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

Pilgrims' Protest in Kyrgyzstan

Claims and counter-claims of wrongdoing in the Muslim clerical establishment are a symptom of an organisation in need of change.
By Tolkun Sagynova
As Muslims in Kyrgyzstan prepare to set off on pilgrimage to Mecca later this month, there is mounting pressure on the country’s Islamic leaders, with allegations that the last Hajj was mismanaged.

But as accusations of corruption and poor management fly around, commentators are saying the real problem is that the institution within which mainstream Islam is organised, a hierarchical “directorate” that is a holdover from Soviet times, is no longer capable of managing itself, let alone serving as interlocutor between secular state and the Muslim community.

Demonstrations in the capital Bishkek and in Osh, the main city in southern Kyrgyzstan, were followed by the November 24 launch of a campaign to gather signatures in support of removing Murataly Ajy Jumanov as Chief Mufti of Kyrgyzstan.

The first protest, on November 15, involved about 50 people who picketed the Spiritual Directorate of Muslims of Kyrgyzstan, the official governing body for Islamic affairs. The demonstration in Osh two days later was much larger, with 2,000 people calling for the resignations of both Jumanov and Jolbors Jorobekov, who heads the State Agency for Religious Affairs.

In a statement addressed to President Kurmanbek Bakiev the following day, 200 Muslims from Osh and the other southern provinces - Jalalabad and Batken - said the problems that marred the last pilgrimage had still not been resolved.

Late last year, as pilgrims prepared to set off on the journey to Saudi Arabia for the Hajj which took place in January 2006, about 2,000 found they were barred from going even though they had paid for their trips in advance. Some had sold their last cow just to get a chance to take part in what could be a once-in-a-lifetime spiritual experience. Most have not got their money back.

Kyrgyzstan had been given a quota of 4,500 pilgrims by the Saudi authorities, and travel arrangements were managed under the Spiritual Directorate, of which the mufti is head.

An investigation by the parliament and the security service subsequently established that many of those travelling to Mecca as part of the Kyrgyz contingent were people from neighbouring countries, using false passports. The suspicion was that Kyrgyz nationals who had prepaid for their trips were bumped off the list – presumably after local Hajj organisers collected a bribe from the foreigners.

Responding to calls for his removal, the mufti accepted that there had been some wrongdoing, but he said his office had looked into the matter and had dismissed a number of local officials.

“The accusations should be addressed to the Hajj organisation headquarters,” he said. “We only offer them guidance on Islamic principles.”

Jumanov defended his own position robustly, saying, “As mufti and as the spiritual leader of the entire Muslim community, I categorically state that these demands are without foundation. I see no reason why I should resign.

“I have never striven to cling to this post. I came here to do good things, not to engage in intrigue.”

The campaign against Jumanov appears to be more complex than a straightforward campaign by disgruntled pilgrims against a clerical leadership they think has failed them. At least some of the mufti’s opponents are in fact insiders. The November 15 demonstration in Bishkek, for example, was led by Nematulla Jeenbekov, who lost his job as deputy mufti in February because of his alleged role in the Hajj debacle, and Abdumanap Masaliev, dismissed from the Muslim directorate in October after being accused of misusing money.

Many commentators believe the Hajj issue masks a deeper power-struggle within the Muslim directorate, a powerful body that enjoys state backing and controls assets such as mosque buildings and Hajj finances. And although Kyrgyzstan has its share of radical groups such as Hizb-ut-Tahrir, this battle among the mainstream Muslim clergy appears to be about control, not theology.

A faction within the 30-member Ulema Council, the assembly of religious scholars which steers the Muslim directorate, seems to lobbying against its own chairman, Jumanov. Some members have written to State Secretary Adakhan Madumarov asking him to press for the mufti’s dismissal.

By law Kyrgyzstan is a secular state, and the government cannot interfere in religious affairs except when radicals break the law. But it is an open secret that the government has a strong interest in running of the mufti’s administration, its key interlocutor and its channel of communication to the devout in this majority-Muslim country.

The deputy mufti, Rahmatulla Egemberdiev, says his boss will not be ousted in a coup, “[He] can only be dismissed by a decision of the Ulema Council, and no less than 21 of its 30 members have to vote for this.”

Jumanov’s opponents also want the removal of Jorobekov as the head of the government department concerned with religious affairs. He appears to have become a target because after last year’s fiasco, parliament insisted he take on the additional job of managing the Hajj organising committee.

Jorobekov dismisses charges that corruption has taken place on his watch. In fact, he says, these attacks are coming from individuals who will no longer be able to make money on the side, because he has introduced new travel arrangements intended to eliminate corruption.

“This year is the first time all the pilgrims from Kyrgyzstan will be going by plane. To save money, they used to take a bus which took 15 days and cost them 1,800 to 2,000 [US] dollars a person. It’s 1,500 dollars if they fly,” he said.

“Why is all this even being raised? Most likely because people were profiteering on the back of the Hajj. That’s going to stop with the introduction of air travel [because] using buses allowed them to take extra passengers and transport goods.”

He concluded, “Someone’s been making a profit here. That’s why 2,000 pilgrims were left stranded.”

From now on, he said, travel arrangements were being carefully coordinated with police and the consular service, “I take great exception when people come and threaten to hold demonstrations to get the mufti and me to resign. What they want is to get visas and send people off to Saudi Arabia via their own channels.”

Jorabekov said there was a “force” at work which reared its head last year as well, when attempts were made to take over the Muslim directorate and to disband his own government department.

He indicated that Jumanov’s position was safe, at least for the time being. “It would get even worse if Murataly Ajy was sacked. We’ve looked at all the pros and contras and decided to keep him,” he said. “There are several [other] candidates for the position, based in Jalalabad and in Bishkek. There’s a lot of intrigue. But it’s all under control now.”

Kadyr Malikov, an analyst with the Institute for Strategic Analysis and Forecasting, said the reason why the Muslim directorate found itself in a state of “perpetual discord and tension” was not just the personalities involved, but the way the organisation itself was structured, leaving too much power vested in the mufti himself.

According to Malikov, the institution is in urgent need of reform, not just for its own sake but because the Kyrgyz authorities have to be able to influence the religious environment in the country.

“In the years since we became independent [in 1991], Islam and the religious situation generally have been somehow left to one side. The state has not always attended to it…. A religious revival is increasingly encompassing all levels of society, and young people in particular are rapidly becoming Islamicised,” he said.

“The role of the state is not, actually, to interfere in religious affairs, or to replace one spiritual leader with another whom the authorities deem more acceptable. No - its role is to facilitate the growth of Islam along positive lines, and create the frameworks within which that can happen.”

Malikov ended with a warning, “If the state does not start engaging with Islam today, others will do so tomorrow.”

More IWPR's Global Voices

FakeWatch Africa
Website to provide multimedia training and resources for fact-checking and investigations.
FakeWatch Africa
Africa's Fake News Epidemic and Covid-19: What Impact on Democracy?