With Kyrgyzstan's July 23 presidential election fast approaching, President Kurmanbek Bakiyev's administration is trying to court the support of Muslims, while cracking down on suspected members of radical Islamic groups.
Law enforcement agencies have tightened security in Kyrgyzstan's southern provinces since a May incident across the border in Khanabad, Uzbekistan. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Tashkent claimed the attack was planned and carried out from Kyrgyz soil. Kyrgyz authorities have rejected that allegation.
Two shootouts in Kyrgyzstan over the past week have heightened the level of the Bakiyev administration's concern. Authorities claim a clash in Jalalabad on June 23, in which five alleged militant members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) died, targeted a group of foreign-based suicide bombers. Then, on June 27, officials said members of the State National Security Committee's elite Alfa unit killed another three IMU militants in a safe house near Osh.
"The fact that the citizens of another republic, who were involved in terrorist groups, found themselves in our country with certain goals, is alarming," the AKIpress news agency quoted MP Rashid Tagayev as saying on June 24, referring to the Jalalabad incident.
As it tries to root out radicals, the administration is also engaging in some high-profile initiatives designed to enhance its popularity among believers. In March, for example, the president signed a decree pledging state support for the construction of a large mosque in the center of Bishkek. Located on three hectares of donated land, the mosque will cost $4 million and will be able to accommodate close to 10,000 believers. According to local news accounts, a large share of the financing is coming from Saudi Arabian benefactors.
"Islam is the main religion of our nation, and the construction of this mosque proves that the wishes of the majority of Muslims in our country are being fulfilled," Bakiyev said at a groundbreaking ceremony where he personally donated 100,000 soms ($2,300) to the project.
In addition, the government is promoting Islamic financial practices. With government encouragement, several Kyrgyz banks have begun loaning money whereby, instead of imposing an interest rate, the bank and the client share the risk.
Members of the state-backed clergy have praised Bakiyev's gestures. During the March ceremony, Murataly Jumanov, the spiritual leader of Kyrgyzstan's Muslims, said; "We can say that this day [the mosque groundbreaking] is a big holiday for Kyrgyzstan's Muslims."
Although the Spiritual Board of Muslims, the Muftiyat, officially discourages the mixing of politics and faith, some experts suggest the country's clerical leadership is informally pressuring imams to support Bakiyev. Others note an increase in government meddling.
One pious Kyrgyz citizen told EurasiaNet that authorities have prohibited his congregation from raising money until after the elections. "We are being told [by local government officials] that once the elections are over, these restrictions will be lifted," he said.
In recent years, the Bakiyev Administration has faced an image issue in the eyes of the country's pious Muslims. Many have not considered the Bakiyev administration to be a friend on freedom of conscience matters. That image was fostered in part by the 2006 killing of a popular imam, an incident that sparked protests in Karasuu, a small town in southern Kyrgyzstan. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The image was reinforced last October, when riots erupted in Nookat, another southern town, after the authorities banned the public celebration of Orozo Ait, a Muslim holiday. Law enforcement authorities blamed Hizb-ut-Tahrir for instigating the riot and arrested 32 people. Such arrests and searches have caused widespread discontent among devout Muslims in Kyrgyzstan.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, a devout southern Muslim said that Kyrgyz law-enforcement authorities are employing harsher methods than before to deal with religious dissent. "Previously, authorities sentenced alleged HT [Hizb-ut-Tahrir] members to a maximum of three years of imprisonment. Now, Kyrgyz courts customarily sentence them to 10 or 15 years," he said.
Many believers say they are afraid to voice their concerns about the administration. The lengthy prison terms given to the accused Nookat riot ringleaders is serving as a powerful deterrent for Muslim activists. On May 19, the Kyrgyz Supreme Court upheld the convictions for most defendants and obliged each of them to pay 250,000 soms (US$5,800) in damages. Risolathon, the mother of one of the Nookat defendants, told EurasiaNet; "My son's only fault was that he participated in a demonstration -- he didn't commit any crime. We are all in a difficult situation because of this. He has a wife and several children. They ask for him every day . . . He was the only bread-winner in the family."
Editors Note: Alisher Khamidov is a researcher based in South Kyrgyzstan