Some believers in Kyrgyzstan think the political upheaval that brought down Kurmanbek Bakiyev’s administration has created a new opportunity to mix faith and politics. There’s even talk these days that Kyrgyzstan could become the second Central Asian state, after Tajikistan, to feature a legally operating Islamist political party.
The Bakiyev administration was perceived as hostile to most forms of Islamic religious expression, especially anything with a political message. [For background see EurasiaNet’s archive].
The provisional government, which assumed power amid the early April upheaval in Bishkek, is seen as more open to incorporating the views of moderate believers into the political process. [For background see EurasiaNet’s archive].
Kyrgyzstan’s citizens are predominantly Muslim, at least culturally. Taking a step to acknowledge this fact, the provisional government invited Muslim leaders to provide input in the drafting of a new constitution. The new basic law may well raise Islam to the level of state religion. The text of the draft constitution is scheduled to be released May 19. It is slated to be put to a popular referendum on June 27.
One member of the constitutional commission, Duishon Abdyldaev, head of Akyl-Es-Ruh-Yiman (Wisdom-Spirit-Faith), a religious movement seeking to unite believers under a traditional form of Kyrgyz Islam, said the new constitution should consider the needs of the faithful. But he stopped short of endorsing an Islamic party.
“We want the new constitution to reflect the interests of millions believers in Kyrgyzstan,” he told EurasiaNet.org. “The acting constitution was outdated because, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Kyrgyzstan adopted a constitution for an atheistic society and state. That is not the reality any longer, as the lion’s share of the population is Muslims and Orthodox Christians.”
Abdyldaev’s views appear to widely resonate throughout Kyrgyz society. Though religious practice among Muslims and Christians is on the rise, many believers are reluctant to endorse the creation of an Islamic political party. Many fear that such a party could end up becoming a source of radical Islamic activity, which, in turn, would fan instability, and even terrorism.
Abdyldaev suggested Kyrgyzstan should look to the United States for inspiration on how to keep religion and the state separate, yet make faith an electoral issue. “That will help bring more honest and devoted people to power,” he said.
Despite the widespread concern about the potential growth of radical Islam, some religious activists want the new constitution to pave the way for a party based on Islamic precepts.
“With proper constitutional amendments and Kyrgyzstan’s new political path towards a parliamentary republic, it is very possible that, gradually, some political party will be established that will attract people based on moral and religious principles,” said a member of Tabligh Jamaat, one of the largest international Islamic movements in Kyrgyzstan, speaking on condition of anonymity. He downplayed the radical Islamic threat by pointing to the existence of moderate, religious-oriented parties elsewhere, including the Justice and Development Party in Turkey and the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan.
Also speaking on condition of anonymity, an imam at a Bishkek mosque said he would like to see politics and politicians grow closer to Islam. His fear, however, is that politicians would manipulate faith in order to pursue their own ends. “Though we do not have legal structures for religious political parties, it would be great to have religion in Kyrgyzstan as a core of moral values and principles in our politicians,” the imam said.
Officials do not appear to share such hope. Many are steadfast in their desire to see Kyrgyzstan remain secular.
Kanybek Osmonaliev, who served as director of the State Committee for Religious Affairs until May 14, told EurasiaNet.org days before his dismissal that the state must protect secularism to ward off increasing religious tensions. “According to our constitution, the creation of parties based on religious principles is prohibited,” he said.
Kyrgyzstan's state-run Muftiyat – a board of Islamic clergy governing all official mosques throughout the country – has supported Osmonaliev's position. “The level of education and preparedness for political activity among believers is inadequate to match contemporary challenges,” said Loma Yusur, an advisor to the Muftiyat. Simultaneously, he recognized that “Muslims are also citizens and a part of the electorate. Thus, in order to protect the interests of electorate, it should be written in the constitution that a majority of the population is Muslim,” he told EurasiaNet.org.
The time is not yet right for the creation of a religious party, agreed Kadyr Malikov, head of the independent analytical center Religion, Law and Politics, a widely respected observer of religious affairs. Kyrgyz society is too easily susceptible to secularist fears, he said, and religious figures are not ready for the responsibility of leading a party.
“Political parties in Kyrgyzstan, both in opposition and in power, are ideologically colorless. That's why the political elite plays up [the threat of radical influence from] Afghanistan to intimidate the population from accepting an ideological religious party. Secondly, Muslims are not ready for public and political activity. There are not many educated lawyers, politicians and economists among Muslims,” he said. “I am afraid that if an Islamic party was created today, it would hurt the perception of religious parties.”
Still, Malikov believes the state must create an official place for sincere discourse with believers. “Such a political platform and dialogue between the state and Islam will [help] avoid extremism,” he concluded.
Ulan Temirov is the pseudonym for a journalist based in Bishkek.