BISHKEK -- Theologians are urging government and society in Kyrgyzstan to co-operate in fighting "high-quality" extremist recruiting propaganda.
The first stage of extremist wooing in Kyrgyzstan occurs via the internet, with YouTube and Facebook as the primary recruiting grounds, say observers.
Extremist videos and audio files are often of very high quality, even at the level of Hollywood movies, said Kadyr Malikov, director of the Bishkek think tank Religion, Law and Politics.
"They [videos and audio files] are all in Russian. Some have even been translated into Kyrgyz," he told Caravanserai.
"The lack of integrated sources of [counter]-information is a big problem," said Malikov. "We have no high-quality, interesting websites, publications or TV programmes about Islam, and the official website of the Spiritual Administration of Muslims of Kyrgyzstan [DUMK] does not enjoy any popularity even among young religious believers."
"Websites with destructive content have filled the vacuum," he said.
Youth as outsiders
Extremists take advantage of youth estrangement, said Keneshbek Sainazarov, director of the Kyrgyz office of the international NGO Search for Common Ground, told Caravanserai.
Other weaknesses include the government's lack of instruments for monitoring the internet, said Malikov, adding that the government may not shut down religious sites without glaring evidence of extremist propaganda.
The resulting free-for-all in cyber-space enables youth to obtain information from dubious sources.
One strategy that the government adopted in 2014 was founding the Bishkek-based NGO Iyman Foundation for the Development of Spiritual Culture. It channels funds for imams' salaries and holds special training sessions for them.
Since 2015, Iyman has provided training courses on religious and secular subjects for the country's more than 2,500 imams, Caravanserai has reported.
"These measures, however, don't solve the shortage of religious personnel," Malikov said.
"Imams are overworked," he said. "They don't have time left to work with youth. That's why out in the provinces we need whole networks of Islamic centres that would employ ... competent theologians."
Strengthening anti-extremism efforts
The government has stepped up its role in regulating issues related to clergy, providing more support for moderate Islam, preventing radicalisation among its citizens, increasing religious education and literacy and monitoring the religious situation, say specialists.
"The state is now actively creating conditions for moderate Islam," Indira Aslanova, a religious scholar at the Kyrgyz Russian Slavic University in Bishkek, told Caravanserai. "At the same time, the main focus is on working with young people through education. Thus, we created the Institute for Clerical Retraining [in Bishkek] and opened a theological college at Arabayev Kyrgyz State University [in Bishkek], which will offer both secular and religious education."
Responsibility for Kyrgyzstan's battle against radicalisation is not the government's alone, argued Sainazarov.
"The role of the family, parents, the local authorities, and civil society activists is also very important," he said. "Radicalisation falls out of the authorities' line of sight, so society needs to be as involved ... in solving the problem."
Another player that should step up is DUMK, said Aslanova.
DUMK, which is in charge of more than 2,000 mosques, should focus on building up the public's religious knowledge and streamlining management of all religious organisations, she said.
Authorities are reforming DUMK to make it more effective, she said, without giving specifics.