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TV Show Offends Muslims

Furious Mecca pilgrims find popular TV pundit’s remarks insulting.
By Kubat Chekirov

The broadcasting of a perceived slight against Hajj pilgrims on the state network has brought to a head longstanding protests by Kyrgyz Muslims about the country’s television services.


A crowd of more than a hundred gathered in front of the National Television and Radio Corporation, NTRC, on January 17 in response to the comments made by well-known journalist Kalen Sydykova on the popular talk show “Ak bosogo”. They said Sydykova’s remarks about Hajj pilgrims and prostitution in the Middle East suggested a link between the two.


Protesters held posters reading “Shame on Kyrgyz television” and “Hands off Islam”, and demanded the dismissal of the company’s president, Toktosh Aitikeeva.


While Sydykova has said her comments were misinterpreted, it seems they were enough to trigger pent-up frustration with the prevalence of sex, violence and perceived anti-Islamism on public television in predominantly Muslim Kyrgyzstan.


The corporation has promised to set up a commission to investigate the journalist’s remarks.


“What I meant [by the comments broadcast on Ak bosogo] was that, despite the fact that millions of Muslims travel to Mecca for the Hajj, prostitution continues to prosper in Arab countries,” Sydykova told IWPR, arguing that her statement was based on official data showing that many Kyrgyz girls and women live in the Middle East as slaves and prostitutes.


Aitikeeva urged the demonstrators, who had understood Sydykova as saying Kyrgyz Muslims travel to Mecca on the Hajj pilgrimage specifically to entertain themselves with local prostitutes, to watch the programme for a second time and reconsider what had been said.


But this protest is merely the culmination of months of discontent, with viewers saying Kyrgyz state television regularly broadcasts programmes which insult Muslims and their leaders.


“Such programmes are becoming biased,” the well-known clergyman Ozubek ajy Chotonov told IWPR. He said a campaign to have the matter addressed had been launched a year before but that letters sent to both the presidential administration and to the management and deputies of the state television company had received no response.


Duishan ajy Abdyldaev, head of the Islamic Akyl-Es jana Yiman, Reason and Morality, society, is equally frustrated. “We are outraged by the fact that state television, which is sustained by tax-payers’ money, insults the feelings of Muslims, who make up over 80 per cent of our population,” he told IWPR. “Unless state television stops producing such programmes, we are ready to protest further - but next time we will have much more supporters.”


Demonstrators gathered outside NTRC headquarters said the company’s programming has been increasingly influenced by Western anti-Islamic attitudes.


“It is not a secret to anyone that the world superpowers try to present Islam as a religion of terrorists and extremists and, unfortunately, there are forces in our country that unconsciously take up this unfair policy,” said Taalai Ylaitegin, an activist and Islamic clergyman.


Viewers say the television network also regularly screens violent thrillers and films with sexual content.


“We cannot watch television together with our kids because scenes of sex, violence and murder can appear at any moment. Our television corrupts our youth,” pensioner Temirbolot Abdiev told IWPR, although NTRC vice-president Moldoseit Mambetakunov was quick to point out that his company had long since stopped screening erotic films.


Islam has undergone something of a revival in Kyrgyzstan since it gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. The country has already experienced problems with Islamic militants, having been subject to incursions by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan in 1999 and 2000, and some observers say government mishandling of the religion’s followers risks stirring up further social unrest.


Official statistics show that 1600 mosques and 42 Islamic schools have been established in Kyrgyzstan country in the past decade, and many students are also sent abroad to attend seminaries in Turkey, Egypt and Kuwait.


Opposition deputy Omurbek Tekebaev told IWPR that Muslim preachers have become key figures in Kyrgyz villages. “People listen to mullahs and imams more than to the heads of municipalities and even districts,” he said.


The latest protest is the second to be organised by Kyrgyz Muslims in the past six months. Last autumn, members of the clergy campaigned against a textbook entitled “Healthy Living”, which was being used in the education of high school and university students and dealt with issues such as how to put on a condom and how to avoid venereal diseases. Claims against the book’s authors were eventually rejected, but not before they had been dragged through the courts.


Observers say that Kyrgyzstan, having declared itself a secular state in which all are free to worship as they like, risks radicalising sections of its large Muslim population if it neglects their religious needs.


“Inadequate state policy on religion, along with economic problems, unemployment and poverty… all of these factors combined might cause social or even political upheaval on a precisely religious basis,” well-known public figure Dastan Sarygulov told IWPR.


But much of Kyrgyzstan’s Muslim population is non-practising and the protesters appear to represent only a particularly active minority.


Murataly ajy Jumanov, head of the state-backed Spiritual Directorate of Muslims of Kyrgyzstan, told IWPR that he is ambivalent to the issue. “I don’t believe state television has an anti-Islamic policy in its programming. It’s coverage of all the main events [in this country] is objective,” he said. “As for the protests against that infamous programme, I personally haven’t seen it and I don’t have strong views about it.”


And Omurzak Mamayusupov, head of the State Commission on Religious Affairs, says the recent protests are not a cause for concern, “Although it is stated that the overwhelming majority of our population are Muslims, our people stick more to the more superficial attributes of Islam and are known for their tolerance… I do not think the followers of Islam pose a serious force in [Kyrgyzstan’s] political arena.”


The six members of the commission set up to investigate Sydykova’s remarks are due to meet with protesters and discuss their concerns on January 26.


Kubat Chekirov and Sultan Jumagulov are BBC stringers in Kyrgyzstan.


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