Women and Radicalisation in Kyrgyzstan
Women and Radicalisation in Kyrgyzstan
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Opportunities and Challenges Await Kyrgyzstan’s Incoming President
Opportunities and Challenges Await Kyrgyzstan’s Incoming President
Report 176 / Europe & Central Asia

Women and Radicalisation in Kyrgyzstan

Kyrgyzstan’s in­creasingly authoritarian government is adopting a counter-productive approach to the country’s growing radicalisation.

Executive Summary

Kyrgyzstan’s in­creasingly authoritarian government is adopting a counter-productive approach to the country’s growing radicalisation. Instead of tackling the root causes of a phenomenon that has seen increasing numbers, including many women, joining groups such as Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT), it is resorting to heavy-handed police methods that risk pushing yet more Kyrgyz towards radicalism. The authorities view HT, which describes itself as a revolutionary party that aims to restore by peace­ful means the caliphate that once ruled the Mus­lim world, as a major security threat. But for some men and ever more women, it offers a sense of identity and belonging, solutions to the day-to-day failings of the society they live in, and an alternative to what they widely view as the Western-style social model that prevails in Kyrgyzstan. Without a major effort to tackle endemic corruption and economic failure, radical ranks are likely to swell, while repression may push at least some HT members into violence. This report focuses pri­marily on the increasingly important role that women are playing in the movement.

HT is banned in Kyrgyzstan and operates clandestinely. There are no accurate membership figures. It may have up to 8,000 members, perhaps 800 to 2,000 of them women. To join, individuals participate in formalised training, take examinations, an oath of loyalty and pledge to recruit others. But while HT’s membership is still small, support for it in the wider population is growing.

In post-Soviet Kyrgyzstan, where many have responded to 70 years of atheism by embracing religion, HT’s un­compromising Islamic message has gained considerable acceptance. Women, especially those living in rural or con­ser­vative areas where traditional gender norms pre­vail, turn to HT to find meaning in their restricted social roles. The party’s activists regard the growth in those who count as sympathisers if not actual members as a critical component of a long-term strategy – a currently quiescent element of society that would be ready accept a caliphate once it begins to take form.

There are limits to HT’s expansion. In other countries, HT has sought to function as an elite organisation, not a mass movement based in the poorer sectors of the society, and there is no clear sign that the Kyrgyz party has as yet been able to substantially expand its appeal to the educated, middle class, either male or female. The degree to which it has spread from its original, pre­dominantly Uzbek, base in the south into the majority ethnic Kyrgyz community in the north is unclear. And HT’s restrictive view of women’s roles in an avowedly revolutionary party could well limit its growth among female sympathisers who may be deeply critical of the regime but unwilling to abandon the freedoms they enjoy in a secular society.

The government hardened its position on Islamist groups following an October 2008 protest in Nookat, prose­cu­ting and imprisoning a number of HT members, in­clud­ing two women. Officials justify their response to the incident by saying that HT had become too militant in its challenge to the state and had to be taught a lesson. They insist that energetic police action is coupled with political dialogue with believers. In fact, however, secu­rity methods prevail. Civilian elements of the govern­ment tasked with reaching out to the religious com­mu­nity take at best a distant, secondary part. They are either too inefficient and uncoordinated, or simply reluctant to do anything that impinges on the responsibilities of the powerful security establishment.

A policy based on repression will play into HT’s hands and may even accelerate its recruitment. HT has a sophisticated political organisation that resembles that of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and even, to a degree, successful communist undergrounds. It thrives on the perception of social injustice, economic collapse and repression. It views prison as the ultimate test of party resolve and will regard a crackdown as an opportunity to provide new martyrs and draw new recruits. Women, whether presently members themselves or not but whose husbands are arrested, may feel compelled to assume a more public role in petitioning authorities.

Despite the pro­­­­minent role they played in the Nookat protest, the government has not implemented policies aimed specifically at discouraging women from joining HT. Kyr­gyzstan’s progressive legislation on gender equality and its quotas for women representatives in government have little impact on the lives of those most likely to join HT. Religious women in particular feel that women in government do not represent their views, because most are proponents of secularism. Non-govern­men­tal organisations (NGOs) are not reaching out to such women. They suffer from a lack of credibility with religious women and feel compelled to concentrate on projects they can secure funding for from donors rather than grassroot initiatives such as helping mothers by providing after-school programs for young children – something HT does for its women members.

The only effective long-term strategy is political. For this, however, Kyrgyzstan – and its neighbours in Central Asia, all of whom face similar problems – needs to take serious steps to eradicate systemic corruption and improve living conditions. Economic crisis and rigged elections strengthen HT’s appeal to those who feel socially and politically dispossessed and buttress its argument that Western democracy and capitalism are morally and practically flawed. All states in the region need also to differentiate between a political struggle against HT and the desire of large segments of their societies to demonstrate renewed religious faith by adopting some traditional attributes of Islam – beards in the case of men, for example, and headscarves for women. As Central Asia becomes a major supply route for NATO’s expanded war in Afghanistan, Western powers with an increased interest in the region’s stability should caution against repressive policies.

Bishkek/Brussels, 3 September 2009

Presidential candidate Sooronbai Jeenbekov casts his ballot at a polling station during the presidential election in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan October 15, 2017. REUTERS/Vladimir Pirogov

Opportunities and Challenges Await Kyrgyzstan’s Incoming President

The inauguration of Kyrgyzstan’s new president on 24 November is a tribute to the country’s parliamentary democracy. But to overcome continued vulnerability, Sooronbai Jeenbekov must manage powerful southern elites, define the role of religion in society and spearhead reconciliation with Central Asian neighbours Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

Sooronbai Jeenbekov will be inaugurated as Kyrgyzstan’s fifth president on 24 November, the victor of a tight, unpredictable, contested but ultimately legitimate election. The new leader, a loyal member of the ruling Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan (SDPK), won 54 per cent of the vote and gained a majority in every province but Chui and Talas – the home territory of the defeated main opposition candidate Omurbek Babanov.

As president, Jeenbekov will face a number of challenges and opportunities, both at home and in Central Asia. The state Committee for National Security (GKNB) on 4 November opened an investigation against Babanov for inciting ethnic hatred based on a speech he made on 28 September in an ethnic-Uzbek area of Osh, a city in southern Kyrgyzstan’s Ferghana Valley. Babanov called on Uzbeks to defend their rights and for any Kyrgyz police officers who harassed Uzbeks to be dismissed. Some observers see the GKNB case as politically motivated.

While tensions remain high in Osh, the epicentre of violent ethnic clashes that left 400 mostly Uzbeks dead in June 2010, unrest could also occur elsewhere. Babanov travelled abroad after the campaign, but if he returns he could be arrested at the airport, raising the possibility of protests in his stronghold of Talas, a city 300km west of Bishkek. His arrest and trial would undermine Kyrgyzstan’s international credibility, lay bare the politicisation of the security services and the judiciary, and show unwillingness to tackle deep-seated inter-ethnic issues in the south.

While tensions remain high in Osh, the epicentre of violent ethnic clashes that left 400 mostly Uzbeks dead in June 2010, unrest could also occur elsewhere.

Former President Almazbek Atambayev, also from the SDPK, was sometimes unpredictable but managed to balance competing regional and business interests inside Kyrgyzstan, key factors in the ousting of Presidents Kurmanbek Bakiev in 2010 and Askar Akayev in 2005. Jeenbekov will have to replicate this balancing act and make a strategic decision whether or not to reestablish central government control in Osh, which operates like a fiefdom. The latter risks upsetting heavy-weight figures in the south with vested interests, but in the long term, a failure to do so will perpetuate internal political tensions.

The new president will also have the opportunity to shape the debate about the role of religion in society. For too long – and much like other Central Asian states – Kyrgyzstan has overly securitised its response to those practicing non-traditional forms of Islam, creating tensions and resentments, while politicians leading a secular state make public displays of piety integral to their political personas. Kyrgyzstan is widely perceived as an easy target for terrorist activity, as the August 2016 attack on the Chinese embassy demonstrated. It will be essential to find a balance between assessing what are real risks and what are questions of religious freedoms and civil rights.

As soon as he takes office, Jeenbekov should make every effort to repair Kyrgyzstan’s relationship with Kazakhstan, which deteriorated spectacularly after President Atambayev accused Astana of meddling in the Kyrgyz presidential election to bolster Babanov. Astana responded by introducing strict customs controls on the Kyrgyz-Kazakh border citing concerns about Chinese goods being smuggled through Kyrgyzstan. The disruption on the border is negatively affecting Kyrgyzstan’s economy and Kyrgyzstan has complained to the World Trade Organization and to the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union, a trade bloc of which Kazakhstan is a founding member. Russia has so far failed to make any meaningful comment on the standoff.

The degree to which Kazakhstan is motivated by anger at Atambayev or genuine concerns about cross-border smuggling is unclear. Still, it will fall to Jeenbekov to spearhead a reconciliation. How open-minded Kazakhstan will be to resolving the spat will also depend on whether or not they see Jeenbekov as a strong, independent leader or merely Atambayev’s puppet.

There is now scope to improve relations with Uzbekistan in a way that was unimaginable before President Shavkat Mirziyoyev took office in December 2016. Much of the initiative is coming from the Uzbek side but the amount of progress made between the two states is remarkable. Regional cooperation, in the long term, will foster stability in Central Asia and Kyrgyzstan can play a leading role in both practicing and promoting the type of cooperation that defuses tensions in border areas and over shared resources such as water and energy. By doing so Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan can provide a model of collaboration and peacebuilding in the region.

Having been the first country in Central Asia to see a president voluntarily leave his post at the end of his constitutionally mandated term, Kyrgyzstan is in many respects light years ahead of its neighbours.

Kyrgyzstan is still a young parliamentary democracy in a difficult neighbourhood. If Jeenbekov is to continue Atambayev’s program of fighting corruption, efforts need to extend beyond targeting the SDPK’s political opponents. Kyrgyzstan and its partners should begin to address how corruption in politics can be tackled. Beyond the technical success of casting votes electronically, there are many opportunities for illegal practices. Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) election observers said the presidential elections were legitimate, but local concerns focus on arrests of opposition figures, vote buying and the misuse of administrative resources.

Having been the first country in Central Asia to see a president voluntarily leave his post at the end of his constitutionally mandated term, Kyrgyzstan is in many respects light years ahead of its neighbours. Tajikistan could be facing a potentially destabilising transition in 2020, and Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev, 77, cannot hold power forever. Any regional stress will be quickly felt in Bishkek, another reason that Jeenbekov should focus on bolstering Kyrgyzstan’s long-term stability while the situation is calm.

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