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Islam in Kyrgyzstan: growing in diversity

Since the late 1980s, Kyrgyzstan has witnessed an Islamic revival. Recent talk of extremist threats and radicalisation obscures the real picture. Русский

On a Sunday afternoon in mid-August, Sheikh Ilyas Nazarbekov is sipping green tea before starting his lecture at a private house on the outskirts of Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan. Among a series of publications available to buy on a small stand in the vine-covered courtyard is Saudi Sheikh Ali Tantawi’s General Introduction to Islam translated into Kyrgyz by Ustad Shamsuddin Abdykalyk Uulu, as well as a pamphlet entitled Who are the Shia?

Every Sunday, Sheikh Ilyas teaches Islam in Kyrgyz to a group of mostly young men in the morning, and to another group in Russian in the afternoon. The same schedule applies on Saturdays for female students. On the day I attend, he imparts his teachings for the following three hours with no break and no question asked, jumping from the health virtues of olive oil and dates, to the necessity for strict monotheism, to the thousands of contradictions contained in the Bible - and much, much more.

Sheikh Ilyas is a respected and active member of Kyrgyzstan’s Salafi community, although he prefers the definition ahl-u-s-sunna wal-jama’a, or Sunni Muslims, as ‘we follow our salaf, our righteous ancestors; we aren’t them.’ Originally from the southern city of Osh, Sheikh Ilyas spent several years studying Arabic and Islam in neighbouring Uzbekistan and moved to Bishkek in 1990, where – with other ulama, or religious scholars – he founded the Hazreti Umar Islamic Institute and a small mosque adjacent to it.

Religious revival has been a hallmark of Kyrgyzstan’s short post-independence history. (c) Davide VignatiThese institutions are now the Islamic University and the Central Mosque in Bishkek, which operate under the Muslim Spiritual Board, or Muftiate, a quasi-government agency that regulates Muslim affairs in the country. Sheikh Ilyas, however, was expelled from the Muftiate after 12 years of active service. ‘They accused me of being a Salafi,’ he recounts. ‘I warned my colleagues against bid’ah, heretical innovation, as found in local practices like wearing amulets [against the evil eye] and holding periodic memorials for the dead. They didn’t like it and they kicked me out.’

He wasn’t alone. Sadirdin Madjitov is the imam khatib, or head imam at the Central Mosque in Bishkek. Sitting in his sparsely furnished office, Madjitov describes how Sheikh Ilyas and Ustad Shamsuddin, the Kyrgyz translator of General Introduction to Islam, started changing their views under the influence of Sheikh Muntasir, a Saudi cleric who lived in Kyrgyzstan until the mid-2000s. ‘Soon, anything we would do or say became bid’ah.’

Since then, Sheikh Ilyas and a group of like-minded scholars have operated via al-Sunna, an un-registered yet tolerated organisation which works from various private houses and lives off donations from believers.

Growing and diverse

Religious revival has been a hallmark of Kyrgyzstan’s short post-independence history, as the country continued the policy of openness ushered in during Gorbachev’s perestroika. The result has been a steady growth in both the degree of religiosity and the diversity of and within faiths. As the majority of the country’s 5.7 million people identify as Muslims, Islam has been at the forefront of such developments. Preachers of all strands have been allowed in, as Sheikh Muntasir was, while to this day students travel abroad to Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Bangladesh for their religious training.

Islam’s newly-found public space, however, has been attracting a lot of media coverage that tends to equate increasing religiosity with a process of creeping radicalisation. The mid-July armed confrontation between members of the elite Alpha special forces and unidentified militants in Bishkek brought so-called radical Islam back into the spotlight, despite the fact that – at least at first analysis – ‘the firefight look[ed] like an operation to capture criminals on the run.’ Given the sensitivity of the subject, people are generally left with the government’s official version of events, very often with little to no evidence to go by, or with alternative explanations that smack of conspiracy due to the lack of independent assessments.

Religious revival has been a hallmark of Kyrgyzstan’s short post-independence history

Be it as it may, Islam’s revival is a fact of life in Kyrgyzstan. According to the State Commission for Religious Affairs (SCRA), an institution of the Presidency that regulates relations between the state and religious organisations, ‘while in 1990 there were 39 mosques operating in Kyrgyzstan, in 2014 that number reached 2,362 mosques and 81 Islamic schools within the structure of the [Muftiate],’ as well as ‘68 registered Muslim centres, foundations and association involved in educational, awareness-raising and charitable activities and the construction of places of worship.’

The Muftiate represents the closest approximation to official Islam in a country that defines itself as secular, and – along with the state apparatus – it sets the boundaries of what Islamic tradition means in Kyrgyzstan. When I asked renowned theologian Kadyr Malikov back in April this year, he explained that traditionally Muslims in Kyrgyzstan are Sunnis of Maturidi doctrine and follow the Hanafi School of jurisprudence, like in the rest of Central Asia.

Scholars, however, point out that the country’s traditional Islam ‘incorporates many elements of pre-Islamic religions and cults, including shamanism, animism, Zoroastrianism, ancestor worship and the cult of nature.’ It is this syncretism that Salafis like Sheikh Ilyas take issue with, along with other doctrinal and legal matters.

Salafis are but one among many diverse strands of Islam in Kyrgyzstan, where Tablighi Jamaat (TJ) operates freely, though without an official registration, alongside an array of Sufi orders. Hizb ut-Tahrir (HuT) – a pan-Islamic organisation calling for the restoration of the Caliphate, which is banned across Central Asia and Russia – also maintains an active clandestine presence in the country.

Established in India in the 1920s, TJ is a strictly a-political organisation working at the grassroots level for the revival of Islam. At its heart is the concept of da’wah, or ‘call,’ whereby TJ missionaries (called davaatchi) travel the length of the country to educate fellow Muslims about their faith, as well as call on them to in turn perform da’wah in their communities and beyond.

Emil Nasritdinov, an anthropology professor at the American University of Central Asia and a TJ member, believes that ‘the movement is very influential in Kyrgyzstan and, given the fact that it doesn’t get involved into politics, many countries acknowledge its pacifying potential. I actually argue that because of TJ Kyrgyzstan doesn’t have a strong presence of radical political Islam.’

Fear of ‘extremism’

Despite experts broadly agreeing with this assessment, the issue of outlawing TJ is a recurrent one in the country. Some worry that a ban on TJ would spell disaster for Kyrgyzstan, creating a vacuum that could be filled by extremist groups. Likewise, given the pervasiveness of da'wah and TJ’s effectiveness in addressing social issues such as alcoholism and drug abuse, the line between adherents to the Muftiate’s 'official' Islam and TJ is blurry.

Throughout Kyrgyzstan Islam is becoming more and more a feature of daily life. (C) Davide VignatiCritics, however, view the current process of Islamisation – as they define it – with a mixture of suspicion and fear. Elites in Bishkek and (perhaps to a lesser but still important extent) Osh cherish the secular outlook inherited from decades of Soviet rule, and tend to view this religious revival as a rural phenomenon ‘migrating’ to the city due to economic reasons. In Bishkek, many of those internal migrants settle in novostroiki, new construction projects at the edge of the city where rent is affordable.

A Bishkek resident who has spent years working for an international organisation in many construction projects aptly captures these mixed feelings towards Islamisation: ‘in novostroiki, Islam is more and more a feature of daily life. Prayer rooms and mosques are being built, and people behave in a manner they consider to be in accordance with sharia. Young and old mobilise around religion, they come together in groups to discuss Islam and understand how to be better Muslims. They say there’s no danger in that.’

He pauses, and then adds: ‘to my mind, you can look at it both ways. On the one side, people become better Muslims, they stop drinking and start working for their families. On the other, the majority of them are uneducated and cannot read the Quran, so they’d believe anything one tells them about what Islam is.’

‘There’s no distinction between extremism and violent extremism’

The government has to walk a fine line between addressing these fears and avoiding being perceived as blankly condemning anything that doesn’t conform to the semi-officially-sanctioned version of Islam. However, in the charged international context since September 11, 2001, and the renewed media hype following the declaration of an Islamic State in parts of Syria and Iraq in June 2014, the ruling elites appear to be toeing the international discourse on extremism for domestic consumption.

Kyrgyzstan’s 2012 National Security Concept states that ‘religious extremism and international terrorism currently represent a massive threat to the Kyrgyz Republic. Religious extremist and terrorist organizations [become] powerful international criminal structures with an extensive network of like-minded people including in our country. In order to implement their plans to accelerate the Islamisation and radicalisation of Central Asian societies [numerous kinds of] missionaries and funds are used along with the media and internet, and extremist literature is imported [for] the indoctrination of the population.’

This formulation is highly problematic. Firstly, there is the issue of terminology: the Concept conflates Islamisation with radicalisation, which is controversial at best, inflammatory at worst. Secondly, it fuses and confuses extremism and terrorism. Other official documents use the terms radicalism, fundamentalism, extremism and terrorism interchangeably. When attempting to provide a definition, they fail to differentiate between extremism and violent extremism, missing the crucial distinction that one may hold extremist views while being loath to using violence.

Far from being a matter of semantics, this opens the door to serious confusion as Salafis, TJ and HuT find themselves under different degrees of scrutiny for an ill-defined radicalism. Also, little nuance is found in the description of these different strands of Islam, as well as Wahhabis and Takfirists – the former, adherents to Saudi Arabia’s official version of Islam; the latter, a term used to define violent extremists who accuse other Muslims of kufr, or disbelief, that can justify killing them – who are treated as one and the same.

This seems to be pervasive in the local intelligence community, as a senior official in law enforcement reportedly put it to the head of an international NGO: ‘there’s no distinction between extremism and violent extremism.’

Of sensitivity and violations

Critics argue that accusations of extremism can be used to silence criticism of the government and target specific groups. Recently, the arrest of Imam Rashot Kamalov made headlines, but he is far from an isolated example.

A lawyer in the south – who requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of the subject – claims that he has received 20 new such cases this year alone. ‘Most are Uzbeks, but there are also Kyrgyz, and the number of women has increased compared to last year.’ This is hardly surprising. Since the summer 2010 clashes in the south between the country’s majority Kyrgyz population and the sizeable Uzbek minority, the latter have complained of harassment and discrimination at the hands of the authorities. Independent researchers have consistently found that while most victims of the violence were Uzbeks, so were those tried and sentenced in its aftermath.

The lawyer tells me in frustration that in most of his cases ‘people are accused of possessing and distributing extremist literature, but these publications aren’t on the official list of prohibited material. So how can someone be arrested for something that isn’t actually banned?’ He adds: ‘The thing is that, given the current situation, these cases have huge resonance and so far we haven’t managed to get a single acquittal. This is marginalising people, who are losing faith in the institutions. Many are young and the only bread-winners in the household, so jailing them can wreck a whole family.’

The sensitivity of the subject means that evidence about allegations of extremism is often weak, while independent research is actively discouraged, as this author and others found out on several occasions. Nowhere is this clearer than in the widely ranging statistics on the number of fighters who left Kyrgyzstan to fight in Syria or Iraq for the so-called Islamic State. But it also applies to more prosaic questions such as the number of adepts of any given Islamic group.

Aman Saliev, a senior expert at the Institute of Strategic Analysis and Planning in Bishkek, puts it bluntly: ‘You’ll never manage to get estimates for the different Islamic trends. No-one keeps count and official statistics are unreliable. Every expert and every government official will come up with different numbers.’

Islam and governance in Kyrgyzstan

One point appears to find everyone in agreement, however. Kyrgyzstan lacks the number of qualified cadres necessary to satisfy the growing need for Islamic education. The SCRA indicates that ‘only 20% of clerics have a basic religious education from madrasas and Islamic institutes.’

Akim Ergeshenov, the head of the religious education department at the Muftiate, doubles down: ‘we are starved for funds. And it is very dangerous that people think they are Muslims but no-one is teaching them about Islam. If someone has a desire to know, he’ll satisfy it whether you offer a chance or not.’

‘A diverse collection of Islamic organisations and institutions are stepping in and providing the food, shelter, and education that the central government cannot.’

In Kyrgyzstan, however, this runs deeper than Islam. Secular education suffers from a shortage of 2,340 teachers, as the Minister of Education and Science recently declared. Decades of mismanagement and widespread corruption have resulted in collapsing services, or, in the words of political scientist Eric McGlinchey, ‘the Kyrgyz government at the beginning of the twenty-first century cannot even provide what Lenin delivered at the beginning of the twentieth century: electricity on a regular and predictable basis.’

McGlinchey is one of a number of scholars that reveal Islam’s potential for compensating, at least partially, for the deep governance crisis the country is experiencing.

He identifies the ongoing Islamic revival as a ‘product of the failing Kyrgyz state,’ whereby ‘a diverse collection of Islamic organisations and institutions – local mosques, Hizb ut-Tahrir, the Kamalovs’ various religious and business groupings [and] even the Diyanat, the Turkish government’s spiritual board – are stepping in and providing the food, shelter, and education that the central government cannot.’

In recent years, so-called self-help groups have substantially spread across the country – and the region – to deliver the public goods once supplied by the state. Some are secular, but many are religious and find in the local mosque their natural organising centre.

Alisher Khamidov, an Associate at the Central Asia Program at George Washington University, describes how, in the bazaar of his native Aravan, ‘there is a network of Muslim entrepreneurs who formed in a local mosque. This mutual assistance groups rotate credit among members. If someone falls ill, for example, the family can use these funds. They call themselves differently – jamaat, juralik (brotherhoods) – but they all build on Central Asia long tradition of associationism.’

On the question of whether the current growth in religiosity represents a threat to Kyrgyzstan, Khamidov is clear: ‘so far, the biggest threat has come from secular ideologies, like nationalism, rather than Islamic organisations.’ The summer 2010 events, for instance, pitted Kyrgyz against Uzbek nationalists over issues of political representation, economic grievances and cultural rights. The surge in Kyrgyz nationalism ever since raises worries of marginalisation among Kyrgyzstan’s minority communities, not to speak of a repeat of the 2010 violence.

Khamidov continues: ‘With the exception of the Tajik civil war and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, there has been no example of violent Islamic mobilisation in Central Asia. Rather, Islamic groups stood on the political side-lines during two revolutions in Kyrgyzstan.’ Saliev, the senior expert, concurs: ‘radical Islam is a very marginal project in Kyrgyzstan. The biggest threat to our country is the collapse of the education system.’

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