No Legal Status for Ancient Kyrgyz Creed

State refuses to recognise followers of Tengrism as a religious group.

No Legal Status for Ancient Kyrgyz Creed

State refuses to recognise followers of Tengrism as a religious group.

Kubanychbek Tezekbaev believes in the pre-Islamic deity Tengri. (Photo: Timur Toktonaliev)
Kubanychbek Tezekbaev believes in the pre-Islamic deity Tengri. (Photo: Timur Toktonaliev)
Wednesday, 24 September, 2014

The traditional dress adopted by Kubanychbek Tezekbaev is rather different from the usual style of Kyrgyz national costume worn for national holidays and other festivities.

His loose tunic is a bright, celestial blue, a colour representing the sky deity Tengri, and his robes are marked with unusual geometrical shapes. The word he uses to greet visitors– “Arbanyz” – is an ancient salutation.

These are the outwards signs of his faith in Tengrism, a system that predates Islam in Central Asia. Belief in the sky deity Tengri was common to nomad peoples across Central Asia, coupled with what Tezekbaev calls a desire for “harmony with nature”.

As an organised faith, Tengrism is a modern revival, bringing together elements of what those like Tezekbaev see as the original religion of the Kyrgyz nation.

They have repeatedly tried to get officials to formally recognise it as a faith. Religious groups in Kyrgyzstan need to register in order to be allowed to operate legally. Followers recently collected 5,000 signatures in support of an organisation called Tengirchilik (Tengrism) as a way of wining recognition. So far, these attempts have been unsuccessful.

The government argues that Tengrism is not a proper religion. Some campaigners accuse Muslim leaders of lobbying the government to block recognition, a charge they deny. Analysts say that officials may fear antagonising Muslims, who account for almost all the population apart from Russians, who are generally Orthodox Christians.

Sunni Islam was introduced into Central Asia by eighth-century Arab missionaries, although it took longer to become firmly established among the Kyrgyz, and many older ideas survived in popular culture.

“Although nowadays the majority of Kyrgyz say they are Muslims, they are in fact followers of Tengrism, because every one of them observes Kyrgyz traditions and rituals that are directly linked to it,” Tezekbaev said.

He argues that the government’s refusal to recognise the faith is a breach of the right to freedom of expression and the state law on religion. That leaves Tengrism like a homeless person with “no documents and no place to live”, he says.

The authorities argue that Tengrism cannot be classed as a formal religion, and that instead it is a more diffuse spiritual and philosophical movement. They also object to the group’s founding charter, which cites Manas, hero of the epic national poem, as the guiding principle. They say he cannot be compared to the central figures of Islam or Christianity.

Tengrism is not prohibited, in contrast to, say, extreme lslamist groups that operate in Kyrgyzstan. But without official status, the Tengrist movement cannot open institutional bank accounts, recruit new members, hold public events or build places of worship.

Anarbek Usupbaev, one of the group’s leaders, said this was unfair since in other places he had visited – Siberia, Mongolia and Turkey – Tengrists were allowed to hold gatherings.

Experts say the government is keenly aware of potential frictions with the Muslim majority.

According to religious affairs expert Bakyt Murzaraimov, “The authorities are worried because if they accord legitimacy to Tengrism, then followers of Islam will start protesting and attack the government for allowing this to happen.”

Indira Aslanova, a theology lecturer at the Kyrgyz-Russian Slavonic University, agreed, noting that Tengrists were often accused of an abrasive attitude towards Islam. She said the movement’s leaders were to blame for this.

“From the start, their views [on Islam] have been negative, and that is why they get a similar reaction from the public,” she said.

Tezekbaev’s attempts to persuade Kyrgyz to turn away from Islam landed him in trouble three years ago, when the state security service had him prosecuted for inciting religious animosity. He was acquitted.

For his part, Usupbaev denies that Tengrists want to create divisions or that they are hostile to Islam.

“We just say to people that they should preserve their Kyrgyz traditions and not lose themselves in Islam. We don’t say anything bad about Muslims – everyone is free to follow any religion,” he said.

He did, however, express concern that the rising influence of Islam, and the arrival of fundamentalist strands, could erode the foundations of the secular state.

“Why should we allow the spread of Arab culture?” he asked. “Why should our young men grow beards? Why should our unmarried girls walk through the streets covered entirely in black as if they were widows?” Usupbaev asked.

Orozbek Moldaliev, the head of the state commission for religious affairs, told IWPR that there was nothing stopping Tengrists from registering as a non-religious group, as it did not qualify as a faith.

He added that it might in fact have been wiser to register them as a faith group since it would then have been easier to monitor their activities.

Moldaliev downplayed concerns about tensions between Muslims and Tengrists.

“If things came to a confrontation, there are law enforcement agencies to take care of it. The state committee for religious affairs has no fears about this,” he said.

Asan Saipov, spokesman for the Muftiate, the central Muslim body in Kyrgyzstan, said that while the ancestors of the modern Kyrgyz believed in Tengri, they should stick to their current faith.

“If the followers of Tengrism were now allowed to operate and have the same rights as registered groups, that would create a rift in society,” Saipov said.

At the same time, he denied that Muslim institutions had lobbied against the Tengrists’ registration application.

Timur Toktonaliev is an IWPR contributor in Kyrgyzstan.

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