IS in Central Asia: A Myth?

by Gulrano Ataeva

Gulrano AtaevaSince I hail from Osh, which is known as one of the most religious cities in Kyrgyzstan, the news stories about hundreds of men and women from Central Asia leaving for jihad in Syria make me wonder what these news stories have to do with my own city? Since Central Asia is repeatedly portrayed as a fertile ground for religious extremism in both local and Western media, it is worth to have a look at how Islam is actually lived by those who are too often collectively suspected to conspire with extremist movements such as IS.

It is true, when one walks about the city one notices more and more young people wearing Islamic style clothing, and many new mosques are being built. Apparently, religious beliefs and practices are not on their awakening stage but deepening, as a comment of a lady in hijab exemplifies: “The question is not anymore whether to wear the hijab or not, it is about how to wear it properly”. Yet, whereas several years ago one would recognise a religious girl by her tight headscarf and long dress, now you come across many different stylish ways of wearing a headscarf and clothes that can compete with the latest fashion trends – Islam is not simply deepening here but also diversifying.

Of course, it is not only about proper dressing. For example, weekly gatherings of women to study the Quran under the guidance of atynchas, female Islamic scholars, are a widespread phenomenon in various neighbourhoods, while mostly attended by elderly women who are free from household chores and childcare. I had a chance to observe the content, style and ideology of these gatherings. A group usually consists of an atyncha, who reads the Quran, and eight or ten women who repeat her words turn by turn. She corrects the pronunciation and comments on the women’s intonation based on tajweed, a set of rules for proper pronunciation and recital of the Quran. They also discuss the meaning of ayah (verses), sometimes translating them line by line. The ultimate goal is to be able to recite the whole Quran. Yet, before participants approach the Quran itself they are required to study the basic Islamic acts, e.g. the five pillars of Islam, to learn about thirty-five more farz (rules), six kalimas (words) of faith, how to make ablution and how to conduct namaz (daily prayer). Furthermore, they need to memorise the ninety-nine names of Allah, learn various duas (petitionary or thanksgiving prayers) for different life situations, study salawat (recital of blessings) on the Prophet Muhammad and discuss the lives of the Sahabah (companions, disciples and family of the Prophet). Finally, it is only after memorising twelve rather short surahs (chapters) that a student starts learning the Quran by heart. The classes are open, participation is not mandatory and remains fluctuant. In fact, very few women actually do memorise the whole book while many drop out over time or join another group for revision based on one’s progress. In my view and in regard to the gatherings I attended, these teachings aim at the development of oneself as a good Muslim and focus on personal improvement.

In academia a more critical debate about the threat of IS influence in Central Asia has evolved. Scholars of the Polish Institute of International Affairs consider Central Asian countries vulnerable to the activities of radical religious organisations but also point out that their citizens’ interest in the Islamic State remains low. Comparing Central Asian countries with those from the Middle East, North Africa and Europe, they concluded that Central Asia is still relatively unaffected by the Islamic State’s outreach. Correspondingly, a study carried out by the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation suggests that foreign fighters from Western Europe outnumber those from Central Asia.

Edward James Lemon from the University of Exeter reviewed articles from the New York Times, Vice News, CNN, Washington Post and others and concluded that “the vast majority of the other articles merely perpetuated the long-standing myth of Islamic radicalisation in Central Asia”. In a similar vein John Heathershaw and David W. Montgomery call the claims about Muslim radicalisation in Central Asia a myth fostered by security analysts and commentators.

Naturally, the general public rarely reads scholarly articles and, therefore, is hardly aware of accounts that challenge dominant media and state representations. In Osh, the wide distribution of this myth has an alarming effect on its inhabitants. Fear and suspicion are spreading, rendering pious-looking people as (potential) terrorists. Women wearing the hijab complained to me about people shouting “Terrorist!” at them on the street.

Central Asian governments on their part, are not averse to taking advantage of an unsettled public. The Tajik government, for example, has increased pressure on Muslims by taking “preventive” measures (banning giving Arabic names to newborns, prohibiting men to grow beards, restricting women from wearing the hijab etc.). Civil society activists accuse security agents of the Osh branch of the Kyrgyz State Committee for National Security (GKNB) of using the threat of terrorism as pretext to extort money from “suspicious people” and to harass minorities.

Until now, I did not sense a sympathy for IS among people living in Osh. Yet, media accounts that rather distort the picture and state governments that exploit the fear of terrorism to pursue their own goals and denounce and marginalise religious groups, run the risk to contribute to turning myth into reality.

Click here to access the Kyrgyz version of this article on BBC Kyrgyz and here for the Uzbek version available on BBC Uzbek.

About the author:

Gulrano Ataeva received her MA in International Relations from the University of Tsukuba, Japan, has worked as a consultant for the Osh field office of the OSCE and currently volunteers for Public Fund ‘Children of Saint-Petersburg’, St. Petersburg, Russia.