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Kyrgyzstan: Parliamentary Prayer Room Meets With Resistance

Questions raised about foreign funding source as well as a possible weakening of secular principles.

An Islamic prayer room in Kyrgyzstan’s parliament funded by a Saudi-based charity has raised questions about the principle that state and religion should be kept separate.

Opponents of the move argue that it is inappropriate to locate a place of worship inside a state institution. They are also troubled by the fact that it is funded by a group headquartered in Saudi Arabia.

Supporters say staff and politicians need more space to pray, as the existing prayer room is too small. They insist its presence does not infringe on the secular nature of parliament or on the rights of other faith groups in this predominantly Muslim country.

One of the lawmakers who petitioned for a new place of prayer zone, Tursunbay Bakir Uulu, told IWPR that the existing room, built in 2011, was now unable to accommodate the 200 people who gathered for prayers. On Fridays, he said, the congregation spilled out into the corridors.

A request by 25 members of parliament for a second, larger room was approved in June 2013.

The deputy speaker, Asiya Sasykbaeva, told RFE/RL that she was believed parliamentary procedure had been violated because the decision was pushed through by a small group of members rather than in open debate. She said the issue would be soon raised with the Committee for Parliamentary Ethics.

Sasykbaeva said she opposed the use of parliamentary premises for another prayer room at a time when space was at a premium.

Disquiet about the prayer room was also expressed by human rights activist Ondurush Toktonasyrov, who staged a solo protest outside the parliament on February 18, He told reporters that building a second prayer room was tantamount to proselytising on parliamentary premises.

Other concerns centre on the body that funded construction of both prayer rooms, the World Assembly of Muslim Youth (WAMY).

WAMY's headquarters are in Saudi Arabia, with offices around the world, It has been in Kyrgyzstan since 1999.

In 2004, WAMY’s office in the United States, which had been set up by Abdullah bin Laden, a nephew of Osama bin Laden, was raided by the FBI in a terrorism-linked investigation. In 2012, Canada stripped WAMY’s Canadian office of its charitable status after an audit revealed ties to a number of organisations allegedly helping to fund al-Qaeda operations in various countries.

Gulzada Medralieva of the Coalition for Democracy and Civil Society is uneasy about a private organisation funding this kind of facility.

“He who pays the piper calls the tune,” she said. “There’s no guarantee that it won’t meddle in our politics. After all, this is the building where the decisions that shape state policy are made.”

Medralieva said it would be naïve to think of the prayer room as merely a goodwill gesture. She sees it as a form of lobbying.

“Free cheese only comes in a mousetrap, and this prayer room construction doesn’t come free,” she said.
Medralieva said that while state institutions should not become places of worship at all, if one faith group was granted space for prayers, the same facilities should be provided for Orthodox Christians, the second largest community in Kyrgyzstan, and for Buddhists.

“If [Muslims] want to pray, they can go to the mosque located nearby,” she said.

Esen Usubaliev, the director of the Sensible Solutions think tank, also suspects an attempt to gain access to power by building close ties with politicians.

“Religious organisations exert influence through individuals, as it’s impossible for them to get into power,” he said. “But if a public office-holder… joins a group affiliated to them, it’s an extra bonus. It means that if they run into problems with government bodies, this official will play the role of patron.”

Religious expert Nazira Kurbanova, a member of an advisory council which is part of the State Commission on Religious Affairs, says numerous faith bodies are trying to establish informal links with influential government officials.

“The justification for building a place of prayer with money from an organisation in an Arab country is that it’s a good way of saving public money,” she said, adding that there might be a price to pay if members of parliament were then influenced in making decisions that affected the organisation concerned.

Bakir Uulu rejected any suggestion of a covert political agenda.

“No religious leader in Kyrgyzstan – Christian or Muslim – wants to take power and jeopardise the secular nature of the Kyrgyz Republic,” he said. “How will they exert influence if they aren’t represented in parliament?”

Asked about the concerns raised about WAMY, Bakir Uulu replied, “That’s rubbish. The information is untrue. If the US and Canada are closing [WAMY offices], they are just being paranoid. I believe that the World Assembly of Muslim Youth is among those organisations offering Kyrgzystan sincere help.”

Kanat Tashbaev, deputy director of WAMY’s office in Kyrgyzstan, told IWPR that it was parliamentarians who approached his organisation about the idea of a new prayer room.

He categorically denied any links to terrorism, dismissing the US and Canadian allegations as “nonsense”.

Tashbaev said WAMY engaged in charity work by building mosques and schools and assisting the poor, and had no connections with Kyrgyz members of parliament.

“We are not involved in politics – that is prohibited under our organisation’s charter – and we only conduct charitable activities,” he said, explaining that once projects have been funded, they are handed over to the relevant authorities and WAMY has no further involvement.

“Our mission is solely to provide assistance,” he said. “If we were a bad organisation, no one would have approached us.”

Timur Toktonaliev is an IWPR contributor in Kyrgyzstan.

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