Crossroads Asia

Kyrgyzstan’s Self-Defeating Conflict With Moderate Islam

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Crossroads Asia

Kyrgyzstan’s Self-Defeating Conflict With Moderate Islam

The state’s clash with a well-respected Muslim leader will only encourage true radicalization in the country.

Kyrgyzstan’s Self-Defeating Conflict With Moderate Islam

Kyrgyz Muslims celebrate Eid al-Fitr in Bishkek’s central square on December 8, 2009

Credit: Image via Tracing Tea /

In Kyrgyzstan, social desecularization is taking place rapidly while the influence of Islam is growing. The extent of Islamic influence on the political life of the state is becoming increasingly apparent each year. As the recent high-profile scandal between former Grand Mufti Chubak Ajy Jalilov and the Deputy of the Parliament Janar Akaev has shown, a core of moderately Islamic political opposition has been already formed in Kyrgyzstan – and that opposition is capable of challenging the existing secular system.

So far this core has not named itself as a political movement, nor does it have its own structure and local entities as a public and political organization. However, with its ideological orientation and religious affiliation it has garnered wide support among moderate Muslims, which has caused concern in the government. The informal leader of the Islamic jamaat (assembly), Chubak Ajy Jalilov, is a brilliant speaker and intellectual of Islamic science. Thanks to his charismatic personality, Jalilov enjoys a high profile within the Muslim community not only in Kyrgyzstan but also abroad.

Jalilov versus Parliamentary Deputies  

Recently, the government experienced its first clash with Chubak Ajy Jalilov. Earlier this month, a Parliamentary committee was considering a draft bill making amendments to the Labor Code of the Kyrgyz Republic. Specifically, the bill aimed to extend lunch breaks on Fridays — up to two hours — to better allow Muslims to perform Friday prayers. Among the lobbyists for this proposed legislation were the country’s Islamic leaders, including Jalilov. On June 6, the relevant Parliament committee declined to pass the draft; naturally, the Islamic leaders who had lobbied for the bill were dissatisfied.

The next day, on June 7, Jalilov responded by posting on his Facebook page. In his video message, the ex-mufti fiercely criticized a parliamentarian, Janar Akaev, who opposed the adoption of this law. In addition, Jalilov claimed that he would not greet or sit at the same table with those deputies who did not support the bill. In the video, he announced the home addresses of the six deputies who had opposed the law, and urged his supporters not to vote for them or support them in the future.

Going even further, Jalilov said that, should any of the deputies pass away, he would not take part in the funeral processes according to Islamic practice, including a public refusal to read Salat al-Janazah (the funeral prayer) for them. “If I were a Grand Mufti of Kyrgyzstan, then I would give an order to all imams in the mosques not to recite Salat al-Janazah during the funeral of the opponents of this law,” Jalilov said.  

His video message seriously frightened proponents of the secular regime, who think that extending lunch breaks for attending Friday prayers is a violation of secular constitutional norms and a sign of Islam’s increasing interference in public life. Government officials were especially concerned with the high-profile Muslim leader urging against reading Salat al-Janazah for deputies opposed to the draft bill. In this appeal from Jalilov, government authorities saw elements of Islamic extremism and radicalism.

In Islam, particular attention is given to Salat al-Janazah. The prayer, performed by the imam of the mosque, is not offered at the funerals of kafirs (non-Muslims) and apostates. This is mentioned in the ayah (canonic text) of the Quran: “Never perform namaz for any of them, and do not stand on their graves since they did not believe in Allah and his messenger and died as sinners.” (9:84).

In the modern history of Islam, the withholding of the prayer has been used before to make a political statement. After the killing of the Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi, the country’s Grand Mufti Sadiq al-Ghariani labelled him as a “non-believer” (kafir) and “apostate” (murtadd), and forbid performing a funeral prayer for his body in the mosque. The former leader of Iraq, Saddam Hussein, met the same fate, he was not allowed to fully recite the Shahada (the Islamic declaration of belief) before death, and thus his road to paradise was shut off.

Jalilov’s statement divided Kyrgyz society into two opposing groups, those who supported the Muslim leader and those who criticized him. Government representatives and proponents of the secular system accused Jalilov of Islamic extremism.

As the director of the State Committee of the Kyrgyz Republic on Religious Issues, Orozbek Moldaliev, told BBC Radio: “According to our Constitution, religion should not interfere in public matters. However, Chubak Ajy Jalilov, as the former Grand Mufti of the country and one of the well-known religious scholars, breached the Constitution. He is supporting the draft bill and calls those who did not pass this law kafirs; that violates the secular system. In his appeal the elements of takfirist ideology are seen clearly, which makes a fatwa with regard to Muslims who secede from Islam and thus can be executed.”

During a parliamentary session, Deputy R. Mombekov stated that “Chubak Ajy Jalilov declared jihad on Janar Akaev, and the government and the Parliament are keeping silence.” Another deputy, A. Artykov, called Jalilov “devilish.” As to Janar Akaev himself, he expressed serious concern over the radical methods used by Islamic groups, using moral and psychological threats to pressure Parliament and the government. According Akaev, passage of the law increasing the lunch break to two hours for performing Friday prayers was the first step toward a theocratic Kyrgyzstan.

“The given initiative from Islamic radicals will make major adjustments in the schedule of the Army, law enforcement agencies, hospitals, and schools, which is absolutely unacceptable. This was the first attempt at creating a theocratic state and the law enforcement agencies should respond to it,” Akaev told the radio network Azattyk, RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz service.

Following Akaev’s statement, law enforcement agencies indeed reacted. On June 9, Kyrgyzstan’s State Committee on National Security issued on official warning to Jalilov about the unacceptability of extremist statements. The following day, President Almazbek Atambayev met with opponents of the draft bill, telling them, “Religious activists should never be allowed to interfere in politics. They attempt to violate constitutional principle of the secular system of the state. Such calls open up a way to ISIS (the Islamic State).”

In response, Jalilov’s supporters lashed out at parliamentary deputies, government officials, and law enforcement officials on social media pages. Some even openly threatened to physically assault opponents of the draft bill.

Jalilov himself told The Diplomat that the government’s concerns are overblown. “The government authorities fear for no reason that Islam is interfering in state policy. Nothing like that is happening,” he said. “I just expressed my position as an ordinary citizen, and not as a leader of the Islamic community or as a former Grand Mufti of the country.”

He added, “In Kyrgyzstan, where 85 percent of the population practice Islam, necessary conditions have to be created for the proper performance of religious rites. Instead of meeting us halfway, the government declared us extremists and takfiris, which does not correspond to reality.”

The Spiritual Administration of Muslims of Kyrgyzstan remained neutral during the clash, and encouraged Jalilov and Akaev to make peace with each other. However, in relation to the original issue — prolonging Friday lunch breaks — the Muftyat supported Jalilov’s position and said they “would be thankful if the deputies adopt the bill and will create conveniences for Muslims by doing so.”

It has to be noted that the draft bill was proposed by the Onuguu-Progress party, which forms part of the ruling government coalition.

The real winner: Islamic extremists

The recent conflict demonstrates that the influence of the Islamic movement in Kyrgyzstan is growing at a rapid pace. The authorities have banned the activity of around 20 Islamic groups, by recognizing them as extremist and terrorist organizations. Banned groups include ISIS, al-Qaeda, the Taliban, Hizb ut-Tahrir, the Turkestan Islamic Party, Jabhat-al Nusra, the Islamic Jihad Union, and others, all of which aim to overthrow secular regimes in Central Asia. The most numerous and widespread is Hizb ut-Tahrir, which has been able to preserve its position despite prosecution, prohibitions, and repression from the government.

Kyrgyz authorities routinely detain alleged members of Hizb ut-Tahrir, which is banned throughout the region, and have tried to crack down on the radicalization of young Muslims, including those wishing to fight in Syria or Iraq for groups with ties to extremist groups like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. The objectives of Hizb ut-Tahrir and ISIS are similar: the establishment of an Islamic state or caliphate, which implies the overthrow of the constitutional order as it exists now. That causes great concern for public authorities in Central Asia. According to Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB), Hizb ut-Tahrir has been recruiting Islamic radicals to the ranks of ISIS militants in Iraq and Syria, although the party has denied this. Currently, estimates indicate that around 500 people from Kyrgyzstan are fighting for ISIS in Syria, including 120 children under the age of 16.

With the dangers of radicalism on the rise, a conflict between the moderate part of Muslim society, headed by Jalilov, and government authorities will only benefit Islamic extremist organizations like Hizb ut-Tahrir and ISIS. As a well-known theologian in Kyrgyzstan, Kadyr Malikov, argued, “Public dishonor of a religious leader through all state TV channels … might create divisions among the Muslim and secular parts of the population in the country. Government officials accuse Chubak Ajy Jalilov of takfirism, radicalism, and affiliation to Islamic State without any evidence, which hinders the fight against real religious terrorism.”

Already, various forces are skillfully benefiting from this incident in order to escalate the conflict. The government of Kyrgyzstan has to clearly differentiate between moderate Islam and Islamic extremism. A faulty assessment of the threat – including repression of moderate Islam by government agencies, oppression of religious freedom, and aggressive intimidation of Jalilov by security services — might radicalize the society, forcing Jalilov’s supporters to join Hizb ut-Tahrir and ISIS.

Jalilov as a religious leader has the biggest Islamic audience in Kyrgyzstan, which numbers in the hundreds of thousands. Experts in Islam and theology are united in recognizing his contribution to settling religious disagreements between various jamaats (assemblies) within Sunni Islam that are practiced by the population of Central Asia. As Grand Mufti of Kyrgyzstan, he succeeded in stopping clashes between supporters and opponents of the religious movement Tablighi Jamaat and bringing together various moderate Islamic groups around the Spiritual Administration of Muslims of Kyrgyzstan. As a result, Kyrgyz Muslims could speak up collectively against the radical ideologies of Hizb ut-Tahrir, Wahhabism, and jihadist takfiris

One thing is clear: it is impossible to combat the ideology of Islamic radicalism and extremism without the support of moderate Muslims. Government authorities need to adopt a new level and quality of interaction with moderate Muslims, rather than labeling them as enemies. In establishing and restoring an adequate relationship with moderate Islam, it is of crucial importance to use every possible opportunity to prevent the radicalization of religious movements and their leaders — including those demanding more freedom for performing Friday prayers. In order to intellectually oppose the jihadi ideology of Islamic State and Hizb ut-Tahrir, which pose a serious hazard to Central Asian states, Kyrgyzstan needs support from educated scholars of Islam, which are in short supply. One of them is Chubak Ajy Jalilov.

Uran Botobekov has a PhD in political science and is an expert on political Islam.