Kyrgyzstan obtained independence, the country experienced a religious revival
which included the entry of many religious denominations into the country.
Among them were various Christian as well as Islamic sects. The new Islamic
groups in many ways differed from the practices of local or so-called
“traditional Islam.” As a result, a new religious diversity emerged in the
landlocked mountainous country alongside an ethnic diversity which remained
from the Soviet era. Nowadays religious diversity is rising in Kyrgyzstan in
comparison with its Central Asian neighbours, due in part to lighter government
order to implement more control in the religious sphere, the Kyrgyz government
developed a state policy concept in 2014 to guide public policy in the realm of
religion. In the concept, which runs to 2020, Kyrgyzstan is defined as a poly-confessional
country, and stipulates that religious and state matters are separated. But a
deeper reading of the document unveils a contradiction and a controversy: The
concept aims to create the conditions for developing Islam, particularly for
its Hanafi School.
to ensure national security and cultural identity, the state creates conditions
for the strengthening and development of traditional moderate forms of Sunni
Islam on the basis of the religious and legal school of Hanafism and Maturidite
religion. This direction, which is followed by the majority of citizens of the
Kyrgyz Republic, has historically proved its ability for tolerance, good
neighbourliness, and mutual respect in the conditions of ethnic and religious
diversity,” the state document declares.
School or Hanafism is one of the Sunni Islamic schools of jurisprudence. The
other three Sunni schools are Maliki, Hanbali and Shafi’i. Historically, these
schools emerged and were established in different parts of the world. Hanafism,
which started to emerge in the 9th and 10th centuries stretched its teachings
across Central Asia and nowadays is one of the most widespread Sunni schools of
law in the world.
difference between these schools lies in the source of the law. For instance,
unlike the other main schools, Hanafi law contains the principle of Urf, local
customs. Urf can be the source of a ruling in case there are no explicit
judicial decision in the Quran, Sunnah, Ijma and other core Islamic texts.
religious policy, Kyrgyzstan utilizes the term “traditional Islam.” By using
this concept, the government officials are trying to manage religious groups in
the country and to prevent the impact of religious denominations with external
origins. In reality, globalization, which also influences the religious sphere,
is viewed as threatening by the Kyrgyz government. Therefore, officials think
that greater support for Hanafism would protect Kyrgyzstan from religious
outside, it looks like the isolation of local Islam as it was practiced during
the Soviet era. The political regime of that time, among other aspects,
facilitated the isolation of Islam in Central Asia from the wider Islamic
world. As a result, Islam in the region took on a local shape and was perceived
as a part of the indigenous people’s culture. Yet, before the 20th century
Central Asia was one of the most significant and powerful parts of the Islamic
world, not isolated from it.
In the 21st
century, this process has been revived. Ideas are travelling alongside people
once again. Despite that, the Kyrgyz government seems to be willing to see only
a homogeneous Muslim population. But it is impossible to isolate and control a
global religion even within the boundaries of a small mountainous country.
the country is not in isolation anymore and the Islam is regaining its roots
both in Central Asia and those that extend to the greater Islamic world. There
are many Muslims in Kyrgyzstan who are Sunni, but not necessarily Hanafi. These
groups range from Salafists, who want to practice the version of Islam as it was
during the time of Prophet Muhammad and his disciples, to conservative Tablighi
Jamaat that originated in India, to Nurjular, a Turkey-originated denomination
with more liberal values.
to research from the State Commission on Religious Affairs, the most active
religious groups in Kyrgyzstan are Tablighi Jamaat and Nurjular, among others.
Both groups entered the country after independence in 1991. Among these groups
there are many Muslims affiliated with Islamic schools other than Hanafism. According
to various data, from 80 to 90 percent of Kyrgyz citizens are considered
Muslims. It appears the Kyrgyz government automatically regards them as Hanafi,
although that is misleading.
It sounds a
lot like the stereotype that “every (ethnic) Kyrgyz is a Muslim” which formed
during the Soviet era. In fact, a person’s faith or absence of faith obviously
does not depend on that person’s race.
It is not
the government’s task to teach citizens what and how to believe. Everyone
decides their own faith.
issues such as religious belief oftentimes come up for public discussion. Such
debates sometimes even reach the presidential level. One such topic has been
religious garb under local customs. For example, it has been said that a Kyrgyz
man does not traditionally grow a beard while his father is alive, and Kyrgyz
women do not put on a headscarf/hijab before marriage. Interestingly, on both
sides of the debate are those that consider themselves Muslims.
2014 then-President Almazbek Atambayev managed to express his point of view on
Islamic denominations that are different from local Hanafism. Atambayev stated
the followers of Islamic schools other than Hanafism “are imposing the cultures
of Arabs, Bangladesh and Pakistan, and confusing their culture with Islam.”
many on our streets now who have grown beards […] Instead of bright, colourful
dresses, they impose our girls to dress in black, which is usually worn by
widowed women. […] If we do not stop this, we will lose the country, we will
lose our Kyrgyz nation! Because people who have forgotten their language, their
native traditions are not people!” Atambayev claimed during a meeting of the
Defense Council in 2014.
year after Atamayev’s statement, billboards appeared both in the capital city
of Bishkek and across the country that contained three pictures and a sentence
“My poor people, where are we heading?” The first picture had women in Kyrgyz
traditional clothes, the second picture had the women in white headscarves, and
the third showed the women in black burkas.
ideas still persist among government officials. In 2018, the Director of the
State Commission on Religious Affairs Zayirbek Ergeshov told me in an interview
that the principles of Islam from outside differ from local Islamic practices.
“When Islam comes with the principles of Saudi Arabia, Iran or Egypt, it is
contradicting with local traditional Islam which is formed throughout centuries,”
Kyrgyzstan’s officials associate religious denominations which come from the
Middle East or South Asia with extremist groups. Indeed, radical and extremist
groups jeopardize national security. Nevertheless, it is an exaggeration to
equate people to extremists just because they are wearing hijab or growing a
beard, not following “the ancestral Kyrgyz Islam.”
one can witness conflicts between the adherents of two different religions in
Kyrgyzstan. Recall the stories of a Kyrgyz Christian boy beaten-to-death by
villagers in Issyk-Kul and of the body of a Kyrgyz woman, who converted to
Christianity in Ala Buka, that was reburied three times because of villagers
did not want to have a Christian in the Muslim cemetery.
authorities really want to regulate the religious affairs in the country, they
should treat all religions equally without violating the Constitutional norms
by “creating the conditions” for a particular religious denomination.
topic of extremism, experts note that people join extremist groups for a
variety and mix of reasons including poverty, unemployment, resentment toward
authorities and law enforcement agencies among many other reasons.
Radicalization is a complex process.
in the concept, the state cannot interfere with the affairs of religious
organizations unless they contradict the legal norms of the Kyrgyz Republic.
Kyrgyzstan is a secular country, where religious affairs are separated from the
state. State interference into religious affairs might lead to wider
consequences. By prioritizing a particular religious group, the authorities are
violating a main principle which is defined both in the concept and in the
Constitution. If the authorities continue their rhetoric on showing preference
for one group over others, then it might facilitate the creation of
“unpleasant” religious groups and negative opinions toward those people in
society. The examples above suggest such a situation has already exists in
ethnic and religious identities of people were perceived as one during the
Soviet era, nowadays people have begun to conceive of their ethnic identity as
different from their religious identity. The former does not have to define the
latter. In other words, Kyrgyz people might prefer their faith over their
ethnic background and practice a religion not “traditional” for their
ethnicity. It is an ordinary situation in our age and there is no need to worry
about people freely choosing their religion. Any risk or threat stems from when
one is prohibited to believe in what they choose or imposes those beliefs
violently on others.
Islam is a
world religion and a global phenomenon. It is impossible to isolate Islam
within the borders of a particular country and there is no necessity for doing
so. The Kyrgyz government should handle all its citizens equally regardless of
their diverse religious backgrounds, instead of supporting one part and mocking
Ashiraliev is an independent researcher. He specializes in mass media and
religion in Central Asia.
Headline: Kyrgyzstan Attempts to Isolate Local Islam
Source: The Diplomat