By Asker Sultanov
Muslims perform Friday prayer outdoors in Bishkek in October. The mosque could not accommodate all the worshippers. [Asker Sultanov]
BISHKEK -- A deep understanding of Islam is key to preventing the radicalisation of Kyrgyz citizens, say religious scholars and analysts.
The main issue is the low level of religious education generally prevailing in Kyrgyzstan, said Kanatbek Murzakhalilov, former deputy director of the State Committee on Religious Affairs (GKDR) and an expert at the Bishkek-based Scentific Research Institute of Islamic Studies.
Kyrgyzstan is disadvantaged in this regard after enduring 74 years of enforced Soviet atheism (1917-1991) compared to countries with an uninterrupted history of Islamic worship.
Radical organisations take advantage of such ignorance to further their destructive goals, he told Caravanserai.
"Those who have a superficial familiarity with Islam by ... just attending various lessons are more prone to radicalisation," he said. "Kyrgyz who have a deep knowledge of Islam can resist negative radical influences, since they have studied Islam in depth."
"Graduates of madrassas .... or undergraduates at various religious universities -- and we have more than 90 in Kyrgyzstan -- fall into the category of those who have studied Islam at a deeper level," Murzakhalilov said.
But the country has a "certain category of people who consider themselves Muslim but do not abide by Islamic canons", he said.
The number of worshippers well versed in Islam is paltry compared to those with shallow knowledge, he asserted.
"Those who study Islam randomly lack a deep-rooted grasp of Sharia's canons or the hadiths and are therefore more susceptible to radicalisation -- even though they go to mosques and pray five times a day," he said.
The country has 2,600 mosques, according to the Interior Ministry. Most of them -- 68% -- are situated in the country's more rural and devout south.
"More variety has appeared in terms of how Islam is practiced, and many Muslim movements have sprung up in Kyrgyzstan," said American researcher David Montgomery, author of a book on Islam in Kyrgyzstan, during a November 15 lecture at the American University of Central Asia in Bishkek.
"Some people perform all Muslim rituals, pray five times per day, while others limit themselves to less common rituals," according to Montgomery.
Sultan Muratov, 30, a resident of Bishkek, noted a growing number of Muslims in the capital -- so many that the city's Central Mosque is overflowing during the Friday sermon and worshippers pray on the street outside.
"I consider myself a Muslim. Sometimes I go to the mosque ... but I am not religious at all; I drink alcohol and smoke," he said.
"It is very good that we have noticeable growth in the number of Muslims, and the majority of young guys are heading down the right path," Bishkek-based entrepreneur Tariel Malashev, who has practiced Islam seriously for 10 years, told Caravanserai.
"However, we need to protect them from extremist ideas by providing them with correct knowledge," Malashev said.
The "Islamic State" (IS) and other "jihadists do not represent Islam," he said. "[They] don't even pray correctly, and the radicals don't know the basic principles of Islam."
Despite the persistent threat from extremist organisations, authorities are effectively combating radicalism and terrorism, Murzakhalilov said.
"The latest presidential elections in Kyrgyzstan [in October] demonstrated that radical movements ... did not interfere in the election process," he said.
The banned group Hizb ut-Tahrir used to participate in presidential and parliamentary elections and voice support for certain candidates, he said.
"None of that was observed during the election in October, and that means that the awareness-raising and preventive work that the authorities are performing together with the clergy is yielding results," he said.
However, more needs to be done, he said. Law enforcement agencies need to focus their work on geographic areas known to have a higher incidence of extremism.
"We need to do systematic [preventive] work in Kara-Suu, Aravan, Nookat and Kadamjay districts [in Osh Province], Jalal-Abad Province, Issyk-Kul Province and the cities of Osh and Bishkek," he said.
"It is essential that we put together an interactive map detailing the spread of extremism and do work using it," he said. "The role played by imams ... is important here."
With the 'Islamic State' on the verge of defeat, Kazakhstanis who joined the group are likely to begin returning home, where they will face anti-terrorism measures.
Popular support in Central Asia for Islamist insurgencies in the Middle East and beyond is waning.