Jury Out on Kyrgyz Islamists

Little consensus on whether group claiming to want to improve Islamic education poses a danger.

Jury Out on Kyrgyz Islamists

Little consensus on whether group claiming to want to improve Islamic education poses a danger.

While some have welcomed the attempts of an Islamic group to recruit new members in southern Kyrgyzstan, others view it as a nuisance and a potential security threat.

People in southern Kyrgyzstan are annoyed at a growing campaign by religious organisation Dawat-e-Islami (Invitation to Islam) to recruit more supporters by approaching people in the street and calling at their houses.

Critics of the group say its members, who are mainly Kyrgyz from the north of Kyrgyzstan, pose a threat to security in the south and accuse them of preaching without a solid knowledge of Islam.

However, others say that Dawatists - who view their mission as educating people about the life of the Prophet Mohammed - have been a unifying force between the north and south of the country and have encouraged people to become more devout.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the densely populated region of southern Kyrgyzstan has been targeted by Islamic groups, such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, IMU, and Hizb ut-Tahrir.

The IMU, a home-grown militant group, made armed incursions in 1999 and 2000 into southern Kyrgyzstan in an attempt to cross into Uzbek territory. Hizb ut-Tahrir is a radical political organisation, with an international presence, whose long-term aim to unite all Muslim countries in a pan Islamic state or caliphate.

The political aspirations of these groups alarmed the authorities, prompting them to ban both.

The IMU declared its political aim was to overthrow Uzbek president Islam Karimov’s secular regime. Hizb-ut-Tahrir members reject violence, but proclaimed their immediate goal as setting up an Islamic state in Fergana valley.

Although the influence of the IMU seems to have faded following the 2001 US-led invasion of Afghanistan where the group was based, Hizb ut-Tahrir still enjoys strong support. While its main base is now in Western Europe, it still has large followings in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. Most of its members are thought to be ethnic Uzbeks.

Dawat-e-Islami stands apart from these movements as it was brought into the country by Pakistani missionaries. It took roots in the north, where the population is predominantly Kyrgyz, and where religion is less conspicuous than in the south - which has a substantial Uzbek community. It is thought to have a presence in around 60 countries.

The authorities are concerned that Dawat-e-Islami represents a security threat, after hearing reports that some members had trained abroad.

According to the head of public relations at Jalalabad regional administration Orozaly Karasartov, “Many of them [Dawat-e-Islami followers] have had training in extremist organisations based in Pakistan.”

He told IWPR that some parents have complained to the authorities that followers of the organisation recruited children against the will of their parents.

Kadyrbek Bechelov, head of the department for defence, security and liaison with law enforcement bodies at the Jalalabad regional administration, said it was important not to label all Dawat-e-Islami members as a security threat, as this could harm its genuinely devout members.

But he added that “there are elements among them who use cover of Dawat-e-Islami to pursue their own suspect aims of an extremist nature”.

Law enforcement agencies suspect that followers of the group are financed from abroad and have political goals in the region, but so far there is no evidence to support this claim.

None of the organisations IWPR turned to for information - including the local administration, the state agency for religious affairs and local religious bodies - was able to give approximate numbers of Dawat-e-Islami members.

Whatever their numbers, the organisation’s followers seem intent on expanding their group in a campaign which is not going down well with locals.

Jalalabad mayor Duishonaly Mamasaliev said he recently confronted Dawat-e-Islami members.

“Following complaints from the locals, I told them that we value peace and quiet in the region and they disturb it. Locals complained that people with long beards and unusual clothes worry them and asked the authorities to take measures,” he said.

Until recently, Dawat-e-Islami followers looked for recruits at small mosques. Now they also target larger ones, going there after evening prayer to invite people to their meetings, to discuss ideas and compile lists of those who say they want to join.

According to Abibulla Bapanov, leader of the religious body Uniting Muslims of the Jalalabad Region, spreading the word of Islam as preached by Mohammed is the duty of every Muslim.

In his view, “Muslims must not only follow the Koran…but also call other people to respect and follow [it].”

Leader of the Association of Pilgrims in Aravan district Shavkatbek Sabirov said that some people turned to the group because they had been let down by local religious leaders.

“Local imams do not take their duties seriously. Therefore, a lot of people believe and follow Dawat-e-Islami members,” he said.

“We cannot stop the influence of Dawat-e-Islami. [Its growing ranks] may be used by destructive forces.”

But many Muslims resent what they see as the attempts of the organisation to preach to the converted.

According to a Jalalabad resident, who gave his name as Abdullo Kaji, “Why knock on my door if I am already a mosque-goer? They should bring religion to those who are alcoholics or convert to other [non-Muslim] religions or those who do not pray.”

Locals say there is no need for proselytising in their part of the country where Islam - the main religion in Kyrgyzstan - is well established.

“Even during the communist regime there was a mosque in our village, where all Muslims from nearby places, including visitors from neighbouring Uzbekistan, used to gather. Islam has deep roots here. Therefore, preaching by semi-educated Dawat-e-Islami followers and their dirty, awkward clothes only irritates our Muslims,” explained Sabirov.

Abdulhamid Umarov, a 67-year-old resident of the Osh region in south-western Kyrgyzstan, agrees.

“We don’t need anyone to teach us [about religion]. Kyrgyz took Islam from the Uzbeks, and learned the Koran in the Uzbek language. We don’t like it when semi-educated young people with unkempt appearances try to preach us canons of Islam,” he said.

Another Jalalabad resident, university professor Ulugbek Abdusalamov, says Dawat-e-Islami members know little about the religion they spend their time preaching. His concern is that a superficial knowledge of Islam can lead to misinterpretation of the Koran.

“Partial knowledge [of Islam] by uneducated people can bread fanaticism. It can take people away from reality. Surah [chapters] from the Koran should be explained in the general context of the holy book. Dawat-e-Islami followers should represent a real Islamic culture and not go around in dirty clothes and with long beards,” he said.

Governor of Aravan district Shamil Artykov pointed out that not all Dawat-e-Islami followers are ill-informed, “There are good [religious] experts among them who understand and correctly interpret the principles of the religion.”

He added that the only way to protect people from uneducated preachers is to ensure that only acknowledged Muslim bodies conduct religious education, working closely with educated and established religious figures.

One of the group’s leaders in Jalalalabad, who gave his name as Bakyt, admitted that there were shortcomings with the quality of some Dawat-e-Islami preachers, saying it was impossible to control them all.

A vetting system is used to check new members, he said.

“We check all prospective Dawat-e-Islami members and find out whether they have financial means so that his family can survive while he is on a mission. We check whether they have necessary knowledge,” he said.

Bakyt, who studied for nine years at a university in Pakistan and knows Arabic, Hindi, Kyrgyz and Uzbek, rejected claims that Dawat-e-Islami followers have political aspirations, “Even if someone offered me the post of a governor I won’t accept it, because I wouldn’t want to.”

He dismissed critics of the group as “enemies of Islam enemies who fear the most effective way of spreading Islam”.

Other Dawat-e-Islami members interviewed for this report were cautious and asked not to be named, but mostly came across as being open, friendly and not aggressive.

One person interviewed in Jalalabad mosque said that words are inadequate to describe the experience of a follower of Dawat-e-Islami.

“You have to be able to think it through, to live it through. For example, I can’t describe the taste of honey. You have to taste it. Our preaching is the same,” he said.

Not everyone sees Dawat-e-Islami-e-Islami as a negative force.

Some point out that a steady stream of Dawat-e-Islami members to the south has helped to develop closer links between the north and south of the country and also between Kyrgyz and the sizable Uzbek minority in southern Kyrgyzstan.

“Before Kyrgyz from the south could barely understand the way the northerners speak,” said Bapanov. “Now Dawat-e-Islami members from the north not only understand us but also Uzbeks.”

A representative of the mosque in the village of Chotal in Issykul region, who gave his name as Abdulhamid, also said the group’s influence in the northern regions has been positive.

Since 1996, when government tightened its religious legislation and many Pakistani missionaries left the country the group has been run by local Kyrgyz.

“Over this period, thanks to this group, people have got closer to Islam, many stopped drinking alcohol and use drugs, and started look for jobs to support their families,” said Abdulhamid. “Previously, they used to sell everything from home to buy alcohol.”

Abdumomun Mamaraimov is an IWPR contributor in Kyrgyzstan.

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