2017-07-24 | Religion

Kyrgyz anti-extremism hotline provides advice, anonymity

By Asker Sultanov

A hotline to counsel callers affected by extremism has been serving the public since last December.

A hotline psychologist July 10 in Bishkek answers questions about religion and other matters. [Asker Sultanov]

BISHKEK -- Kyrgyz distraught by extremism, including within their own families, now have somewhere to find professional advice in anonymity.

The hotline, operated by the State Commission for Religious Affairs (GKDR) Centre for Research on the Religious Situation (TsIRS), has been functioning since last December 29, according to Aikanysh Abylgaziyeva, deputy director of the TsIRS.

Any Kyrgyz who dials 1592 can receive advice on religious matters without having to give his or her name, she told Caravanserai.

The hotline's purpose is to fight extremism and raise religious literacy nationwide, she added.

"Between [December] and April, we worked when we had funding," she said of the hotline. "Then we had a month-long hiatus. We obtained funding from the UN ... and now the hotline is functioning again."

Anonymity respected

The hotline's hours are 9am to 8pm six days a week, she said, adding, "About 100 people call us every month."

A theologian, lawyer and psychologist take calls for the hotline. Most questions go to the theologian.

Most queries concern religion, said Abylgaziyeva, adding, "Most calls come from the south."

"Once, a woman called our lawyer," she said. "She suspected that someone was trying to take her sister to Syria."

"Since these calls are anonymous, we encouraged the woman to seek assistance from the Interior Ministry [MVD] 10th Main Directorate, which fights extremism and terrorism," she said. "We were concerned ... because the [caller's] sister had been badly beaten ... Because callers can withhold their location, all we learned was that she was calling from Chui Province."

The centre might attempt to follow up with callers to determine how their situation turned out, but callers are reluctant to give up their anonymity.

"Sometimes callers sign up for a personal meeting with experts, but that's only a fifth of the time," said Abylgaziyeva. "People fear being identified or prosecuted."

What the hotline can do

The hotline staffers have no magic bullet for their callers' problems, but they "give [them] information about what they can do", said Abylgaziyeva. "The hotline's primary goal is prevention [of extremism] and establishment of co-operation among relevant agencies when we hear about a case of radicalisation".

"In that case, we talk about how to co-operate with the 10th Main Directorate," she said.

Makhabat Imankulova, the hotline psychologist, mostly receives calls about family arguments over religion, she told Caravanserai.

"If a husband abandons his family to go proselytising [performing dawah], he leaves his children without food or money," she said. "In such cases, I advise callers to turn to a theologian and find help at mosques and social services."

Aziz Bakirov, the hotline lawyer on call, receives many questions about religion too, he told Caravanserai.

"In one case, a woman complained that her husband was forcing her to pray and to wear a shawl," he said. "That caused conflicts in the family. Legally speaking ... nobody can force her to do anything. If her husband becomes physical, she needs to go to law enforcement."

In such marital clashes over religion, psychological help is needed too, said Bakirov, adding that in many instances, "Couples break up if either the husband or wife becomes [much more] religious."

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