Nookat's local authorities supported the community's Eid al Fitr celebrations in the town centre until it became clear that some 300 HuT members had "hijacked" the event.
Abdygany Aliev, head of the Nookat district administration told the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR): "At first, we welcomed the initiative to hold a big celebration of the Muslim feast. But Hizb-ut-Tahrir activists started using this event for their own ends."
According to IWPR: "Before the Eid festival, about 1,000 people signed a petition calling on the [secular] government to fund the celebrations, and also to pay for a new state school for girls who want to follow the Muslim dress code. Hizb-ut-Tahrir members told IWPR they helped with logistical arrangements for the party." (Link 7)
The Nookat authorities reacted to the HuT "hijacking" of the Eid event by moving in and cracking down harshly, disrupting the peaceful, joyous celebration; dispersing the crowds and confiscating equipment used in food preparation. Several of those arrested were severely beaten by police. IWPR reported: "Hizb-ut-Tahrir says the authorities' actions caused widespread discontent among Nookat residents, and the event transformed into a demonstration involving some 15,000 people." (Link 7)
The 1 October 2008 Nookat riot (especially when seen in the light of the October 2007 Eid al Fitr debacle) goes some way to explaining why the draconian Religion Law passed so easily through the parliament on 6 November 2008 and was subsequently signed into law by the President on 12 January 2009 despite protests from the "international" community.
While being profoundly short-sighted and self-defeating, increasing repression is just so much easier than dealing with complex systemic problems that require profound government reform.
PROTESTANTS CAUGHT IN THE LAW'S NET
There is little doubt that Kyrgyzstan's new repressive Religion Law is designed to curtail the very real and serious threat posed by an ascendant Hizb ut-Tahrir. According to Eurasianet, on 28 January 2008 Prime Minister Viktor Chudinov announced as much when ordered into action a plan to combat the "spread of religious extremism" over the next three years. The only group identified by name was the "religious extremist party Hizb-ut Tahrir". (Link 8)
However, not the Muslims nor the Russian Orthodox nor the government seems concerned that Protestants and other small religious groups, who do not threaten or harm anyone, are going to be unjustly and constitutionally caught up in the Law's net.
The situation is complicated by two other issues that need to be addressed in the context of religious liberty advocacy:
1) the adversarial and detrimental nature of "New Cold War" geopolitics combined with the complicity of the (Protestant) West in the so-called "Colour Revolutions" that have brought regime change (but not necessarily stability or improved governance) to several former-Soviet states;
2) the fact that the region's "traditional" religions -- state-approved "traditional" Islam and the Russian Orthodox Church -- are more interested in securing hegemony than supporting religious liberty or expressing solidarity with their brethren, whom they refuse to recognise as such.
The adversarial and detrimental nature of "New Cold War" geopolitics not only negatively impacts religious liberty, it also has a serious, detrimental effect of regional and global security. The Taliban has strangled NATO's primary supply-line into Afghanistan (Peshawar to Kabul/Bagram via the Khyber Pass). So NATO is now is seeking to establish a new supply-line coming into Afghanistan from Central Asia in the north. But Kyrgyzstan has just expelled the US from the Manas air base, not primarily because Kyrgyzstan is anti-American, but because it knew it could play Russia and the US against each other for its own gain. Russia won, not because it wants the Taliban to win in Afghanistan, but because it wants the US to negotiate with Russia on Russia's terms. The US may also have to consider making deals with Iran for the use of Chabahar port on the Persian Gulf. Meanwhile the Taliban are preparing a cataclysmic Spring offensive.
Local security is also threatened by a repression of religious liberty. So as to be clear to Kyrgyzstan's southern Muslims that a Sharia-enforcing Caliphate is not the solution, the government must provide solutions -- practical and ideological.
Whilst the Institute for War and Peace Reporting did blame the Noorkat riot on "official insensitivity" (instead of official negligence combined with Islamic belligerence), it did quote several analysts who understood that the government needs to do more to stop Islamic radicals channelling grass-roots discontent.
Among them was Miroslav Niazov, a former government official. "Niazov believes that support for Hizb ut Tahrir in Kyrgyzstan is growing not because people espouse radical ideologies, but because they are profoundly unhappy with government policies and lack of responsiveness."
Another was Kadyr Malikov, an academic who specialises in Islamic studies. According to Malikov, the government and its allies need to tackle Hizb ut-Tahrir head on by addressing the same issues that it highlights -- among them poverty -- and setting out arguments to counter its extreme views.
"Malikov said influential Muslim religious leaders had a large role to play in changing popular attitudes to Hizb ut-Tahrir. They must do more than talk, he said, recommending instead 'practical grassroots work to tackle poverty, supported by local government'. 'This conflict [in Nookat] is the first serious alarm-bell signalling a need to change the strategy and methods for countering Hizb ut-Tahrir,' he said." (Link 5)
Protestants too could have a part to play to play in this, but that would require complete religious liberty including the right to convert and the right to criticise or scrutinise religion.
Without profound reform, Krygyzstan will remain stuck in a destructive cycle that is destined to further popularise and empower HuT.
Such a scenario leaves all religious liberty advocates concerned that Kyrgyzstan's next "revolution" -- a virtual certainty unless there is reform -- might be the Islamic revolution HuT is seeking.
If HuT does make a serious attempt at Islamic revolution it could trigger civil war and regional jihad. If Islam is victorious then all hopes of religious liberty reform will be crushed for the foreseeable future.
These are critical, pivotal days for religious liberty and advocacy of good governance in Kyrgyzstan. It is possible that only a small window of opportunity remains.
1) KYRGYZSTAN: President's signing of restrictive Religion Law condemned By Felix Corley, Forum 18 News Service; 13 Jan 2009 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=1240
2) KYRGYZSTAN'S REVOLUTION: Be careful what you wish for.A EurasiaNet Commentary by Justin Burke, 25 March 2005 http://www.eurasianet.org/departments/insight/articles/eav032505.shtml***ALSO for more on the Tulip Revolution SEE:
The Tulip Revolution takes root
By Pepe Escobar 26 March 2005http://www.atimes.com/atimes/Central_Asia/GC26Ag03.html
3) Uzbekistan: a new wave of serious persecution may be just beginning WEA Religious Liberty News & Analysis 23 March 2007 http://www.worldevangelicals.org/news/article.htm?id=984&cat=main
4) Kyrgyzstan: A Deceptive Calm
Asia Briefing No.79, 14 August 2008http://www.crisisgroup.org/home/index.cfm?id=5627&CFID=58794820&CFTOKEN=16075927
5) Kyrgyzstan: Islamic Protest Sparked by Official Insensitivity Analysts say government needs to do more to stop Islamic radicals channelling grassroots discontent.
By Yrys Kadykeev in Bishkek (RCA No. 551, 14-Oct-08)http://www.iwpr.net/?p=rca&s=f&o=347137&apc_state=henfrca347131
6) Controversy Over Kyrgyz Protest Sentences Sentences of up to 20 years seen as warning to other protesters, rather than justice.
By Mirgul Akimova and Ayday Tokonova in Bishkek and Regina Kalpanazar in Osh. (RCA No. 558, 12-Dec-08)http://www.iwpr.net/index.php?apc_state=hen&s=o&o=l=EN&p=rca&s=f&o=348494
7) Islamic Group Quietly Builds Support in Kyrgyzstan Kyrgyz government seems to be unable to stop the growth of popular support for Hizb-ut-Tahrir in the south.By Abdumomun Mamaraimov in Jalalabad (RCA No. 516, 16-Nov-07) http://www.iwpr.net/?p=rca&s=f&o=340673&apc_state=henh
8) KYRGYZSTAN: New effort aggressively counters Hizb ut-Tahrir, religious extremism.
By Bruce Pannier, 15 Feb 2008
A EurasiaNet Partner Post from RFE/RLhttp://www.eurasianet.org/departments/insight/articles/pp021508.shtml -
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