Kök Jar is one of several settlements around Kyrgyzstan’s capital, Bishkek, that are being slowly swallowed up in the city's urban sprawl. The village, once a Soviet collective farm, has become gradually surrounded by so-called novostroiki, new constructions that feature mansions built by Bishkek's better-off, as well as the more modest dwellings belonging to migrants from the province.
Neighborhoods like Kök Jar reflect the social dynamics of present-day Kyrgyzstan. Along a dusty access road stands a two-floor mosque complex. The building, which, according to locals, was sponsored by a Kuwaiti association, was built about 10 years ago but stood unused for a while because of poor management and a lack of attendance by locals. For the past five years, it has served as the Abu Bakr Al-Sydyk madrassa.
Inside, two dozen young men receive religious instruction. "There is growing interest for Islam in the country, also in the capital," Ustad Kurban, the madrassa's director, explained as he showed off the spartan, yet well-maintained premises. "This is why we train future cadres. The courses take three years and the curriculum is approved by the Muftiate [A state-sanctioned religious agency]. We only admit students from the ninth class, after they attended regular school. In the afternoon, when the regular schools are finished, people from the neighborhood can come and attend courses about Islam, or they can use the mosque at prayer times too."
All of the madrassa's students are boarders. Most students and staffers come from southern regions of Kyrgyzstan, a few are from Talas Province. The languages of instruction are Kyrgyz and Arabic. "All of our students here at the moment are Kyrgyz,” Kurban explained. “Of course, all are welcome here, regardless of ethnicity. But there is a strong need for Islamic training among Kyrgyz. Non-Kyrgyz tend to go to the few Russian-speaking madrassas, or go abroad."
The madrassa at Kök Jar is one of three on the outskirts of Bishkek run by Adep Bashati, a Kyrgyzstan-based foundation that is involved into a wide range of social and charitable activities. Adep Bashati (meaning “source of morality” in English) was founded in 2003 by a group of Kyrgyz graduates of Al-Azhar University in Cairo. The organization now has representatives and volunteers in all of Kyrgyzstan's provinces.
According to a study on Islamic social organizations by the Social Research Centre in Bishkek, Adep Bashati receives most of its funding via contributions from sympathetic Muslims and local businessmen. That stands in contrast to local non-governmental organizations that work to foster civil society, many of which are dependent on international donors. "Some people think that we're awash with funds from Turkey or Arab countries, but that is not so," contended Mars Ibraev, one of Adep Bashati's founders who gave an interview at the foundation's office on the outskirts of Osh. "In fact, we do not work on foreign funding. We think that it is up to the Muslims of Kyrgyzstan to show initiative and we would like to keep a certain independence."
While homegrown and locally funded Islamic charities are a well-established phenomenon in Arab and other 'classical' Muslim societies, it is rather new in Kyrgyzstan. Together with the appearance of Islamic banking and halal cafés over the last five years, they suggest that Islam’s influence in Kyrgyz society is spreading. Ibraev, who studied at Al-Azhar on a Muftiate scholarship in 2000, was inspired by the Islamic foundations and charities that operate in many Muslim countries. One such charity supported Ibraev's personal Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca. Later, Ibraev did doctoral research on the dynamics of Islam in Kyrgyzstan.
"Despite the increasing interest in Islam and the growing numbers of mosques, it is still too much about rituals and traditions rather than social responsibility and everyday life", Ibraev explained. "That is why we set up the foundation. It's not always easy. We have to fight prejudice. ... Parts of the political elite and the intelligentsia in this country are still afraid of religion and do not want to be associated with it. Sometimes they try to discredit us."
Adep Bashati has some 40 core personnel, some of whom work in other professional spheres besides their engagement with the foundation. It also relies on hundreds of volunteers, many of them entrepreneurs, teachers and students. As is the case with many Islamic charities, education is Adep Bashati's focal point. Besides its madrassas and courses on Islam, it provides monthly stipends and other material support to some 200 students attending regular universities and other educational institutions in Osh and Bishkek. The organization has also published a dozen of religiously themed books and pamphlets.
The foundation also offers grants to help believers undertake religious obligations, such as the Hajj pilgrimage, and it provides assistance for Kurban Ait, the annual feast of sacrifice. "Last year, we slaughtered some 250 animals and distributed the meat to poor families," said Karazak Kojayarov, another of Adep Bashati's founders and leaders. He added that the Muftiate this year asked the foundation to help organize a pilgrimage to Mecca for 50 individuals out of Kyrgyzstan's overall quota of 4,500. "It's the first time they do this," Kojayarov said.
After the riots that ravaged southern Kyrgyzstan in June, volunteers and supporters of Adep Bashati operated a bakery that provided bread for about three weeks to families displaced by the violence. Victims also received financial aid. "After the riots, there was an urgent need for humanitarian aid, but of course it is no long-term option", Ibraev continued.
"The economy, which was always multi-ethnic here in Osh, has suffered a lot with the riots,” Ibraev noted. “In the current nationalist climate it won't be easy to restore this. But we have to try. We are a multi-ethnic association, so are our supporters and Islam in not bound to ethnicity. If we do small-scale social work, it can maybe set an example."
Bruno De Cordier is with the Conflict Research Group of Ghent University and lived for several years in Kyrgyzstan.