Women and Radicalisation in Kyrgyzstan
Asia Report N°176
3 Sep 2009
EXECUTIVE SUMMARY AND RECOMMENDATIONS
Kyrgyzstan’s increasingly authoritarian government is adopting a counter-productive approach to the country’s growing radicalisation. Instead of tackling the root causes of a phenomenon that has seen increasing numbers, including many women, joining groups such as Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT), it is resorting to heavy-handed police methods that risk pushing yet more Kyrgyz towards radicalism. The authorities view HT, which describes itself as a revolutionary party that aims to restore by peaceful means the caliphate that once ruled the Muslim world, as a major security threat. But for some men and ever more women, it offers a sense of identity and belonging, solutions to the day-to-day failings of the society they live in, and an alternative to what they widely view as the Western-style social model that prevails in Kyrgyzstan. Without a major effort to tackle endemic corruption and economic failure, radical ranks are likely to swell, while repression may push at least some HT members into violence. This report focuses primarily on the increasingly important role that women are playing in the movement.
HT is banned in Kyrgyzstan and operates clandestinely. There are no accurate membership figures. It may have up to 8,000 members, perhaps 800 to 2,000 of them women. To join, individuals participate in formalised training, take examinations, an oath of loyalty and pledge to recruit others. But while HT’s membership is still small, support for it in the wider population is growing.
In post-Soviet Kyrgyzstan, where many have responded to 70 years of atheism by embracing religion, HT’s uncompromising Islamic message has gained considerable acceptance. Women, especially those living in rural or conservative areas where traditional gender norms prevail, turn to HT to find meaning in their restricted social roles. The party’s activists regard the growth in those who count as sympathisers if not actual members as a critical component of a long-term strategy – a currently quiescent element of society that would be ready accept a caliphate once it begins to take form.
There are limits to HT’s expansion. In other countries, HT has sought to function as an elite organisation, not a mass movement based in the poorer sectors of the society, and there is no clear sign that the Kyrgyz party has as yet been able to substantially expand its appeal to the educated, middle class, either male or female. The degree to which it has spread from its original, predominantly Uzbek, base in the south into the majority ethnic Kyrgyz community in the north is unclear. And HT’s restrictive view of women’s roles in an avowedly revolutionary party could well limit its growth among female sympathisers who may be deeply critical of the regime but unwilling to abandon the freedoms they enjoy in a secular society.
The government hardened its position on Islamist groups following an October 2008 protest in Nookat, prosecuting and imprisoning a number of HT members, including two women. Officials justify their response to the incident by saying that HT had become too militant in its challenge to the state and had to be taught a lesson. They insist that energetic police action is coupled with political dialogue with believers. In fact, however, security methods prevail. Civilian elements of the government tasked with reaching out to the religious community take at best a distant, secondary part. They are either too inefficient and uncoordinated, or simply reluctant to do anything that impinges on the responsibilities of the powerful security establishment.
A policy based on repression will play into HT’s hands and may even accelerate its recruitment. HT has a sophisticated political organisation that resembles that of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and even, to a degree, successful communist undergrounds. It thrives on the perception of social injustice, economic collapse and repression. It views prison as the ultimate test of party resolve and will regard a crackdown as an opportunity to provide new martyrs and draw new recruits. Women, whether presently members themselves or not but whose husbands are arrested, may feel compelled to assume a more public role in petitioning authorities.
Despite the prominent role they played in the Nookat protest, the government has not implemented policies aimed specifically at discouraging women from joining HT. Kyrgyzstan’s progressive legislation on gender equality and its quotas for women representatives in government have little impact on the lives of those most likely to join HT. Religious women in particular feel that women in government do not represent their views, because most are proponents of secularism. Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are not reaching out to such women. They suffer from a lack of credibility with religious women and feel compelled to concentrate on projects they can secure funding for from donors rather than grassroot initiatives such as helping mothers by providing after-school programs for young children – something HT does for its women members.
The only effective long-term strategy is political. For this, however, Kyrgyzstan – and its neighbours in Central Asia, all of whom face similar problems – needs to take serious steps to eradicate systemic corruption and improve living conditions. Economic crisis and rigged elections strengthen HT’s appeal to those who feel socially and politically dispossessed and buttress its argument that Western democracy and capitalism are morally and practically flawed. All states in the region need also to differentiate between a political struggle against HT and the desire of large segments of their societies to demonstrate renewed religious faith by adopting some traditional attributes of Islam – beards in the case of men, for example, and headscarves for women. As Central Asia becomes a major supply route for NATO’s expanded war in Afghanistan, Western powers with an increased interest in the region’s stability should caution against repressive policies.
1. Conduct a comprehensive study on the socio-demographic characteristics and needs of religious women, starting with a pilot project in Osh and Jalal-Abad and the areas around the towns of Nookat, Aravan, Uzgen and Karasuu, which are considered the hotbed of Islamic radicalism in the country.
2. Develop, based on the results of this study, social and economic policies targeting religious women that include:
a) employment schemes (at first in sectors acceptable for religious women like education, health care and social work) and vocational training opportunities; and
b) rehabilitation of social services, including kindergartens and after-school programs, that would lighten women’s workload at home and allow them to pursue outside employment.
3. Develop and implement a system of financial assistance at the local level for poor families, especially those headed by single mothers, and raise government assistance for maternity leave, sick leave to care for children, alimony and support for children with dead or missing fathers.
4. Organise, in cooperation with the Spiritual Directorate of Muslims of Kyrgyzstan (DUMK), free study groups on Islam at the neighbourhood level that are led by respected, knowledgeable women from local communities.
5. Encourage DUMK, financially and by providing domestic and international expertise, to design a program of outreach to religious women that would ensure their greater participation in the local religious community.
6. Shift the focus from prohibiting hijab in public schools to implementing measures that would ensure better attendance and graduation rates from secondary schools by girls (especially in rural and southern areas) and deliver a basic secular curriculum in women’s madrasas.
7. Set up an inter-agency task force on radicalisation whose remit includes developing specific policies relevant to religious women and assign the lead role to a non-security government body in order to establish better information sharing and decrease the influence of law enforcement agencies; ensure that concerns of religious women are separated from the agenda on gender equality.
8. Take steps to change the climate of secrecy and taboo around religious radicalism by encouraging greater public discussion on the causes of and ways to address radicalisation, and welcoming more in-depth research by domestic and international experts.
9. Expand programs for women beyond gender issues to include projects for religious women and joint initiatives for both secular and religious women on practical matters (e.g. water quality, coping with male labour migration, pre-school education).
10. Fund research and survey activities by the government, local think tanks and academics on the topics of religious women and female radicalisation.
11. Adjust aid priorities by channelling more funding to grassroots projects that address practical concerns of religious women and engage secular and religious audiences within local communities, as opposed to large-scale institutional initiatives.
12. Encourage local NGOs to reach out specifically to religious women in their advocacy and service provision initiatives.
13. Encourage the government to incorporate the policies on religious women as a distinct component of its institutional agenda.
14. Warn the government that its recent policy shift, which relies disproportionately on security measures in dealing with Islamic radicalism, threatens to stimulate rather than undermine the appeal of Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT) and has potential to generate a popular backlash.
15. Call upon the government to conduct a new investigation and new trials in the Nookat case that observe due process and exclude evidence obtained through torture.
16. Initiate specific projects to address daily concerns of religious women and seek partnerships on such initiatives with religious NGOs.
17. Combine any advocacy on gender equality with more regular community work and, whenever possible, service provision to enhance credibility.
Bishkek/Brussels, 3 September 2009