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    Central Asia
     May 12, 2005
SPEAKING FREELY
Kyrgyzstan curse
By Swati Parashar

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing.

NEW DELHI - What would be the impact, if any, of the recent crisis in Kyrgyzstan in Central Asia - that resulted in the overthrow of the government of Askar Akayev - on the growth of religious extremism in Central Asia in general and in Kyrgyzstan in particular?

Kyrgyzstan on the strategic map
With a population of about 5 million, Kyrgyzstan is a country of nomadic Sunni Muslims. It is a poor country lacking in energy resources or mineral deposits, but has been an important strategic ally of the United States and Russia.

Post September 11, it was Kyrgyzstan that provided the much needed air base that the US was looking for to assist in its Afghan campaign. About 1,500 US, French and South Korean coalition troops are stationed at a base near Bishkek. Russia, too, has a base in Kyrgyzstan and there has been considerable public agitation within the country against American imperialism and what many perceive as Islamophobia of the West.

The events in Kyrgyzstan have once again brought the Hizbut Tehrir, (HT), an Islamic movement that has a worldwide presence and network, under close scrutiny by the international community. After its initial religious and political activities in the Middle East, the HT today has a visible presence in Central Asia. With its aim of uniting all Muslims of the world under what it projects as a perfect Islamic caliphate, the HT perceives ample opportunities for its growth and the realization of its final vision in the Muslim-dominated and politically and economically unstable states of Central Asia.

The HT initially began its activism in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan and established itself strongly in the Ferghana Valley. It is banned in several countries, including states in Central Asia, and the governments there have arrested and detained several of its members. Today it is a potent political and religious force in all the Central Asian states, barring Turkmenistan.

The HT is of concern in any analysis of the present Kyrgyz crisis, for several reasons. The anti-government propaganda of the HT might have had some contribution to the public uprising against the Akayev government. We must bear in mind that conditions in other Central Asian states are worse and public resentment is high against these governments. In fact, Akayev, the first president to face the wrath of the people, was relatively more liberal and responsive. HT activities in Kyrgyzstan are concentrated in the southern part of the country, in and around the Kyrgyz-controlled part of the Ferghana Valley. HT members are especially active in the Osh region and about 20 loyalists were arrested there in 2002.

In an interview given to the Jamestown Foundation in March 2004, Sadykzhan Kamuluddin (Kamalov), president of the Islamic Center of the Republic of Kyrgyzstan and former mufti and member of the Kyrgyzstan Supreme Council, asserted that Kyrgyzstan alone had about 2,000-3,000 members of the HT, suggesting that the HT was numerically strongest in Kyrgyzstan. He claimed that the government was unwittingly assisting the HT in its propaganda by imprisoning and persecuting members of the party. In fact, the head of the Committee of National Security in Kyrgyzstan stated in early 2004 that the HT was a prominent force in the struggle for power.

Apart from carrying out political agitation in the Kyrgyz state, the HT has also been accused of terrorist activities, although it has a stated agenda of non-violence. In November 2003, Kyrgyz State Security announced the capture of three HT members planning to blow up the US airbase at Manas. A number of Kyrgyz nationals have been caught as members of the HT with explosives in Russia. Bishkek authorities have also reported from time to time about developing links between the extremist organizations like the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and the Islamic Movement of Turkestan (IMT) in Central Asia and the HT and between the East Turkistan Islamic Movement and other Uighur separatist groups and the HT.

Along with the HT, radical Islamist organizations like the IMT and IMU have also had a visible presence in Kyrgyzstan. IMU militants have been infiltrating the Kyrgyz state in the southern region of Batken since 1999, causing a lot of disturbances in the country. The 2002-2003 bombings in the Kyrgyz towns of Bishkek and Osh resulted in the conviction of Uzbek and Kyrgyz nationals who belonged to the IMU/IMT and who were trained in Afghanistan and Chechnya. In 2003, repeated attempts were made by the IMU to target the American Embassy in Kyrgyzstan.

Thus, affected by the political activism of the HT and terrorist activities by other radical groups, Kyrgyzstan has been a fertile ground for the growth of fundamentalist Islam. Mosque building and madrassa (seminary) activities in Kyrgyzstan allegedly receive financial aid not only from other Central Asian states, but also from Pakistan.

The government of Akayev had taken several measures to control the spread of radical ideas. One was the adoption of a strict licensing system regulating the publication of religious printed matter, by the Ulema Council, Kyrgyzstan's foremost spiritual body for Islamic affairs. A number of other regulations were also passed by the Kyrgyz State Commission for Religious Affairs to govern religious expression and counter radical elements.

But it must be pointed out that since the breakup of the Soviet Union, it is Kyrgyzstan among the five Central Asian republics that has adopted the most liberal approach toward Islamic fundamentalist organizations, and even the HT has been relatively free to pursue its activities. However, in the light of the present political crisis, Kyrgyzstan could either fall into the hands of radical Islamic elements or the liberal approach could undergo a change resulting in more repressive policies and rigorous control by the new regime, which could aggravate the internal situation.

Implications
The recent developments should be a cause for concern to the countries of the region. The biggest threat in the medium and long term is perhaps the likely strengthening of fundamentalist forces either led by the HT or by the IMT or the IMU, which have a tradition of engaging in violent activities. A fundamentalist takeover of a country in Central Asia long visualized by Islamic radical forces like the HT and the IMU would be a big blow to the so-called "war on terror" led by the US and its allies. Central Asia's vast energy resources may become targets of attack and similar uprisings might be instigated in other Central Asian republics, thereby destabilizing the region. Intensified activities of the IMU and the HT in Central Asia will also have an impact on other parts of Asia.

Kyrgyzstan also faces a threat from Uighur separatists from the Xinjiang region in western China, who may seize this opportunity and strengthen themselves in Kyrgyz territory. China shares several hundreds of kilometers of border with Kyrgyzstan in the western province of Xinjiang and both China and the Kyrgyz government of Akayev had been actively involved in anti-terrorism exercises and anti-terrorism cooperation. How effective the counter-terrorism policies of the new government and its cooperation with China will be remains to be seen.

Conclusion
The public uprising against Akayev's government in Kyrgyzstan, if studied closely in the wake of some recent developments, should not come as a surprise. Opposition to the government was growing in the last two years and was supported by the mainstream political opponents of Akayev and radical Islamists like the HT, each with a different motive. A series of protests had been taking place since 2002, the most notable being riots in the Jalalabad region in southern Kyrgyzstan that had even led to several deaths. Several HT activists were taken into custody.

It would be only speculative to claim that Akayev paid the price for his leniency toward radical elements and political opposition, and that more stringent control over dissenting voices as practiced by other Central Asian regimes like Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan might have helped him retain power. It is perhaps only a matter of time before other governments also meet a similar fate as public resentment is rife in all Central Asian republics.

Kyrgyzstan is at the crossroads. There are two possible scenarios. It can either be the first state in Central Asia to be hijacked by radical forces led by the HT, and can plunge into political instability and civil conflict, or the opposition forces can use this opportunity to build a stable and secular republic which could be a role model in the region.

Swati Parashar is a research associate with the International Terrorism Watch Project of the Observer Research Foundation. She is based in New Delhi. Email address swatiparashar@orfonline.org

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing.

(Copyright 2005, Swati Parashar)



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