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

Kyrgyzstan: Is Tengrism a Religion or a Point of View?

Opinion remains divided on the status of this time-honoured, non-dogmatic faith.
By Natalia Lee
  • Anarbek Usupbaev, Kyrgyz activist and representative of the ancient tradition of Tengrism. (Photo courtesy of A. Usupbaev)
    Anarbek Usupbaev, Kyrgyz activist and representative of the ancient tradition of Tengrism. (Photo courtesy of A. Usupbaev)

Followers of the ancient shamanic tradition of Tengrism in Kyrgyzstan say that they will double down on ongoing efforts to be registered as a formal religious group.

Opinion remains divided, however - even within the movement itself - on whether Tengrism is in fact a religion, a cult or a more amorphous philosophy.

Tengrism involves a number of deities, including Tengri the Sky God, as well as ancestor worship and a set of moral codes. But it is non-dogmatic and thus followers believe it is also compatible with other faiths.

Efforts to formalise Tengrism began in January 2012, when activist Anarbek Usupbaev first tried to register his Tengirchilik organisation as a representative of the religion.

Irina Balashova, senior lecturer at the UNESCO department for world culture studies and religions at the Kyrgyz-Russian Slavic University, was a member of the expert committee convened to study Tengrism in response.

She said they concluded that Tengrism was a cult, and the state commission in turn ruled it was not a proper religion.

However, Balashova claimed that Tengirchilik had later intimidated the experts into withdrawing their testimony.

“In general, the threats were not blunt, but, let’s say, not very nice,” she alleged.

Usupbaev denied this, claiming that he had simply provided the commission with new evidence.

“We met the first experts and proved them [wrong] by showing books they had never seen. I took 20 kilogrammes of books in two bags. When I showed them, their eyes popped out. They were amazed and changed their opinion. Why would we threaten anyone? They saw the evidence and gave their opinion,” Usupbaev said.

In 2016, an appeal court found in Usupbaev’s favour, calling for the authorities to “remedy the breach” caused by the 2012 decision.

However, the dispute is ongoing due to this ambiguous wording.

“It says we should remedy the breaches we have committed, yet it doesn’t mean we have to register Tengirchilik,” said Zakir Chotaev, deputy head of the state commission for religious affairs. “It means we need to observe the procedure set forth in the law on religious freedom.”

A second comprehensive examination was convened, and Chotaev said that they also found that Tengrism was not a formal religion like Christianity, Islam or Buddhism. However, they ruled that it could be recognised as an ancient faith and its adherents had the right to be registered.

Nonetheless there remained concerns about inflaming religious tensions, Chotaev continued. Islam is by far the dominant religion in Kyrgyzstan.

“We have a lot of opinions saying that it is undesirable today to register this movement because there have been offensive attacks against each other’s feelings by both representatives of Islam and representatives of Tengirchilik,” Chotaev continued. “Therefore, it was recommended to not register Tengirchilik. This is not the opinion of the state commission, but of a comprehensive [second] examination,” Chotaev said.

There have indeed been some angry exchanges between Muslim figures and followers of Tengrism in the past.

For instance, in June 2011 Tengrist Kubanychbek Tezekbaev told a live programme on Kyrgyz Radio said that many mullahs in Kyrgyzstan were “former alcoholics and murderers”.

The State Committee for National Security (GKNB) opened a criminal case into his statement.

More recently, in February 2018, the ex-mufti of Kyrgyzstan and popular preacher Chubak Zhalilov derided Usupbaev as an “unbeliever” in an internet sermon.

Gulzat Aalieva, another Tengrist activist who until recently considered herself a follower of Islam, accused the state commission of caving into the influence of Muslim leaders.

“Currently, the state machinery represented by the state commission for religious affairs creates artificial obstacles to us, where such ulema [Muslim scholars] have influence. Why would they do that? Because currently nearly 1,900 Islamic organisations have been registered. Ulema have great influence on the state commission for religious affairs; the state commission as a secular state agency is fully governed by these ulema,” Aalieva said.

Chotaev denied these allegations.

“We are a state agency and are independent from any religious organisations,” he said. “We perform our functions in full compliance with the laws and regulations… So I think it would be wrong to say that someone influences us especially since the principle of secularism implies that religious organisations or religious workers cannot influence the work of state agencies.”

OPINIONS DIVIDED

The situation has been further complicated by the fact that many followers of Tengrism in Kyrgyzstan do not support the campaign to have it recognised as a formal religion.

“I think Tengrism is not a religion, but more a philosophy, a world perception and an attitude,” said Arslan Korgonbekov, a security analyst who lives in Bishkek. “I am against the registration of Tengrism as a religion because this implies [involving] a group of priests who start perverting and making money on it.

“Tengrism should not have distinct religious rules – it is freedom of choice, actions according to conscience: pray whenever you want to, however you want to, with whomever you want to, etc. It should be registered as a kind of philosophical system, like Confucianism,” he concluded.

Sumsarbek Mamyraliev, a Tengrist who runs a Thai restaurant in the Kyrgyz capital, agrees.

 “I don’t view Tengrism as a religion,” he said. “Its registration won’t mean anything to me and it doesn’t need it.”

Local artist Nariste Alieva also believes that registering Tengrism would dilute its true power.

“I don’t need Tengrism to be recognised as a religion,” she continued. “I am not a religious person. I am just a believer, but not religious. But Tengrism is a mind-set, it’s good that it’s not a religion.”

Other believe that registration will allow them to promote Tengrism, acquire buildings for communal use and further develop their spiritual values.

Aalieva, who is writing a series of seven books detailing all aspects of their beliefs, said that various Tengrist groups were planning to join their efforts in a public movement tentatively called Kyrgyz Baaluuluktaryn Saktoo Kyimyldy (Movement for Preserving Kyrgyz National Values).

And Usupbaev still hopes to register Tengirchilik as a religious organisation. On October 10, he filed a request with the ministry of internal affairs to initiate a criminal case against the state commission for religious affairs for their non-compliance with the judgement. The case still pendingIt.

“It is doubletalk they appeal to,” Usupbaev continued. “We have a judgment.”

Natalia Lee is IWPR’s CABAR.asia editor in Kyrgyzstan.


This publication was produced under IWPR project "Forging Links and Raising Voices to Combat Radicalisation in Central Asia".