Prevent Radicalisation by Preserving Cultural Identity

Published on “New Straits Times“

Kyrgyzstan, situated in the Caucasus region of Central Asia, got its independence from the former Soviet Union some 20 years ago. The country went through two revolutions and a massive street protest during its fight to become a democratic state. Today, the country is a multi-state parliamentary democracy home to some six million citizens, many of whom are Muslims living in harmony with other religious groups.

On Sept 28-29 this year, the Kyrgyz government organised the first-ever conference on “Islam in a Modern Secular State” in Bishkek, Kyrgyz Republic. The conference was initiated by the President’s Office, State Commission on Religious Affairs and Foreign Affairs Ministry. About 200 participants from Europe, America and Asia attended the event. Religious scholars and counterterrorism experts attended the conference to address the interaction between state and religion and threats related to religious radicalisation, extremism, terrorism and countering violent extremism.

Many countries, including the Kyrgyz Republic, made efforts to develop and implement effective measures and create models for the harmonious coexistence of religions and conflict-free development in the conditions of a modern secular state. The current wave of radicalism and extremism, which uses religious slogans, can be overcome by strengthening the legitimacy, secular nature and legal system of the state, and preserving its local culture, language and identity, including civil identity. The goal is to preserve the cultural identity of nation states to prevent the infiltration of radical ideas through religious values and increase the effectiveness of democratic governance in the religious sphere.

The Kyrgyz government’s Concept of State Policy regulated for 2014-2020 is based on the constitutional principle of a secular state under Article 1 of the constitution, which defines the state and its bodies to serve society as a whole, and Article 7, which clearly indicates that  “no religion can be established in the Kyrgyz Republic as a state or compulsory religion and that religion and all cults are separated from the state and interference of religious associations and clergymen in the activities of state bodies is prohibited”.

The Kyrgyz government identified key areas for the development of a methodological conceptual framework for implementing effective state policies in the religious domain. A few aspects were implemented, including key concepts on the principles and values on which state policies in the religious sphere are based on; priority areas of state religious policies; areas of interaction between state and religion; and, strategies and mechanisms for implementing state policies in the religious sphere. However, the implementation has not been able to prevent religious radicalisation and extremist and ethnic conflicts between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks who live in Kyrgyzstan.

Although Kyrgyzstan is a secular state, it is threatened by internal far-right groups and “invisible political hands” that are pushing for an Islamic state. This, coupled with a radical religious group Hizbut-Thrir’s ties to ethnic Uzbeks in the Kyrgyz region and the recruitment of some 500 Kyrgyz nationals by the Islamic State, pose a serious threat to the secular state. The Kyrgyz government is concerned with the growing rate of radicalisation in the country and is finding ways to curtail the threat within its democratic values and principles. The Caucasus region has seen an increase in ethnic conflicts and violence after the fall of the Soviet Union. These conflicts have also seen terrorist groups, such as al-Qaeda, and regional terrorist groups infiltrating and battling for control of the region.

The threat of radicalisation in the Kyrgyz Republic is compounded by the lack of deep understanding and varied interpretations of Islam by a marginalised group of the population. Based on my understanding after speaking with the local community, locals fear that Islamisation will undermine their traditions, cultures and values. With such threats, the republic has taken proactive measures to maintain a secular state and ensure that religion will not be the determining factor in its governance. The assurance provided for in Article 1 and 7 of the constitution prevents any internal and external influence from destabilising the democratic and secular state of the republic.

Hence, the Kyrgyz government is establishing a permanent international platform in Bishkek to address threats in the republic and Caucasus region with experts to address the interaction between state and religion, as well as security threats from terrorism, radicalisation, extremism and counter measures.

The Kyrgyz government, in its quest to foster peace, security and tolerance, has embarked on a multi-level approach to broaden international cooperation and sharing of experience of states in regulating religion. In line with these principles, the International Association for Counterterrorism and Security Professionals, Centre for Security Studies, in its participation in the conference on “Islam in a Modern Secular State” and in the declaration of the conference, has pledged to support the initiatives of the Kyrgyz Republic.

Mr. Andrin Raj addressed the conference in Bishkek on “The Malaysian Experience in Managing the Threats of Radicalisation, Violent Extremism and Terrorism”.