Kyrgyzstan: Islamic Protest Sparked by Official Insensitivity

Analysts say government needs to do more to stop Islamic radicals channelling grassroots discontent.

Kyrgyzstan: Islamic Protest Sparked by Official Insensitivity

Analysts say government needs to do more to stop Islamic radicals channelling grassroots discontent.

Thursday, 23 October, 2008
The authorities in Kyrgyzstan have dealt with an Islamic protest in the south of the country by arresting many of the participants. However, they have also recognised that local government was at fault for ignoring legitimate concerns expressed by the Muslim community.

The unrest broke out in the town of Nookat on October 1, when Muslims in Kyrgyzstan marked Eid al Fitr – known locally as Orozo Ait – the festival that marks the end of the fasting month of Ramadan. The trouble began when a group of young men and adolescents gathered outside the local government offices in Nookat to complain about a decision not to arrange an Eid celebration in the town centre.

A local policeman told IWPR that the protesters numbered over 1,000, although other accounts put the figure at about 60.

Police and local officials moved in, first offering a sports stadium as an alternative venue for the celebration. However, the demonstrators refused to back down and, according to officials, began throwing stones at police and smashing windows and doors in the local government building. Five policemen were injured.

The crowd was eventually dispersed by riot police bused in from the regional centre Osh, who used tear gas to drive protestors away.

Seven protestors were arrested on the spot, and more alleged participants were picked up later. On October 13, the State Committee for National Security announced that 32 people were in custody.

It said all of those detained were active members of Hizb ut-Tahrir, an Islamic group banned in Kyrgyzstan. Hizb ut-Tahrir, a group of Middle Eastern origin, appeared in Central Asia in the Nineties and advocates the replacement of the region’s secular governments by an Islamic state. It insists its methods are non-violent, although regional governments have accused it of being behind a number of attacks.

In Kyrgyzstan, the group is particularly active in the south of the country, where Islamic observance has traditionally been stronger, and in recent years it has become adept at publicising itself by supporting local communities with grievances. See Islamic Group Quietly Builds Support in Kyrgyzstan, RCA No. 516, 16-Nov-07)

Kanybek Osmonaliev, director of the State Agency for Religious Affairs, took a tough line on the demonstrators and their motives.

“Attacking the Nookat district administration building by throwing stones is a direct challenge by destructive elements,” he said. “The Muftiate [official Muslim governing body] says they have nothing in common with Islam.”

At the same time, the Kyrgyz authorities have acknowledged that local officials in Nookat behaved insensitively towards repeated requests to mark one of the key dates on the Muslim calendar, thus opening the way for Hizb ut-Tahrir to get involved in protest actions.

After the incident, President Kurmanbek Bakiev sacked Nookat district chief Abdygany Aliev.

Deputy Interior Minister Jenish Jakipov told journalists, “Representatives of the Muslim community had asked the local administration in advance for permission to hold this [Eid celebration] event. But local government did not treat their request with the seriousness and respect it deserved, and consequently no solution was found.

“Representatives of the extremist religious party Hizb ut-Tahrir exploited the popular dissatisfaction and incited young people to illegal acts.”

The head of the Kylym Shamy human rights group, Aziza Abdirasulova, agrees that local government blundered.

“The Muslims in Nookat have twice approached the district government chief with a request to allocate a venue for celebrations,” she said. “People took it badly when they were ignored. The fact that neither the governor nor his deputies reached an agreement with local people, and did not offer them alternative venues ahead of time, tells me that it was they who provoked this discontent.”

Some observers caution against dismissing the protestors as religious extremists.

“To say unequivocally that all the demonstrators were Hizb ut-Tahrir members or radial Islamists would not be correct,” said Miroslav Niazov, a former government official now active in politics.

Niazov believes that support for Hizb ut Tahrir in Kyrgyzstan is growing not because people espouse radical ideologies, but because they are profoundly unhappy with government policies and lack of responsiveness.

“Against a backdrop of poverty, corruption and diminishing confidence in the authorities, Hizb ut-Tahrir members have increased their engagement with the population through social projects such as free distribution of food and mass action,” said Kadyr Malikov, an academic who specialises in Islamic studies.

According to Malikov, the government and its allies need to tackle Hizb ut-Tahrir head on by addressing the same issues that it highlights – among them poverty – and setting out arguments to counter its extreme views.

Malikov said influential Muslim religious leaders had a large role to play in changing popular attitudes to Hizb ut-Tahrir. They must do more than talk, he said, recommending instead “practical grassroots work to tackle poverty, supported by local government”.

“This conflict [in Nookat] is the first serious alarm-bell signalling a need to change the strategy and methods for countering Hizb ut-Tahrir,” he said.

Yrys Kadykeev is a pseudonym used by a journalist in Kyrgyzstan.

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