An initiative to expand higher education opportunities in Central Asia is experiencing a bumpy start.
The source of controversy is footage of an apparently acrimonious confrontation between local residents in Naryn, an economically depressed city in mountainous southeast Kyrgyzstan, and students from a new university in the area. Amid a cacophony of yelling and laughing, and showing a handful of police officers looking on, the footage seems to depict foreign students, along with a university administrator, being forced to kneel and ask for the forgiveness of a crowd for allegedly offensive behavior.
It could not have been a more inauspicious start to operations at the University of Central Asia’s Kyrgyzstan campus, which is located about a 30-minute drive outside Naryn. The location for the university branch may seem unlikely, but it was carefully selected and intended by its founders — led by Prince Shah Karim Al Hussaini, or the Aga Khan as he is better known — to make higher education more accessible for Central Asian students in remote mountain regions.
As the spiritual leader to the Ismaili Shia community, a significant number of whom live in neighboring Tajikistan’s high-altitude Pamir region, the Aga Khan has taken a personal interest in seeing this initiative flourish.
The first intake of students, most of them from Tajikistan, arrived earlier this year without drawing much public attention. But if few in Kyrgyzstan knew about the college before, that has all changed now.
It began with a game of basketball. One day in late May, students from UCA organized a game against a group of local youths.
According to one account provided by Sadi Kubatbekov, a deputy with the City Council, one of the players on the UCA team engaged in some flagrant fouling that eventually caused both benches to empty. Coaches and university security staff intervened to defuse the situation.
“When the game came to an end, the players began to leave the court. And then one UCA player reportedly taunted the locals, allegedly saying; ‘This is just our first generation. When we have five generations, we will take you all over,’” Kubatbekov claimed.
Shamsh Kassim-Lakha, the head of the Executive Committee at UCA, provided a different perspective, which the administrator said was based on accounts offered by students. They insist it was the Kyrgyz players that began trash talking. EurasiaNet.org was unable to independently verify this account, as speaking to the students directly proved impossible: UCA officials have expressly forbidden students from speaking to the media.
The warring youths were urged by their elders to keep tensions at bay, particularly with the holy month of Ramadan then in full swing. All the same, there was another confrontation on June 8 outside a bank in Naryn, when a group of UCA students taking a stroll in town got into a fight with local youths.
When police arrived at the scene, they suggested that everybody assemble in a hall at a local school, also run by an Agha Khan organization, to properly clear the air. As the people involved in the June 8 brawl arrived at the school, so did large group of local youths angered at what they perceived as the shaming of their national dignity.
Crudely produced footage of what ensued was widely shared online. An irritable crowd shouts indistinct demands, and then a group of the Tajik students and a Western university administrative official get on their knees.
Accounts of what happened next in the footage varied widely. Kassim-Lakha, the university representative, said the footage shows Kyrgyz men issuing instructions to the students to beg forgiveness on their knees as a condition of being allowed to leave the room. Kubatbekov, meanwhile, attributed the kneeling incident to a miscommunication.
“Nobody said anything about asking for forgiveness on their knees. It is the translator that made a mistake. What was said was: ‘Let us all be seated and ask one another for forgiveness.’ But that was translated literally,” he said.
Bolot Estebesov, the leader of a youth group in Naryn, said that whatever happened, the gesture did at least restore calm.
The reality is, however, that resentments are festering. Estebesov, for example, said he remains unhappy that the police opened a criminal case against local residents for disturbing the peace. “The police immediately condemned us because they’re foreign students and so, what, it turns out they are automatically more cultured than we are?” he said.
In the capital, Bishkek, a five-hour drive away, authorities and social media users have condemned the police for inaction, and the local community for their behavior.
Youths in Naryn are bitter about what they deem to be the supercilious and contemptuous language being hurled at them by detractors in Bishkek. “On the internet, everybody is saying we are just a bunch of animals,” said Estebesov.
Far from backing down, some people in Naryn are pushing for the deportation of two Tajik students that they say instigated the entire flare-up. Some have demanded that UCA students should be made to undergo sensitivity training to acquaint them with local cultural norms. “Let them [UCA students] learn our traditions and habits. The guys that were fighting should leave, they should be deported. Everybody feels insulted after the words that they said,” Kubatbekov said.
On the day following the kneeling incident, in a gesture of reconciliation, Kubatbekov and Estebesov went to the university and apologized for what happened. As gifts they brought a traditional kalpak felt hat and a book titled “Traditions of the Kyrgyz People.”
While Kyrgyz people typically pride themselves on their tradition of offering hospitality, similar tensions with international students are not unprecedented. In the fall of 2016, medical students from India in the southern city of Osh organized an unusual rally in protest over the death of one of their colleagues. Among their demands was a call to investigate what the university could have done to save the man’s life. They also pleaded with the university to provide them with greater protection against intimidation from locals and the police.
Back in Naryn, Kassim-Lakha worries that although the situation has been resolved for now, trouble could resurface at any time. “You cannot solve something like this in one minute. Some people forgive, and some don’t. I know that some students have got over this, but others cannot let it go,” he said.
An aspect of the story involves religion. While Kyrgyz are predominantly Sunni Muslim, UCA operates under the auspices of an organization run by a foundation created by Ismailis, a Shia splinter community.
Chubak azhy Zhalilov, a former religious leader in Kyrgyzstan who still retains considerable influence among the faithful, waded into the fray by stating that UCA should not be permitted, as it is backed by adherents to an alternative current of Islam.
“We do not need Shias. They need to be politely expelled,” he has said in a public address.
On the ground though, ethnicity and religion appears to play little role in stoking tension.
Estebesov said the people of Naryn have always lived peaceably with the ethnic Russian and German communities. And relations with Muslim brethren, regardless of their denomination, should grow deeper and stronger, he said.
“If we were really divided between Tajiks and Kyrgyz, then these quarrels would have appeared as soon as UCA was opened. On the contrary, our guys were delighted and went to play basketball with them. The whole dispute started just because of two or three words,” he said.
Nurjamal Djanibekova is a reporter based in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.