Kyrgyzstan’s President Sooronbay Jeenbekov has called on citizens to ensure that education in the country remains secular, citing the constitutional principle of compulsory basic education.
At present, Kyrgyzstan has over 110 religious institutions – mostly medressas and Islamic colleges plus one Islamic university, but there are also 13 recorded Christian schools. This is a tiny fraction of the total number of public schools and universities in the country: there are over 2,000 schools, more than 200 colleges and 34 state universities for Kyrgyzstan’s six million strong population.
So why the concern? There are clearly enough secular schools and universities to go around.
The worry expressed by the head of state stems from the revival of Islam in Kyrgyzstan since the country obtained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 and the concern that this could lead to extremism.
Professor Almazbek Akmataliyev has observed that the rapid expansion of Islamic education in the country is not only connected to the ending of communist-era clampdowns on religion but also results from an influx of foreign funding. Coming from other Muslim states – mainly the rich Arab region nations – this cash has been used to build mosques and support education. This is something I have also heard reflected in comments made to me by people I know in the country.
Professor Akmataliyev also points to the lack of state intervention in religion in the early years of independence in the 1990s as a factor that allowed Islam to spread through the country. His views are backed up by fellow academics Emil Nasritdinov and Nurgul Esenamanova. Writing in the journal Central Asian Affairs, they found that the revival of Islam in the 1990s was marked among women, and this identity is increasingly commonly visually asserted through the number of women in the capital city who now choose to wear a hijab.
After recovering from a hiatus in control in the 1990s, the government of Kyrgyzstan has been more active in responding to the growth of religion and its impact on education. However, as an OSCE report on religious freedom in Kyrgyzstan published in 2013 found:
Educational programs and training programs do not pay enough attention to nurturing of respect for religious diversity and tolerance. Publication of religious studies materials and textbooks should remain neutral and give equal treatment to different religious groups operating in the territory of the Kyrgyz Republic in accordance with national legislation. (Source: OSCE 2013, p. 28)
By the time Jeenbekov came to power in late 2017, Human Rights Without Frontiers observed that:
The Kyrgyz Republic, led by a new President, is at a cross-road, either to restrict the religious freedom of all faiths in the name of security and the fight against violent Islamic groups, or to open the space of religious freedom for all peaceful movements whilst educating their youth about religion in a spirit of tolerance and fighting any initiative inciting to violence. (Source: HRWF)
Speaking at the 2018 ‘Islam in a Modern Secular State‘ conference (launched by Jeenbekov’s predecessor as an annual conference in 2017), Jeenbekov called on the one hand for tolerance towards all religions but on the other hand, pointed to the need for the state to get involved:
We need to create new forms of relationship between religion and the state to ensure peace, order in society and inter-ethnic harmony. (Source: 24.kg)
This was connected to religious education which, according to the President, should ‘correspond to the future development of our society’ (Source: 24.kg).
And that brings us back to the President’s recent call for secularism in the classroom. Since the 2000s (if not the late 1990s), the Kyrgyz state has decided that religion is not something to be left alone – tolerance of all faiths and none is to be aided and abetted by the government. By extending this to the state education system, the government runs the risk of marginalizing those who choose to follow a religious faith and politicizing religion, which is surely a shortcut to the very intolerance the President would like to prevent…
Not content with demanding its nationals return home from studying abroad, reports are circulating [ru] that the government of Tajikistan is now regularly monitoring these former students.
Despite international borders opening for Tajiks since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Tajik government appears to be doing its best to close down opportunities for travel – for some citizens, at least. Since 2010, officials have been ‘encouraging’ students enrolled in courses related to Islam in other Islamic countries to abandon their studies and come back to Tajikistan.
Around 3,000 students have returned from Islamic universities and madrassahs in Afghanistan, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Syria and Yemen. No one really knows how many students remain abroad or how many have managed to get around the travel restrictions since they were introduced, but there were suggestions back in 2010 that there were around 4,000 Tajiks studying in Pakistan alone.
The government’s stated reason for returning these students home is the risk that they will be radicalized abroad. The directive is in line with other steps that have been taken to try and limit the growing popularity/resurgence of Islam in Tajikistan. Such measures have included restrictions on clothing and personal appearance (in short: hijab or beard – bad, suit and tie – good), age limits on mosque attendance and asserting control over who is permitted to provide Islamic education.
Yet the risk identified by the government appears to be unfounded: whilst there is evidence that a small number of Tajik nationals have joined ISIS and/or travelled to Syria and Iraq, Central Asian security expert Edward Lemon has cogently argued that the perceived threat should not be over-estimated.
Nevertheless, the state continues to pursue those who made the choice to follow instructions and return home from their study abroad. In January 2019, Radio Ozodi (Liberty) reported [ru] that these former religious studies students are now obliged to report to their local office of the Ministry of Internal Affairs twice a year for ‘registration and an interview’.
The purpose of these twice yearly meetings is to establish that the former student is still living in the same place i.e. has not gone back abroad. A number of former students explained that they are also being asked by local officials what the purpose of their study abroad was, what they are currently doing, and who they are friends with.
Human rights activists have pointed out that the rights of these former students are being violated [ru] on the presumption that they remain innocent until and if proven otherwise.
Yet all the evidence points to the government taking little heed of these warnings. Rather, it is likely to continue poking away at citizens’ ability to freely express themselves, to learn and to practice religion, to wear what they want and go where they want. And perhaps frustration and dissatisfaction with that is what might in the end cause people to take a path towards radicalization – not a handful of Islamic studies students.
Earlier this week, Central Asia had a rare but inglorious moment in the news headlines after an Uzbek born man was found to be behind an attempt at a “terror” attack in New York City.
For those unfamiliar with the region or with the complexities of global religious extremism, this event was quickly reduced to a narrative along the lines of “Central Asia is a hotbed for terrorism”.
This is far from what life really looks like on the ground in Central Asia, as anyone who lives there can tell you.
In light of this week’s tragedy in the US, some excellent articles and news stories from journalists and researchers of the region have also attempted to combat this myth. Links to my must-read/watch reports in English can be found below.
We must also remember that what happened this week arose from the choices made by this one man who, as far as we know, acted alone and was drawn to extreme religion only after moving to the US. This could not possibly be representative of the 70 million people who live in Uzbekistan and the other countries of Central Asia.
The “terrorism” and “religious extremism” discourses are not confined to US domestic politics.
Back in Central Asia, the Tajik government issued a ruling on November 3 that will ban imams who studied religion overseas from preaching in Tajikistan’s mosques [ru].
Ostensibly, this is because some of these imams not only studied at “illegal” foreign universities and institutions, but they did so in order to “use the platform of the mosque to commit crime”.
Over the past two years, a number of foreign educated imams have already been identified and prosecuted for following the ideas of the Egypt-born Islamic group the Muslim Brotherhood [en], which is seen by some states as a “terrorist organization”.
According to the Tajik government, over 3,500 of its citizens have studied or are currently abroad studying for an illegal religious education (how it knows this and how it decides what makes the education “illegal” is not clear). The government claims that the majority have already been returned to Tajikistan, presumably to face either the same fate as those imams already behind bars or to be prevented from further dabbling in unaccepted forms of Islam.
This is far from the first time that Tajikistan has cracked down on religion.
In 2010, the government recalled all students who were studying in Egypt in a “bid to prevent radicalisation” [en].
Five years later, a new state-sanctioned Islamic university was established [en] in the capital Dushanbe – giving the state a sanctioned route to manage who receives religious education, what they learn, and so on.
Perhaps the state’s most well-known intervention in religious matters was the farcical (and ongoing) clampdown on men wearing beards, which even became the subject of a sadly ill-informed BBC “documentary” on Tajikistan earlier in 2017.
Whilst it is unlikely that a direct connection can be drawn between this week’s two news stories, the actions of one former Central Asian national in the US and the Tajik state’s decision to ban foreign educated mullahs, one thing is clear.
Terrorism and religious extremism – and here we are talking exclusively about Islamic religious extremism – have become firmly established in state discourses amongst the 21st century’s biggest threats to global peace.
The way that different states deal with and talk about terrorism and religious extremism of course varies, but the message is always the same: These people have somehow become radicalized, this is a Very Bad Thing, and we must put an end to terrorism before it overwhelms our society.
In the US this week, the government’s response to events in New York has been to seek to restrict the Green Card lottery and impose “extreme vetting” of immigrants to make it harder for some foreign nationals to get in to the US.
In Tajikistan, meanwhile, the state’s November 3 declaration aims to make it harder for people to get out of the country and be exposed to what are seen as illegitimate and extreme forms of religion elsewhere.
The perceived solution to the twin threats of terrorism and religious extremism is thus to control borders – but how can this work in a world where ideas, if not people, can be communicated in ways and at speeds that defy any physical border controls?
Until states start to address both the domestic conditions that lead to terrorism and radicalization and begin to work collectively to address the global conditions of today’s world, no amount of border controls or fiery proclamations about terrorism are going to make any difference at all.
My top four reports on Uzbekistan, migration and radicalization, New York and its aftermath:
- Abdujalil Abdurasulov, a BBC reporter originally from Central Asia, on why Uzbek migrants are being radicalized: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-41834729
- Marlene Laruelle of George Washington University for Foreign Affairs making it quite clear that Uzbekistan does not export terrorists: https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/uzbekistan/2017-11-01/paradox-uzbek-terror [registration required]
- Steve Swerdlow of Human Rights Watch and Edward Lemon of Columbia University talking with online independent news show Democracy Now: https://www.democracynow.org/2017/11/2/experts_uzbekistan_hosted_cia_black_sites
- Bruce Pannier, an extremely knowledgeable and experienced journalist, on thirty years of putting his fate in the hands of Central Asians and becoming a better person because of it: https://www.rferl.org/a/qishloq-ovozi-burhan-beg-of-central-asia/28831820.html