Police in Kyrgyzstan have said that they have identified 4,000 people as being “adherents of extremists views,” a big jump from the figure reported last year.
The Interior Minister said on June 14 that in the first five months of the year, police registered 215 “expressions of religious of extremism” and that 63 related criminal cases have been opened.
In September, however, police officials were stating that their database of suspected extremist sympathizers numbered around 1,800.
Raim Salimov, the deputy head of the Interior Ministry’s 10th department, which is responsible for combating terrorism, said at the time that the bulk of that cohort, around 1,360 people, were members of Hizb ut-Tahrir, a banned Islamic party whose goal is to see an Islamic caliphate created across the region. The group has always professed to eschew violent methods. Salimov also said last year that 74 percent of reported incidents of extremist behavior were recorded in the south.
There is an implied but unspoken inference in that particular data point insofar as it is ethnic Uzbeks, who mainly live in the south, that are the predominant targets of extremism-related prosecutions. That said, research over the years has shown that Hizb ut-Tahrir has in the south been able on occasion to overcome the ethnic divide, so the picture is not always so cut and dry.
Still, it is not immediately apparent how the sudden and drastic increase in identified extremists can be be explained.
There is some indication that the net is being cast wider and more indiscriminately.
One recent case involved a 21-year resident of the town of Kara-Suu who was found guilty of possessing extremist material after coming to the attention of security forces for registering his approval on social media under a picture of a local imam recently convicted for purportedly inciting religious hatred.
Authorities in Kyrgyzstan have over the past year been making insistent noises about the urgent need to combat what they describe as a growing problem of radicalization.
Around the New Year, the Interior Ministry’s 10th department undertook a major sweep in southern regions to “prevent extremism and terrorism.”
Police said that they determined during their investigations that in the village of Arslanbob “entire families and streets have begun to support the ideas of extremist organizations.”
Residents of Arslanbob reacted on January 5 by coming out to the streets to demand a stop to police searches.
In the end, it all boils down to the state’s definition of what constitutes extremism. Experience has shown that this evaluation is typically highly subjective. Procedural weaknesses in the country’s courts mean that trials against extremism suspects rarely ever throw any light on a given charge.
None of this is to say that profoundly pious Islamic values have not made major inroads into everyday life in Kyrgyzstan. That process has historically been enabled by the weakness of the state, as argued by Eric McGlinchey and others.
The problem is assessing the precise scale and nature of the turn to strict Islamic tenets, however. There are no strong reasons to believe that police figures are especially helpful in this regard.
One serious danger here is that for all anybody knows, the Interior Ministry might actually by underselling the issue or failing to properly identify where expressions of radical religious sentiments pose most threat.
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