Rising tension as Isis makes inroads in secular Kyrgyzstan

Boston bomb and Istanbul airport attack put new focus on landlocked central Asian state

Kyrgyzstan president Almazbek Atambayev: up to the beginning of this year, at least 508 people – including 121 women – left his country for Isis-controlled territories in Syria and Iraq. Photograph: Carsten Koall/Getty Images

Kyrgyzstan president Almazbek Atambayev: up to the beginning of this year, at least 508 people – including 121 women – left his country for Isis-controlled territories in Syria and Iraq. Photograph: Carsten Koall/Getty Images


Sitting on the foothills of the Tian Shan mountains at the edge of a plain that stretches through Kazakhstan all the way to Siberia’s boreal forests to the north, Tokmok is an unremarkable, dusty border town.

Aside from the swoosh of military jets training out of a nearby air base, there is little happening. Russian mechanics work on 1980s cars and minibus drivers herd together passengers destined for the capital Bishkek, an hour’s drive west along the Chu river.

It was a family from the local Chechen community, here as a result of Stalin’s brutal 1940s “population transfer”, that brought infamy upon Tokmok right around the world in April 2013, when a pair of brothers motivated by their anger at western wars waged in Muslim countries detonated two bombs during the Boston marathon.

The Tsarnaevs’ father grew up here and, after he married and started a family, his boys attended a school that today has fallen into disrepair.

Incidents such as the Boston bombing and the Istanbul airport attack, in which one of the three perpetrators who killed 47 people in June is believed to be Kyrgyz, have brought into renewed focus concerns over Islamic terrorism in this landlocked central Asian state of six million people.

Islamic terrorism

KyrgyzstanSyriaIraqAlmazbek Atambayev

The presence of American troops at a transit base north of Bishkek has been fuel for radicals preaching anti-western narratives.

In the past year, state media has frequently reported security forces clashing with and killing criminals aligned with Isis whom authorities claim have been on the cusp of launching attacks across the country.

In November, an outspoken government adviser and Islamic theologian was stabbed and badly injured in Bishkek in an attack by Kyrgyz Isis affiliates. His assailants were later apprehended in Turkey en route to Syria.

Fundamentalist groups such as Hizb ut-Tahrir, a transnational Sunni organisation blamed for killing Kyrgyz soldiers and police, has been banned by governments across central Asia.

Under 115 years of Russian rule, religion was sidelined; when the Soviet Union crumbled in 1990 only 39 mosques were open. However, in just 25 years the change has been startling: more than 2,400 mosques, 80 Islamic schools and 70 Islamic centres are in operation, according to government figures last year.

As a result, and since two uprisings in 2005 and 2010 tested the legitimacy of the state and placed people power on the agenda, Islam has set off a struggle between the status quo and a resurgent religiosity.

“A core of moderately Islamic political opposition has been already formed in Kyrgyzstan,” analyst Uran Botobekov wrote recently, “and that opposition is capable of challenging the existing secular system”. Kyrgyzstan’s political leaders are well aware of the desire to make political Islam a more central tenet of everyday life, and have seesawed between silencing clerics and speakers and keeping a lid on extremist ideology.

Popular iman

Some argue the government’s efforts satisfy no one, and that equating Islam with terrorism in a country in the nascent stages of discovering its religious identity is risky.

“The lack of national, visionary and long-term policies in the country has meant that many have turned to religion to find the sense of identity and natural belonging that was a trademark of the Soviet Union but disappeared with its collapse,” wrote expert Aidai Masylkanova. The nomadic tribal nature of society means Islam in Kyrgyzstan today is infused with thousands of years of customs that drew upon animist and shamanic belief systems.

Even high in Kyrgyzstan’s rural mountainous interior, beer bottles can be found strewn on village streets and few pray five times a day. And whereas Islamic practice is to bury the dead as soon as possible, Kyrgyzs often grieve over their loved ones’ bodies for days. Elaborate tombs covered with tiles and domes adorn graves, out of keeping with Islamic custom.

In Bishkek, shorts and dresses are the dominant summer style as youths play table tennis next to statues of Marx, Engels and Turkic warriors.

Kyrgyzstan was founded with a secular worldview that has filtered down through society over generations of Soviet rule and is today enshrined in the constitution. But that is changing, and the attraction of Isis to young men and women disillusioned with a government they feel denies them their rights remains a source of tension.