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Kyrgyzstan's Top Muslim Cleric Unseated by Sex Scandal

Latest in a series of leadership changes arises out of difficult evolution of state-clergy relations.
By Timur Toktonaliev
  • Bishkek's central mosque. (Photo:
    Bishkek's central mosque. (Photo:

The resignation of the senior Muslim cleric in Kyrgyzstan was prompted by a sex scandal, but it is only the latest sign of tensions between the religious and political establishments. 

Mufti Rahmatulla Egemberdiev stepped down on January 7 after a sex tape featuring him appeared on the internet. He maintained that the woman shown in it was actually his second wife. Polygamy is not legal under Kyrgyzstan’s secular laws, but is practiced by some in this Muslim-majority state.

Egemberdiev told RFE/RL that had been harassed ever since he was elected by Kyrgyzstan’s council of religious scholars in December 2012 because he was not the officially preferred candidate. He succeeded Chubak Ajy Jalilov, who was forced to resign that year.

The Muftiate, a legacy of the Soviet era, is an officially-sanctioned institution that oversees Muslim clergy and religious practice. Although close to government, the Kyrgyz version has enjoyed a greater degree of autonomy than its counterparts in more repressive Central Asian states.

In the latest row, Egemberdiev accused the head of the State Committee for Religion, Abdullatif Jumabaev, of plotting against him.

He said the main area of conflict was the management of the annual Hajj to Saudi Arabia, which generates revenues of nine million US dollars, of which the Muftiate earns about half a million dollars. Places on the organised pilgrimage are supposed to be allocated by lottery, but the process has long been dogged by allegations of corruption.

Jumabaev, who was removed from his post by presidential decree ten days after Egemberdiev’s resignation, denied that he or his colleagues had acted against the mufti. He said his department had no interest in running the Hajj, and accused the Muftiate of mismanaging arrangements for it.

“None of the corruption, none of the hype surrounding this matter would have existed if there had been greater transparency; if the queuing system for Hajj [places] had been managed online so that everyone could see who was departing on what day, and how the quotas were distributed among regions; and if all transactions had taken place through the banks to prevent cash changing hands,” Jumabaev told IWPR.

Jumabaev also denied allegations that he had been pushing for a relative of his to replace Egemberdiev, noting that it was the mufti’s deputy, Maksat Toktomushev who was appointed as acting head.

Egemberdiev’s successor is due to be elected on February 8. He will be Kyrgyzstan’s fourth mufti since 2010.

Analysts see the turbulence surrounding the Muftiate as the fallout of a more liberal climate in Kyrgyzstan, as once-authoritarian structures adapt to a less centralised system.

Kyrgyzstan became the first Central Asian state to introduce a parliamentary system in 2010, reducing the powers of the president correspondingly.

Kadyr Malikov, head of the Religion, Law and Politics Centre in Bishkek, says the muftiate had less independence before April 2010, when the then president, Kurmanbek Bakiev, was ousted. But there were also fewer scandals, since power resided in just a few hands.

The very fact that there were more players in the political system as a whole created greater scope for both conflict and corruption, Malikov said.

“It isn’t just in the Spiritual Administration [the muftiate], this is happening in local government and in other areas,” he added. “There is a low-level power struggle going on, with various groups joining in.”

Bishkek-based political analyst Indira Aslanova agrees with this view, describing developments within the muftiate as “a mirror image of what is happening in the country at large”.

She said the government wanted the Muftiate to take on the role of “regulator for the entire Muslim community”. While most Muslims in Kyrgyzstan would probably identify with the “traditional, moderate” practice espoused by the Muftiate, it would be hard for the institution to control individuals and groups that have consciously distanced themselves from it.

The Kyrgyz interior ministry estimates that at least 1,700 people around the country are part of more radical groups. Most of these are followers of Hizb ut-Tahrir, while others are linked to organisations like Jaish al-Mahdi, Jamaat Ansarullah, Jund al-Khilafah and Tablighi Jamaat.

Malikov warns that scandals like the recent one were damaging to the Muftiate’s reputation and theological credibility, and this could play to the advantage of extremist groups.

“It will influence young people, who could then follow the jamaats [informal groups] that operate outside the mainstream mosques, some of them with extremist agendas,” he said.

Malikov says the Muftiate is urgently in need of reform, including increased transparency over its finances and the allocation of Hajj places. He also thinks it wrong for the Muftiate to be in control of the council of scholars, the very body that is supposed to oversee its activities.

“I don’t think this [reform] process can be delayed any further,” Malikov said, “otherwise we will completely discredit the traditional religious establishment, and traditional Islam will lose ground to other, imported trends.”

Timur Toktonaliev is an IWPR contributor in Kyrgyzstan.