OSH -- Kyrgyz clergy are working with their congregations to thwart extremists who recruit vulnerable Muslims to join radical movements or to go fight in Syria.
The effort typifies Kyrgyz society's determination to stop seeing citizens fighting and dying in Syria and Iraq. Several hundred Kyrgyz have journeyed to those battlefields since 2011.
One such imam is Sardor haji Obidov, imam-khatib of Jalgyz-Bak mosque in Osh. He decided to use banners inside his mosque, not just sermons, to combat extremism.
"We work closely with Muslims to block the spread of extremist ideas," he told Caravanserai. "We have installed [in the mosque] banners that call for fighting terrorism and observing Islamic values."
The banners went up in late July.
One banner reads: "Iraq and the terrorist group ISIL ['Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant'] have nothing to do with Islam. ISIL is a sect of those who erred. They are Kharijites."
Other banners inside the mosque urge worshippers to promote equal rights, peace and harmony, Obidov said.
The clergy are making a considerable contribution to the fight against extremism by describing extremism's causes and negative influence, Jalgyz-Bak mosque-goer Umarjon Sidikov said.
"Every time, the imam explains to us that Islam and terrorism are far from each other, since ours is a peaceful religion," he said. "When the congregation sees illustrations and inscriptions on posters, the truth of his spoken words becomes even better understood."
The country's enemies misuse Islam to dupe vulnerable youth who do not yet understand Islamic values, Sidikov said.
Officials hail initiative
Local authorities approve Obidov's work to educate Muslims.
Obidov's strategy "matches the spirit of the times", Yidiris Kubatbekov, a lawyer and member of the Osh city council, told Caravanserai. "Stopping the militant exodus to Syria is not only a matter for the state ... but also for society, including the clergy."
Prevention of extremism requires more than one-off events like lectures or videos on TV, he said, adding that the educational campaign should be accessible to all.
"The more negative information the public receives about terrorism, the likelier it is to take a personal interest in fighting the spread of 'jihadist' ideas," Kubatbekov said. "[Obidov's] experience can be used by others ... When the congregation receives messages not only verbally but visually, the message's effectiveness doubles."
Only a broad-based campaign against extremism -- one involving all parts of society -- can stem the exodus of radicalised Muslims to war zones, Bishkek-based independent security specialist Ikbaljan Mirsayitov told Caravanserai.
"We have a state policy against extremism when we hold seminars and when we try to show the determination of clergy to protect themselves and their flocks from extremist influence," he said. "In addition, the imams want to communicate their viewpoint to believers more effectively. We can only welcome such steps."
"The clergy must always tell their flocks how to fight the threats posed by terrorism," he said. "This will protect them against the influence of radicalism."
As of August 1, more than 600 Kyrgyz citizens were fighting in the Middle East and in the Afghan-Pakistani border zone, State National Security Committee (GKNB) spokesman Rakhat Sulaimanov told Caravanserai.
"More than 70 [Kyrgyz] have been killed in combat," Sulaimanov said. "During the first half of 2016, we discovered about 20 returning Kyrgyz militants who were engaged in illegal acts linked to terrorism, extremist crimes, etc."
Rather than being repentant, some returnees seek to commit terrorism in Kyrgyzstan and to help new militants reach Syria, Sulaimanov charged.
"But there are others who repent for their ... crimes and combat in Syria," he said.