After 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 neighbors, due in part to lighter government control.
However, in 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 polyconfessional 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.
“In order 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 neighborliness, mutual respect in the conditions of ethnic and religious diversity,” the state document declares.
The Hanafi 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.
The main 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.
In its 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 radicalism.
From 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.
Nowadays, 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.
According 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.
Yet personal 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.
Back in 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.”
“There are many on our streets now who have grown beards […] Instead of bright, colorful 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.
Within a 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.
Similar 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,” Ergeshov said.
It seems 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.”
Furthermore, 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.
If the 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.
On the 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.
As indicated 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 Kyrgyzstan.
If the 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 the other.
A version of this article was originally published on Kloop.
Elmurat Ashiraliev is an independent researcher. He specializes in mass media and religion in Central Asia.