BISHKEK -- The European Union and several NGO partners are working together on a project in Kyrgyzstan aimed at teaching the country's youth how to counter extremist propaganda, radicalism and violence.
The "Democracy and Religion -- Dialogue Between Equal and Moderate Voices" (DREAM) project involves about 1,300 young people with different religious affiliations from rural and urban areas across the country.
The two-year project, which began last March, is the work of Bishkek's Institute for Youth Development, the "Youth of Osh" NGO, the CRISP (Crisis Simulation for Peace) association from Berlin and Deutscher Volkshochschul-Verband e.V. (DVV International) from Bonn.
The European Commission, under the Instrument contributing to Stability and Peace (IcSP), is financing 80% of the €860,000 (72 million KGS) project, with the remainder covered by DVV International and CRISP.
The main goal of the project is "to strengthen the potential of young people out in the provinces in preventing adherence to extreme views, as well as mitigating existing tension in society", Ajara Kasmaliyeva, a project co-ordinator at the Institute for Youth Development, told Caravanserai.
"It is necessary to set up an inter-cultural and inter-faith dialogue, at both the regional and national levels, using sustainable platforms" to reach the goal of the project, said Kasmaliyeva.
DREAM involves various activities, including a number of discussion platforms and efforts aimed at strengthening youth councils and local crime prevention centres.
Last October, members of youth councils from all seven provinces took part in seminars in various cities and villages based on a simulation game.
The trainers came up with fictional countries and cities, using real stories as a premise, Ayperi Asylbekova, a trainer for the project in Bishkek, told Caravanserai.
These kinds of games develop communication skills and teach youth how to "hold negotiations, make important decisions and take responsibility upon themselves. And, most important, as they became accustomed to their set roles, they better understood ... their characters", she said.
During the seminar, youth activists also listened to a series of lectures on the history of religions in Kyrgyzstan, relations between the state and religious institutions and the proper use of terminology in respect to extremism and radicalism, she said.
"The peculiarity of the simulation game is that you have to temporarily wear a mask and become used to a new role," Ivan Ivanov, a youth activist from the village of Zhany-Zher, Chui Province, told Caravanserai.
Participants learned about their role after opening a special envelope. In one such game, Ivanov played an imam's assistant, he said.
"I lived this role for the one-and-a-half hours that the game went on," he said. "Islam is a peaceful religion, and extremists hide themselves behind religious slogans and sow discord. We have to stand up to manifestations of intolerance."
"The simulation game helped us understand our mistakes and stereotypes and taught us to heed other opinions, as well as to share different points of view and ideas in the fight against extremism," Anara Ulan-kyzy, a student at Talas State University and participant, told Caravanserai.
In December, DREAM launched a new stage teaching youth how to present their ideas and proposals for the project in a forum theatre format, according to the project co-ordinators.
Forum theatres involve briefly halting a play to allow the audience to suggest different actions for actors or to perform its own actions. The concept includes the audience into the action, making it part of the performance and erasing the barrier between actors and viewers, according to project organisers.
"We offer the opportunity to have a discussion after performances, to discuss the idea in the theatrical production. For us, the content intrinsic to the productions, as well as the questions they raise, is important," Kasmaliyeva said.
Fourteen youth groups, or about 350 young people, in seven provinces have been assigned to find ordinary residents' life stories within their own communities to form the basis of future theatrical productions geared toward preventing outbreaks of intolerance, violence and extremism.
The forum theatre portion of the project will run until March. After its completion, the organisers plan to publish a brochure with the most illustrative life stories, said organisers.
Project participants received training last month in various cities and villages.
"Young people, after receiving information from experts, start to gain a deeper understanding of the problem," Asylbekova said.
"Before the seminar, they had a hard time differentiating between the truth and a lie," she said. "It was difficult for them to objectively assess the religious situation in the country, and to understand the true causes of extremism and radicalism."