Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Kyrgyzstan: Religion and Politics Prove Sensitive Mix

Critics argue that Muslim leader should be penalised for offering election endorsement.
By Timur Toktonaliev

Human rights activists have been angered by the failure of Kyrgyzstan’s Central Election Committee (CEC) to censure a prominent religious figure for openly supporting the ruling party’s presidential candidate.

Ex-mufti Chubak azhy Zhalilov declared he would be voting for Sooronbai Zheenbekov, widely viewed as the chosen successor to current president Almazbek Atambaev.

According to Kyrgyz election law, representatives of religious organisations or public figures “may not hold campaigns, issue and distribute any campaign materials”.

Zhalilov is a member of the Council of Ulema, the supervisory agency of the Spiritual Directorate of the Muslims of Kyrgyzstan (DUMK), and one of country’s best-known imams.

During his speech at an event in the village of Barpy in the southern Jalalabad region, he told the crowds that he was supporting Zheenbekov because he adhered to traditional Kyrgyz values ​​and morality.

Zhalilov repeatedly emphasised that he was speaking in a personal capacity rather than as a religious activist or public figure.

The CEC, an independent body consisting of 11 representatives of civil society as well as of the ruling and opposition parties, decided that no action needed to be taken.

“Kyrgyzstan is a secular state, and the religious authority may not interfere in the election process,” CEC member Kairat Osmonaliev told the AKIpress news agency, but said that Zhalilov did not meet the criteria of a “religious authority” as he was neither the head nor a deputy of the Council of Ulema.

However, prominent human rights defender Dinara Oshurakhunova recalled how, during the October 2015 parliamentary elections, the CEC issued two warnings to Zhalilov for campaigning for the Kyrgyzstan Party.

“In this respect, the law must be applied consistently, it cannot be interpreted differently depending on the election,” Oshurakhunova said. “In this case, a warning should be issued to prevent any participation by religious leaders and organisations.”

According to Oshurakhunova, the law would lose all significance if any official or civil servant was allowed to campaign or even express their opinions in public.

Rita Karasartova, head of the Institute for Public Analysis, said that incident illustrated the CEC’s closeness to government.

“This is absolutely wrong; these are double standards from our government, which should not be tolerated. Much to our regret, today we witness the absolutely undisguised violation of laws, absolutely undisguised, even brazen, flouting of the law,” Karasartova said.

CEC chairwoman Nurzhan Shaildabekova has consistently denied that there have been any attempts by government to exert control over the body.

But some human rights defenders claimed that the CEC would have reached a different decision had Zhalilov supported another candidate.

They point to another incident in which a prominent religious leader in southern Kyrgyzstan, Sadyqzhan Kamalov, was filmed speaking in support of Omurbek Babanov, Zheenbekov’s main opponent.

A CEC representative said that a complaint had been made by Zheenbekov’s office regarding the speech by Kamalov, who heads the Centre for international Islamic Cooperation of Kyrgyzstan, and that an investigation was ongoing.

In another incident, Kyrgyz vice prime minister, Duishenbek Zilaliev, who heads a commission to ensure that officials and state institutions do not engage in election campaigning, himself told locals during a trip to the Batken region that they should vote for Zheenbekov. The CEC voted not to turn the matter over to the Prosecutor General’s Office.

The presidential election in Kyrgyzstan will be held on October 15.

(See Kyrgyzstan Officially Launches Presidential Race) 

THE RELIGIOUS FACTOR

Although Kyrgyzstan remains a secular republic, the majority of the population is Muslim and interest in religion has grown rapidly over the last two decades. According to the State Commission for Religious Affairs, there were only a few dozen mosques in the country during the 1990s. Now their number exceeds 2,500.

Analysts say that in these circumstances, it’s no surprise that politicians might show interest in Islam or woo prominent religious activists with a view to secure votes.

Zhalilov, 42, regularly draws several thousand followers to his sermons in Bishkek, and even larger crowds during his trips to the regions and to lecture Kyrgyz migrants in Russia.

Having studied at the Islamic University of Kyrgyzstan, he continued his education in Saudi Arabia. A specialist in Islamic law, his popularity has been built on his television and online lectures about how to live according to Sharia. His Nasaat Media pages on Facebook and YouTube have more than 100,000 subscribers.

(See also Kyrgyzstan’s Islamic TV Revolution and Kyrgyzstan: Election Campaign Co-opts Islam).

“I think he is a serious populist who uses his relative advantage of having recognition among the religious community well,” said Central Asia analyst Chinara Esengul, a former deputy head of the Kyrgyz government’s National Institute for Strategic Studies.

She was confident that part of Zhalilov’s audience would vote for Zheenbekov simply because their leader called for it.

“This will influence the choice of voters because the average Kyrgyz voter is not very literate, but now quite religious, so I think this candidate tried to use this factor,” she explained.

 

Amid the rapid growth of Islamic identity and the fragility of various state agencies, there are fears that the Kyrgyz system might become ever-more religious.

The limits of secularism are regularly put to the test. Last year, a Kyrgyzstan Party lawmaker called to extend Friday lunch breaks so as to allow the faithful to attend Friday prayers. Zhalilov embraced this initiative, entering into a dispute with opponents that reached such a pitch that the president had to interfere.

(See Islam and Secularism Clash Again).

 “The religious factor is a bit dangerous for a secular state because at some moment in the near future, religious institutions and norms could eventually become part of the social system. Laws can change through the arrival of more religious people to positions of power,” Esengul said.

She noted that prayer rooms could now be found in state institutions including the parliament building.

“I don’t want to intrude into personal matters, but it is very difficult to track such things, and I don’t see how these people can separate their religious identity from their professional duties,” she said.

Historian and former speaker of the parliament Zainidin Kurmanov said that the constitution’s secular principles were clearly defined. But the state was growing too weak to defend this position due to the lack of the rule of law and the rapid growth of religious feeling, he warned.  

“The make-up of the population is changing, the process of Islamisation is making giant strides, Muslims will defend and protect their interests, there’s a struggle for hijab, etc. Obviously, their influence grows as the population grows, and they will not be limited by the current situation; they will try to change the world according to their own ideals,” Kurmanov said.

Zhalilov was travelling abroad and not available for comment, but in an interview he gave this summer to IWPR’s Central Asian project CABAR.asia he said that the secular nature of the state might indeed be diluted by such popular trends.

 “It’s possible because our politicians always follow the people,” he told the website. “It’s politicians who must lead the people, but here it’s different. Our politicians go anywhere people want to go. They say whatever the people want to hear. But a politician should be strong enough to lead the people. Only then the politics will be right.”