Religious Censorship will Heighten Terror Threat in Kyrgyzstan

By: Fernando Perez

WEA-RLC Research and Analysis Report - 8/2012

The former Soviet nation of Kyrgyzstan is in the process of further tightening religious censorship with the alleged objective to check growing extremism and terrorism, ignoring warnings that such a move will help, rather than hinder, violent Islamist groups to remain and grow in the country.

Proposed amendments to the existing 2009 Religion Law, which seek to grant state organs almost complete control over religious literature, are likely to be finalized in September, according to Forum 18 News. The country's parliament will also be in session from Sept. 3.

A new clause that is being proposed for addition to the law, states, "Control on the import, production, acquisition, storage and distribution of printed materials, film, photo, audio and video productions, as well as other materials with the purpose of unearthing religious extremism, separatism and fundamentalism is conducted by the plenipotentiary state organs for religious affairs, national security and internal affairs."

As U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said at a press conference on July 10 during her first visit to Kyrgyzstan that "discrimination, especially on ethnic, religious and gender grounds, remains a deeply problematic issue" in this country, many fear that the government wants to use the new clause to bring import, publishing and distribution of all religious literature under its control, and use the censorship against religious denominations it is biased against.

The bill was introduced in parliament in June 2011, and is currently being revised after President Almazbek Sharshenovich Atambayev rejected the bill, objecting to a requirement that religious organizations be involved in the proposed new Co-ordinating Expert Committee to oversee the censorship. Initially, the bill had called for the country's two largest religious organizations - the state-backed Muslim Board and the Russian Orthodox Church - to help in carrying out the censorship. Their mention was later deleted.

If the two religious groups were to be asked to assist the government in censorship, that would lead to religious monopoly and hegemony as far as smaller denominations, such as Protestant Christian groups, are concerned. And if the final draft of the bill provides for appointment of experts to do the same, that too would allow the government to discriminate against smaller groups and virtually disable them from using religious literature. The Kyrgyz State has been known for its bias towards the two largest religious organizations for years.

The government is also known to have been biased against the ethnic Uzbek minority, which mostly lives in southern parts of the country. About 70 percent of the roughly 5.5 million people in Kyrgyzstan are ethnic Kyrgyz. Roughly 10 percent of the population is ethnic Uzbek, seen as devout Muslims. The rest are ethnic Slavs, Dungans, Uighurs and other ethnic groups.

In June 2010, a violent clash between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in the southern city of Osh left around 500 dead and hundreds of thousands displaced, mostly Uzbeks. The violence erupted soon after a revolution overthrew former President Kurmanbek Bakiyev in April 2010. Uzbeks participated in the revolution as they didn't like Bakiyev, a nationalist who cared little for minorities.

Ethnic tensions remain even today, and the government has been accused of arresting and torturing Uzbeks in the cases related to the 2010 violence although the minority bore the brunt during the unrest. U.N.'s Pillay also raised the issue during her visit to Kyrgyzstan.

Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan have had border disputes for about two decades, and some terror attacks in Uzbekistan have been blamed on Islamist groups operating from inside Kyrgyzstan.

The repressive 2009 religion law was brought in force after the then Kyrgyz government perceived a heightened threat from the Islamist terror group Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT) in southern parts of the country. The government planned a Presidential Decree curbing key religious freedoms in early 2008, and carried out a heavy-handed campaign in the south against Islamic extremism. Residents of the village of Nookat in Osh Province, who were denied permission to even celebrate a Muslim holiday, held protests.

The government reacted by enacting a new law on religion, replacing the proposed 2008 decree. The law provided for mandatory registration of all religious groups with a tough requirement for the signatures of 200 members who should be Kyrgyz citizens, introduced wide-ranging bans on "proselytism," required state examination of all imported religious materials as well as those distributed or placed in a library, provided for written permission from local authorities for use of premises by religious groups, banned children from being active in religious organizations, and put restrictions on participation of foreigners in religious activities.

It is difficult to believe that President Atambayev, in office since Dec. 1, 2011 and former prime minister of the country, actually believes - or his predecessors did - that the government can check Islamist terror groups in the country by restricting fundamental rights.

Any security expert would say, and President Atambayev would certainly know, that groups like the HT seek to sell the dream of establishing an Islamic caliphate as an alternative to a government that is widely perceived as corrupt and authoritarian. Both the elements can be found in the successive governments of Kyrgyzstan. Many Kyrgyz citizens believe that government's authoritarian and restrictive moves are rooted in its desire to stay in power against people’s wishes.

President Atambayev must have also been informed by his security experts that a key reason why terror groups launch attacks is to compel the government to react in a knee-jerk manner, as governments often do by stereotyping a particular group of people or by restricting their fundamental rights or by using heavy-handed police action. This helps terror groups to convince sections of the people to join their struggle against the "unjust" government and recruit more people.

Kyrgyzstan is a member of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), and is therefore bound to implement its commitments to strengthen freedom of religion or belief and other fundamental freedoms. OSCE members must be held accountable in some way for not keeping their commitments.

On its part, the United States, which leases the Manas airbase in northern Kyrgyzstan as a transit point for forces in Afghanistan, must also speak out, and thus balance its interests with its concerns for human rights in that country.

The Kyrgyz government must be urged by all nations that care for civil rights and democracy in the world to repeal the 2009 legislation on religion, instead of making it even harsher, and thereby show its commitment to the OSCE and protect the region's security.