HT emerged in Central Asia following the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991 and has since been widely repressed or banned by the region’s increasingly authoritarian regimes. Its central aim is the restoration of the caliphate through ‘peaceful political change’ and educating Muslims about the deficiencies of Western socio-political systems (in Central Asia, this caliphate will be established in the Ferghana Valley).
Globally, the characterisation of HT as non-violent has been controversial, with critics alleging their ties to violent groups or, at the least, their role as a ‘gateway’ movement to more radical groups. In Central Asia there are concerns that militants returning from the Afghanistan/Pakistan theatre will turn HT cells toward violence. However, thus far there is little evidence of HT evolving in a violent direction in Kyrgyzstan.
The number of HT members, who operate clandestinely, is disputed: the government claims only a couple thousand, Crisis Group estimates up to 8,000, and scholars I spoke with in Bishkek last summer said the true number could reach into the tens of thousands.
It is important to note, however, that actual membership – which comes only after recruitment, training, exams and loyalty oaths – is magnified by the apparently much broader popular support and sympathy for HT among some parts of the population. This support is largely based within the rural, conservative, poorer and predominantly Uzbek segments of the southern regions but may be spreading into the middle-class and northern areas as well.
The report is highly useful in examining a little-examined topic: the role of women in radicalisation. More specifically, why would women enjoying the benefits of a secular-based society and government equality initiatives be attracted to a movement that seemingly revokes them? According to the report:
• The lack of a strong national identity post-independence leads to more personal searches for identity, with three main potential models: Soviet, Western and Islamic. The cultural and historical deficiencies of the first two enhance the appeal of Islamic identities, as do the social mores of rural communities.
• Official and local representatives of ‘traditional’ Islam often do not reach out to women, especially adult women. HT, on the other hand, effectively offer religious education and social services to women. The report notes, ‘HT recruiters are not only often more competent in theological issues than traditional imams but also less rigid in their prescriptions. It is not all about prohibitions with them, a local journalist noted. Indoctrination takes place gradually, organically and almost imperceptibly, to both participants and state’.
• Women suffer inordinately from the collapse of the Soviet state welfare system, high unemployment and growing socioeconomic inequality in Kyrgyz society. The social justice elements of HT teachings and the emphasis on the ‘Islamic sisterhood’ are thus very appealing, as are HT explanations of the causes of social ills. Local social services provided by HT also help alleviate the strain of economic suffering.
• In conservative areas, women are rather restricted in their social activities and status. HT meetings (which are gender-segregated) provide an acceptable outlet for women to socialise, build relationships and gain social prestige.
• HT taps into broad popular dissatisfaction with the current political system and promises women that within a caliphate they would have more opportunities to express themselves politically and religiously.
The report goes on to detail HT recruitment and training practices for women, as well as recommendations for government and donor initiatives to curtail the expansion of HT membership among the Kyrgyz population generally. All in all, it is a very interesting case study that should be of interest to anyone focusing on radicalisation mechanisms and outcomes.
I find myself most interested in the motivations of Kyrgyz women to join HT, as they seem to be a mix of the universal and the particular. For example, it is not unusual for population groups who feel powerless or alienated to join such movements; it is interesting, however, that HT child care services are proving effective in bringing women into their sphere, as it shows a real understanding of local needs and an openness to female membership that is lacking in other Islamist movements.
It will be interesting to see whether HT proves more successful than other movements at least in part because of its outreach to women – thus far, its appeal has been mostly linked to its continued non-violent stance, but this report opens up other possible explanations.