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Islam Exerts Growing Influence on Kyrgyz Politics

Some analysts fear that populist measures to promote Islamic values could run out of control in the long run.
By Tolkun Namatbaeva
In an attempt to win public support, Kyrgyz officials are launching increasing numbers of initiatives that reflect Islamic influences – a trend which analysts warn could eventually lead to the erosion of the secular state.

However, a leading public figure – human rights ombudsman Tursunbay Bakir-Uulu, who is a devout Muslim – argues that restoring religious values to public life only makes for a healthier, more ethical society, and rejects claims that this undermines the secular state.

As political agendas are increasingly coloured by religious values, some see the growing endorsement of Islam in official life as a contradiction of the principles underlying this post-Soviet republic, whose constitution stipulates that Kyrgyzstan is a secular state.

Last month, for example, the head of the State Agency for Religious Affairs, Toygonbek Kalmatov, announced a special scheme where up to 70 officials will be able to travel to Saudi Arabia to perform the pilgrimage in Mecca under a tax-free arrangement.

A number of officials have been making recommendations influenced by Islamic precepts for some time now. One such is Bakir-Uulu, who has drafted a bill that would outlaw abortion. The draft is due to be considered by parliament.

Another proposal, to decriminalise polygamy, has already gone before parliament three times.

The politicians pushing this agenda appear to be acting out of a mixture of personal conviction and an awareness that there is popular support for a restoration of traditional values.

According to Erkin Alymbekov, deputy speaker of parliament, “The trend towards excessive Islamisation is taking place at both the state level and at the grassroots.”

Ombudsman Bakir-Uulu rejects this suggestion. “As for talk that religion is infiltrating state institutions, I am not aware of any examples of this,” he said.

“In our society, the state is separate from religion…. When people seek spirituality, search for God, and are interested in religious history, this should be welcomed. If society lacks moral values, it will be governed by corruption, crime and the mafia.”

Much of the pressure to shift towards a more overtly religious society comes from southern Kyrgyzstan, where the Islamic tradition has always been stronger than in the north, which was historically more subject to Russian influence and to Soviet secularism and anti-clericalism.

Last month, Mutakalim, a group based in the south which supports the rights of Muslim women, won a campaign for women to be allowed to have their passport photographs taken wearing headscarves. Parents in the south have also formed a pressure-group to win permission for their daughters to wear hijabs or Islamic clothing to school.

Although the state should technically avoid involving itself in religious affairs, the local government in the southern city of Osh has thrown its weight behind a major new mosque that will form part of a wider project including an Islamic centre and a religious school.

The rising influence of Islam in public life dates from the period after March 2005, when Askar Akaev – a northerner - was ousted as president in a popular revolt. He was subsequently replaced as head of state by Kurmanbek Bakiev, a native of Jalalabad in the south.

In a country where most of the population belongs to the Muslim tradition, official attitudes to religious practice have varied over the years and remain complex. While it is increasingly modish to appeal to conservative Muslim sentiment in order to win votes, there is strong opposition to anything that resembles extremism because of the recent history of instability in southern Kyrgyzstan and adjoining parts of the Fergana Valley.

Between 1999 to 2000, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, IMU, an armed guerrilla group with links to the Taleban, launched a serious of armed incursions into the Batken region of southern Kyrgyzstan. The IMU has not been sighted in force Kyrgyzstan since its Taleban allies were routed in Afghanistan at the end of 2001.

However, militant groups remain a concern for the Kyrgyz authorities. A string of armed attacks last year were blamed on another radical group, Hizb-ut-Tahrir, which like the IMU originated in Uzbekistan but took hold in southern Kyrgyzstan in the late Nineties, initially among the large ethnic Uzbek community there.

While the security services keep a close eye on covert groups of this kind, Islamic principles appear to becoming an increasingly acceptable part of mainstream politics. That worries observers like Gulnara Ibraeva, an independent sociologist, who fear that Kyrgyzstan risks diluting or even abandoning its secular identity.

“The process of bringing religion into the political system is happening gradually, and the principle of the separation of religion and state – laid down in the constitution - is constantly being violated,” said Ibraeva.

Aman Saliev, an analyst with the Institute for Strategic Analysis and Forecasting, says Islam is seeing a revival as people seek answers in a confusing and difficult process of social transition.

“Society today, with its principles of untrammelled capitalism, in many ways does not provide solutions to moral and social problems,” he said. “People are starting to turn to what they have traditionally seen as the tried and true ways. It even offers a kind of protection against all that’s going on in society today.”

However, Alymbekov insists that while there is nothing wrong with applying religious principles in one’s personal life, “we need to make sure that religion is kept separate from the state”.

Bakir-Uulu said it was only natural that Kyrgyz Muslims should seek an alternative to Soviet atheism.

“In this era of independence, it is not surprising that there has been a return to spiritual roots not only in Kyrgyzstan, but also in other post-communist republics. It would be immoral to develop a market-based society without an ethical dimension,” he said.

Some analysts fear that the secular nature of the constitutional system could be at risk.

When the constitution was revised in November last year, the drafting commission deleted all reference to a secular state altogether. According to Ibraeva, the secular principle was re-inserted in a later draft.

Bishkek-based political analyst Natalya Shadrova said state officials must remember that Kyrgyzstan is a secular state, and should not dabble in religion or woo faith organisations for populist reasons.

“If religion really begins to permeate all areas of life, I fear it will greatly undermine the foundations of the secular state, and ultimately damage them,” she said.

According to Shadrova, those officials who are keen to incorporate Islamic ideas into public life “do not fully realise what they are doing and do not see the consequences, but only look at the advantages for themselves.”

Saliev does not agree that all politicians are driven purely by an ambition to win votes. “There is in addition a kind of personal motivation which one might call a spiritual quest,” he said.

Since it became independent in 1991, Kyrgyzstan has seen an explosion in the number of mosques from just 39 to about 2,500. Shadrova is insistent that politicians should not use their public positions to build mosques. Doing this is, she said, tantamount to buying votes.

“It is a gross violation. They can make a personal donation as private citizens, without advertising it, but they must not do so officially,” she said.

Ibraeva agreed. “Some politicians are indeed adepts of Islam, and as citizens they have the right to be so, but the fact that they… articulate this without separating it from their position of authority is, I believe, a violation of the basic principles of a secular state,” she said. “It is an abuse of the mandate which Kyrgyzstan citizens have given deputies and other politicians.”

She warned of dire consequences if the process was allowed to continue unchecked, “There are numerous examples of what the politicisation of Islam can lead to – from the establishment of an Islamic state to attempted coups and creeping revolution. Unfortunately, the politicisation of any religion leads to quite radical consequences, and losing the benefits of a secular state would be obvious and significant.”

Alymbekov does not agree that the country faces the threat of a religious revolution, he warns that continuing to integrate religious ideas into the institutions of state could lead to Islamicisation over ten or 20 years. “There’s nothing wrong with it if that’s what every individual wants, but if it’s imposed, there will be conflicts,” he said.

Bakir-Uluu dismissed such concerns as scaremongering, saying, “When certain experts express fears that Kyrgyzstan is losing its secular nature, I would say they shouldn’t exaggerate. It is not as bad as they paint it. There is no need to fear religion or religious people. You should fear those who do not believe, who fear neither God nor the Devil.”

Tolkun Namatbaeva is an independent journalist in Bishkek.

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