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Women and Radicalisation in Kyrgyzstan
Women and Radicalisation in Kyrgyzstan
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
How Women’s Support Energises Somalia’s Al-Shabaab
How Women’s Support Energises Somalia’s Al-Shabaab
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

Podcast / Africa

How Women’s Support Energises Somalia’s Al-Shabaab

In this podcast, Horn of Africa expert Alan Boswell and Senior Analyst on Gender Azadeh Moaveni talk about Crisis Group’s field research on women’s roles within Somalia’s Al-Shabaab, and compare them to women’s roles with Nigeria’s Boko Haram and other Islamist groups.

Al-Shabaab has a surprisingly large social base among Somali women, despite the insurgent group’s patriarchal ethos, strict gender ideology and brutal methods. Horn of Africa expert Alan Boswell talks with our Senior Analyst on Gender Azadeh Moaveni about Crisis Group’s field research on women’s roles within the movement, from intelligence gathering, to fundraising, to arms carrying and to recruitment. She also draws on Crisis Group recent work in northeastern Nigeria and Syria.

Horn of Africa expert Alan Boswell talks with our Senior Analyst on Gender Azadeh Moaveni about women’s roles within Al-Shabaab. CRISISGROUP