BISHKEK -- Kyrgyzstan's government must take a hard look at domestic issues and the role of Islam in the country to thwart the growing threat of radicalism, experts say.
Central Asia, which faces a variety of social and economic issues, could become a potential breeding ground for extremism as the "Islamic State" (IS) faces defeat in the Middle East and may look elsewhere to call home.
Taalatbek Masadykov, a former Kyrgyz member of the UN Mission in Afghanistan and a specialist on regional security, warned that terrorist training centres previously in Pakistan have been gradually relocating to Afghanistan's northern provinces, bringing them closer to the border with Central Asian countries.
"This does not mean that tomorrow people from those training centres will cross the border and start to attack Central Asia," he told Caravanserai. "However, we can't slumber. People in Kyrgyz security agencies need to think about how to ensure security."
"Terrorism is a major evil, and we need to work together to counter this threat," Masadykov said.
Modernising Islamic education
"The threat of radicalism is directly connected to the cumulative effect of unresolved social and political issues ... in the Central Asian region, where there are pronounced social inequity and economic stagnation," Kadyr Malikov, director of the Bishkek-based think tank Religion, Law and Politics, told Caravanserai.
Youth join the ranks of militants in war zones "in search of justice and work", said Malikov.
"Many of them have ended up there out of ignorance," he said.
The government needs to determine the role of Islam in a secular state and reconcile societal values, according to Malikov.
"The government looked at attempts made to integrate Islam into society; officials signed certain strategy and planning documents, but all of that never got off the paper," he said. "Officials at the local level have no idea what is happening in the world."
The country lacks qualified religious personnel because it failed to modernise its Islamic education system, Malikov said.
"Modern-day Islamic education in Kyrgyzstan does not meet the challenges of the 21st century but has stayed on the level of the 19th century," he said. "A typical mullah nowadays cannot answer questions posed to him by Muslim youth -- he will give responses, but they will be based on books written in the 18th or 19th centuries."
Another problem is that Kyrgyzstan does not have its own model for Islam to develop, he said. The country needs competent theologians and religious scholars as "Islam in Kyrgyzstan needs to adopt a scholarly approach", he said.
Government efforts continue, more work needed
Kyrgyzstan's government has recognised the possible danger of radicalism and is continuing to work to counter extremist ideologies.
The government must take further steps to strengthen its army and its border security and to resolve issues associated with the demarcation and delimitation of the national border, Bishkek civic leader Adilet Baltabayev told Caravanserai.
Such a move would ensure respect for Kyrgyzstan "within regional organisations and military blocs", he said.
Kyrgyz authorities should outline an ideological direction, said Bishkek political scientist Bakyt Baketayev.
"This will contribute to security," he told Caravanserai. "In addition, Kyrgyzstan needs to pick a single course of Islam, and step back from all these different movements that branched out, which is another factor in our national security."
International extremist groups might try to expand their sphere of influence into Central Asia, acknowledged Kyrgyz President Sooronbai Jeenbekov in a December 27 interview with Russia's Izvestia.
"Terrorism and religious extremism can be confronted only by joint efforts of our partner countries," Jeenbekov said, adding that in this regard, Kyrgyzstan "adopted a state programme for 2017-2022 that is aimed at protecting the interests of the individual, society and the state".