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

Kyrgyzstan's Cautious Mullahs

Religious leaders follow government line in imposing controls on Islamic activism.
By Sultan Jumagulov

After the violence that rocked Uzbekistan at the beginning of this month, the authorities in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan are trying to curb even moderate forms of Muslim activism at home.

Immediately after the wave of shootings and bombings in the Uzbek capital Tashkent, the Kyrgyz government issued a decree ordering local government authorities to check up on the financial transactions of any Muslim religious institutions located within their area.

At the same time the Muftiate, the official body in charge of Islam in Kyrgyzstan took steps to rein in missionaries.

In a bid “to maintain the purity of Islam”, the Muftiate said that from now on anyone who wanted to take up Muslim missionary work would first have to obtain its written permission.

The proselytising tradition in Kyrgyzstan has a century-old history, and at the moment anyone can apply to become a “daavatist” – from the Arabic word “da’wa”, or “call”. The volunteers work primarily to boost religious observance among the 80 per cent of people who are at least nominally Muslim, rather than trying to convert the Russian minority.

But, as the Mufti, Murataly Ajy Jumanov, told IWPR, “Many daavatists either have a weak understanding of the rules of da’wa, or they often break these rules.”

Many of the lay preachers are annoyed at the new restrictions, although few were prepared to challenge the Muftiate decision openly.

Salim, a 27-year-old man from Batken region in the deep south of the country, is unhappy that he will now have to make the 1,500 kilometre round trip to the capital just to get a piece of paper from the Muftiate authorising him to preach.

“If things go on like this, it will turn into a farce,” he told IWPR. “Maybe they’ll order us to travel to Mecca and do a test there to prove our devotion to Islam.”

The daavatists’ proselytising work is officially sanctioned and encouraged by the Muftiate, which makes them quite distinct from Hizb-ut-Tahrir or other outlawed radical groupings, some of which are accused of carrying out the attacks in Tashkent. In a region where Islam is often perceived as a potential threat by governments, the volunteers steer well clear of politics and focus instead on encouraging the individual to pray properly, stop drinking alcohol, and lead a more virtuous life.

But the Muftiate clearly feels the preachers’ ranks have been infiltrated by Hizb-ut-Tahrir, the banned party which calls for the overthrow of Central Asia governments and has spread from Uzbekistan to win supporters in Kyrgyzstan and other states.

“We’ve heard rumours that Hizb-ut-Tahrir people are appearing in public and operating under the guise of da’wa, thus discrediting it as an institution,” said Nigmatulla Azhy Jeenbekov, who is deputy to the Mufti and also rector of the Islamic Institute in Bishkek. “That’s why we decided to take a kind of centralised approach to teaching the rules of da’wa work to anyone who wants to do it.

The Mufti reiterated the official position of hostility to Hizb-ut-Tahrir’s revolutionary aims, “Neither shariat [Islamic law] nor our country’s constitution allow a political party to be set up on a religious basis, so we always condemn such moves.”

While Muftiate officials did not explicitly link the measures to the violence in Tashkent, many observers see a connection. Immediately afterwards, Mufti Jumanov visited southern Kyrgyzstan – a region bordering on Uzbekistan and with a large ethnic Uzbek population – to instruct mosques to tighten up controls.

Muratbek Imanaliev, a former foreign minister who is now a professor at the American University in Central Asia, has no doubts that there is a link. “The very fact that religious leaders and government representatives responsible for religion are, one after another, visiting regions that border on Uzbekistan speaks for itself,” Imanaliev told IWPR.

The Muftiyat has also introduced restrictions on traditional rule of sanctuary, under which anyone in need of help can take refuge in a mosque. “These are simply precautions to stop people whose intentions are not pure from being admitted to holy places,” IWPR was told by Muftiate officials.

Some see the imposition of restrictions as counterproductive and as typical of the heavy-handed way the government imposes its will through the Muftiate.

“The tougher measures go against the constitution [provisions] on freedom of religion, and the mechanisms are simply absurd, as they force Muslims to make long and exhausting journeys to receive permission,” said Alisher Abdimomunov, chairman of the parliamentary committee for international affairs. “Even though religion is separated from the state, government bodies still constantly monitor the activity of religious institutions, and sometimes simply point them in the direction they should move in.”

Kerim Musabaev, a 34-year-old da’wa preacher from Jalalabad region in the south, plans to follow his conscience rather than bureaucratic rules.

“The religious department is exceeding its authority somewhat,” he told IWPR. “As a true Muslim, I consider it my duty to follow shariat law, and not the orders of the Muftiate, no matter how good their intentions are.”

Sultan Jumagulov is a BBC reporter in Bishkek.

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