BISHKEK -- A Kyrgyz NGO is helping the government prevent the spread of extremism by increasing religious literacy among the population.
Such work is necessary because of the threat of growing radicalism, Nurzhigit Kadyrbekov, chairman of the Bishkek-based Iyman Foundation for the Development of Spiritual Culture, told Caravanserai.
The effort comes as authorities concede that more than 500 radicalised citizens joined the "Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant" (ISIL) in 2015.
Extremists and terrorists distort Islamic teachings to suit their purposes, Kadyrbekov said, which is compounded by the low level of religious literacy among the population.
"We focus our projects on improving religious education and the spiritual potential of society," he said, noting that the Iyman Foundation has held workshops for journalists, as well as for employees of the State Committee for National Security (GKNB) and the Interior Ministry (MVD).
The need to train clergy
Kyrgyzstan has a problem with extremism on its hands, said Janargul Isakbayeva, Iyman's project co-ordinator.
"Every year, the number of supporters of extremist and radical views increases," she told Caravanserai, without citing statistics. "Even during the past year in Bishkek, we saw many attempts to carry out terrorist attacks."
"The need for large-scale efforts to fight extremism and radicalism has arisen," she said, adding that the foundation is educating clergy as part of its strategy.
Since 2015, Iyman has provided 12-day training courses on religious and secular subjects for the country's more than 2,500 imams.
"At the moment, about 2,100 imams have undergone training," Isakbayeva said.
The subjects range from Islamic teachings to oratory and first aid, she said, adding that the first-aid training is a nod to the imams' status as "leaders in their communities".
Imams learn to use computers too, Isakbayeva said.
"They learn about social networks," she said. "They learn about the law ... again, because they are leaders in their communities."
Farkhat, an imam from Karakol, Issyk-Kul Province, told Caravanserai that he and his colleagues benefitted greatly from a seminar last September.
"It was very useful, necessary and timely," said Farkhat, who withheld his last name.
"Experts came from Bishkek to talk to us," he said. "They explained the norms of traditional Islam in greater depth."
Training troops and police
The foundation also provides religious training to military and police personnel to help them do a better job of confronting extremism.
"Military personnel are the first to face terrorism," Isakbayeva said. "We teach them the basics of Islam, so that accurate knowledge can guide them."
One Iyman project held in March in Bishkek taught the basics of Islam to troops,
Army Maj. Azizbek Osmonaliyev, based with the 714th Panther unit in Bishkek, attended an Iyman training in March.
"We learned about the basics of Islam and of cyber-terrorism," he told Caravanserai. "We also learned about how extremism differs from Islam and about what 'jihadism' is."
Iyman recognises the need to have well-prepared border guards and police too, and has worked with the MVD's counter-terrorism wing, Isakbayeva said.
"We tell them that terrorism and Islam have nothing in common," she said.
At a training session in Osh June 27, twenty police district inspectors learned about the country's Islamic community, trends and movements in Islam, the impact of Middle Eastern extremist movements on Central Asia, and other matters.
Law enforcement personnel "badly need exposure to religious studies", Osh police officer Temirlan Kadyshev told Caravanserai.
"These seminars will be important for high-quality outreach work with the local population," he said.
"We hope this isn't the last seminar," another attendee, Osh police Lt. Ulan Junusaliyev, told Caravanserai. "We can see that many people with malign intentions use the disguise of a peaceful religion to wreak evil."
Outreach through multi-media
The foundation has produced books, documentaries, online videos and cartoons, and plans to launch 15-minute programmes for television in the fall.
"Our documentary, called 'Not My War', which demonstrates the recruiting methods of ISIL, enjoyed particular success," said Kadyrbekov, Iyman's chairman.
To combat extremism, it is necessary to provide alternative sources of inspiration to youth, such as the country's historical and cultural heritage, literature and science, he said.
"That's why we started organising youth meetings with historians, writers, poets and cultural figures in various provinces," he said. "All of our major projects are directed against extremism and terrorism."
Iyman also is implementing a project called "The pen and the believer".
"We released a collection of works by some authors who haven't been published before," Isakbayeva said. "We also published a dictionary of religious terms."
"We are working on a second collection of writings by various Kyrgyz poets and other writers," she said. "All those works ... contain an appeal to love your homeland and to develop spiritually."
The purpose of these projects is to "steer people toward augmenting their spiritual, intellectual and cultural potential" rather than exploring extremism, she said.