The Islamist Underground in Southern Kyrgyzstan

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 23

Last year’s uprising in the Uzbek city of Andijan was only the first symptom of renewed tensions in the Ferghana Valley. The region has seen an increase in inter-ethnic tensions and in operations by Islamist radicals. Groups such as Hizb-ut-Tahrir, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and Akramiya are threatening to destabilize sections of the valley. In Kyrgyzstan, Islamist radicals are becoming especially active. Alexander Kniazev, a political scientist from Kyrgyzstan, summed up the situation for The Jamestown Foundation in the following way:

“The south of Kyrgyzstan was not only the cradle of the ‘Tulip Revolution’ that occurred in that country, but is also now a place of anarchy following the removal of the old central government. This lack of real authority, along with persistent inter-ethnic tensions, makes it a prime location for an Islamic revolution. The Kyrgyz section of the valley is currently the most problematic, and if war starts here, it will eventually involve the rest of the Central Asian countries. During the 1920s, Ferghana was divided between Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, but to this day the various parts of the valley remain as inter-connected parts of a greater whole. A crisis in any of the components creates a chain reaction that can lead to cataclysms in the nearby territories, potentially creating further instability in nearby countries.”

Such a grim evaluation stems from the mass disorders that occurred in southern Kyrgyzstan in August after one of the most famous local imams, Muhammadrafik Kamalov, was killed by the country’s security services. The official explanation states that Kamalov was caught transporting two terrorists from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan in his car. The men in question were responsible for attacks on Kyrgyz and Tajik border control posts in May. When ordered to pull over, the imam refused and was killed along with his passengers by Kyrgyz security personnel fire.

Kamalov preached in the municipal mosque in the city of Karasu and thousands came to hear him. Karasu is located on the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border and is considered the Central Asian capital of the Hizb-ut-Tahrir movement. Hizb-ut-Tahrir, an international Islamic organization, has as its main mission the unification of Muslims globally into one caliphate. According to their ideology, Western democracy is seen as improper for Muslims, and countries such as the United States, Great Britain and Israel are considered creations of the devil. Hizb-ut-Tahrir has been banned in many Arab countries, as well as in Germany, Russia and in the Central Asian states. Kamalov’s mosque was famous as a sort of club for those in favor of an international caliphate and his parishioners included not only people from Kyrgyzstan, but also similarly minded individuals from neighboring Uzbekistan.

An ethnic Uzbek, Kamalov was a pupil of the famous Uzbek imam Abduvali Mirzoev. Mirzoev gained fame for his independence from the Uzbek government and he preached in the Andijan municipal mosque where he argued for the creation of an Uzbek Islamic state. His views were similar to the Hanafi Mazhab school of Islamic teaching, which is widespread in Saudi Arabia. Thus, Mirzoev opposed pilgrimages to holy places and excessively fancy weddings and funerals. By these views, he fit the “Wahhabite” label as understood by all of Central Asia. In 1995, he was abducted by Uzbek special services, and his subsequent fate remains unknown. Sadykdzhan Kamalov, Muhammadrafik’s brother and a former Kyrgyz mufti, told the author in an interview for this article that “the fact that my brother was Mirzoev’s pupil and an influential theologian angered the Uzbek authorities. Though there is no direct proof, there are persistent rumors that his murder was linked to the Uzbek special services.”

The story of Muhammadrafik Kamalov’s involvement in the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan is confusing and unclear. For example, videocassettes currently distributed in southern Kyrgyzstan show the most recent speech of Tahir Yuldashev, the leader of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, attacking Hizb-ut-Tahrir sharply. It should be noted that many of the so-called Wahhabites are also opponents of Hizb-ut-Tahrir. Therefore, it is hard to determine just what sort of relationship the slain imam had with Islamic organizations in the region. Nonetheless, it is known that Muhammadrafik Kamalov hated Islam Karimov for the treatment of Mirzoev, making it likely that the imam sympathized with all the enemies of the Uzbek president.

Regardless of whether the imam was actually connected with the Islamist underground, many of the faithful in southern Kyrgyzstan and the nearby areas of Uzbekistan see the death of Kamalov as an example of the government’s assault upon an independent-minded Muslim. Consequently, the funeral of the renowned theologian became a massive anti-government demonstration, with Kamalov being declared “a victim of governmental terror” and a shakhid (martyr). For almost two hours, a crowd of 5,000 people carried the coffin around the city and chanted “Allah Akbar” and “Shakhid Muborak” (“Congratulations upon a martyrdom!”) (, August 8).

“The situation in southern Kyrgyzstan is ready to boil over—the faithful are angered by the killing of a famous religious authority,” Sadykdzhan Kamalov, who is currently the director of an international Islamic center, told the author earlier this fall. “The nerves of the locals are stretched to the breaking point and mass protests may break out following the smallest provocation by the government. It seems to me that certain forces have decided to simply cause an explosion in the south of the republic.”

On the Road to a Caliphate

Up until two years ago, it was rare to see a woman in the southern Kyrgyz towns wearing the Islamic head scarf and even rarer to see one in full, all-concealing Islamic dress. Yet, today the majority of the female residents of the region wear styles “befitting a righteous Muslim woman.” According to Shamsybek Zakirov, the advisor to the head of the Kyrgyz religious affairs agency, “This ‘fashion’ for Islamic garments is a direct result of the propaganda undertaken by Hizb-ut-Tahrir and the Islamic missionary organization ‘Tablig.’ Many Kyrgyz citizens are trained in the Pakistani headquarters of this organization, and today, having returned home, they preach Islam among the Kyrgyz population.”

Women wearing the hijab are not the only achievement of the Islamists. In recent times, attacks on Christian missionaries have been increasing in the region. “There is lynching,” Alexander Shumilin, the director of the Union of Baptists of Kyrgyzstan, declared. “For example, around 100 men from a local mosque burst into a Christian prayer house in the village of Karakuldzha in the south of the republic. They broke two of pastor Zulumbek Sarygulov’s fingers and knocked him unconscious. Having told him to ‘get out of our village,’ they flung him out of the building. The fanatics then piled all of the Christian literature they found in the yard (including several dozen Bibles) and burned it. They even wrote ‘house for sale’ on the gates of the building being used as the church. This pastor’s life is still in danger, and he is being constantly threatened with death if he does not leave the village. While this incident is the most disgusting, it is not the only such occurrence, with Christians being beaten in many other villages of southern Kyrgyzstan” (, September 27).

Even the authorities admit that a significant part of the population of Kyrgyzstan’s south rejects secular laws and lives according to Sharia norms. Shamsybek Zakirov noted that “Hizb-ut-Tahrir, Akramiya and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan are only a few of the radical organizations that function in south Kyrgyzstan. They grow like mushrooms after a spring rain and every day there are more of them. There are so many that we don’t even know all their names.”

Socialism the Islamic Way

Today, no one in Kyrgyzstan will deny that Kyrgyz citizens participated in the Andijan uprising. The citizens that took part were probably members of the Kyrgyz wing of the Akramiya organization that took the lead during the events in Andijan. “It’s no secret that we have Akramists here in the south. Almost all of them are local Uzbeks. They knew of the uprising and left for Andijan several days in advance,” said the head of the Osh human rights organization The Rays of Solomon, Sadykdzhan Mahmudov. Apparently, Akramiya has been active in the region for years. “In 1998, people who told the faithful that they shouldn’t go to mosques and should instead pray at home appeared. This denial of the mosque is one part of Akramiya’s teaching,” Zakirov explained.

One of the key ideas of Akramiya is the creation of Islamic business-communities, a sort of Islamic form of socialism. Such communities in Andijan had a high level of social benefits, with the Muslim businessmen of the city agreeing that the minimum wage in the city should be $50 a month, a level roughly 10 times the general Uzbek wage, and swore not to pay their workers less than this amount. The Akramists also organized “community credit unions” that religious Muslims could draw on for help in developing their businesses. If the enterprise succeeded, the entrepreneur decided how much he wanted to return to the credit union. It is notable that the Kyrgyz security services have recently uncovered a number of business-communities run on the Andijan model. The Akramists, however, do not just want to build “Islamic socialism” peacefully since a veritable arsenal of weapons has been discovered among the Uzbek members of Akramiya arrested in Osh this past August.

The Kyrgyz-Uzbek Knot

The situation in southern Kyrgyzstan is exacerbated by the increasing tensions between the indigenous population and the Uzbeks, who account for roughly 40% of the population of this part of the Ferghana Valley. “Bloody conflicts between Uzbeks and Kyrgyzs can occur again,” says Kadyrdzhan Batyrov, the director of the Uzbek Community of Dzhalal-Abad Oblast and a member of the Kyrgyz parliament. “Following the recent coup, the country has suffered from a power vacuum. With no real guarantee of their rights in place, Uzbeks of Kyrgyzstan feel defenseless before those ‘revolutionary-thugs’ that have realized that they can now act with impunity.”

Batyrov is one of the richest men in Kyrgyzstan and has used his money to establish the University of National Friendship (Universitet Druzhby Narodov) in Dzhalal-Abad, which has become a popular learning institution for local Uzbeks. The millionaire came into conflict with the current authorities in May of this year when Uzbeks demanded that their language be given national status during a demonstration. The government in Bishkek rejected these demands, and in early July 300 or so Kyrgyz captured several of Batyrov’s homes and 12 hectares of his land. “I have no doubt,” Batyrov explained, “that this attack on my property was instigated by the government. They’re trying to punish me for standing up for Uzbek rights.” It is quite possible that the businessman is right, since in September the local courts suddenly decided that he privatized the land in question illegally.

The killing of the influential businessman and head of the Osh municipal Uzbek National Center, Aybek Alimzhanov, on October 15 marked a new stage in the evolving conflict. The police have suggested that Alimzhanov’s business rivals killed him, but the local Uzbeks feel that the case has obvious ethnic overtones. Alimzhanov’s supporters have sent an open letter to Kyrgyzstan President Kurmanbek Bakiev, saying, “We are deeply concerned that the dark forces trying to destabilize the republic might be able to steer the current wave of crime into becoming an inter-ethnic conflict” (, October 18). It seems naive to dismiss these incidents as being a purely local issue. In 1990, Uzbek-Kyrgyz riots, prompted by previous calls for an official recognition of the Uzbek language, led to more than 300 deaths.

The correspondence between rising inter-ethnic tensions and the activities of Islamic radicals cannot be ignored. This has been deeply troubling to the Kyrgyz government, and, according to Kyrgyz Prime Minister Felix Kulov, the new year might see a group of extremist religious preachers attempt to foment an inter-ethnic conflict in the Ferghana Valley (Interfax, June 15).