A seemingly innocuous suggestion to allocate time and space for Kyrgyz MPs to observe Islam’s traditional Friday prayers has produced a furor with implications for mosque-state separation. Opponents say the measure threatens to erode the concept of secularism enshrined in Kyrgyzstan’s constitution.
The origin of the debate goes back to a late December parliamentary session, when Vice Speaker Asylbek Jeenbekov of the governing Social Democratic Party called the need to address prayer in parliament “long overdue.” Support for the initiative cut across party lines. In addition to Jeenbekov, several prominent members of the opposition Ar-Namys Party spoke in favor of providing an extended break for worship on Friday, not only for deputies, but for all state employees. Some also expressed a desire to set up a prayer room in the parliament building.
A recent series of events that security officials characterize as acts of terror has helped sharpen the discourse about faith and state. And while some MPs have been quick to endorse the new administration’s combative rhetoric vis-à-vis “militants,” others, activists complain, are trying to curry favor among disaffected Muslims.
Dmitri Kabak, head of Open Viewpoint, a human rights organization that monitors constitutional compliance, is one of many activists who have been critical of a perceived opportunism among some parliamentarians. “We consider that this piety is an example of politicians using religious feelings among the population to improve their own image -- it’s an exercise in PR,” Kabak told EurasiaNet.org.
“Our position is that religion is a personal freedom that all have a right to exercise,” Kabak added. “The state, however, serves the interests of society, and must remain neutral before all religions. This is a status that is imposed by the constitution and should not be ignored.”
Worship is a “private matter” and should stay that way, argued Gulnara Aitbaeva, head of the Bishkek Women’s Center, an organization that monitors a broad range of citizens’ rights. “Some people in the country want to change that. But I don’t think the people, or even the majority of [MPs] support this initiative.”
Others point with some concern to Islam’s increasingly public role in society. Irina Karamushkina, an MP from the Social Democratic faction who opposes the idea of a state-sanctioned break for Friday prayers, likes to quote a statistic that alarms secularists: The number of mosques in the country (roughly 2,000) is close to approaching the number of schools (2,191).
Amid this rapid expansion of public places of worship, many analysts fear that a mishandling of the government’s relationship with Islam could have negative implications for society. Kadyr Malikov, head of the prominent, Bishkek-based think-tank, Religion, Law and Politics, which tracks issues related to faith and extremism, argues that the prayer debate has the potential to exacerbate divisions in Kyrgyzstan.
“What we are seeing here is two groups talking past each other,” he told EurasiaNet.org. “More often than not, discussion of these issues takes the form of accusation-trading. The sides have little understanding of each other’s positions.”
“When debates like these become polarized, there are consequences for society,” Malikov continued. “Of course, our state is secular. But our politicians have to understand that secularism doesn’t mean control of religious feeling. … Considering recent events, it is essential that religion and government enter into a more mature dialogue with a better understanding of each other’s common and separate concerns. Unfortunately, we don’t appear ready for this.”
Aitbaeva of the Bishkek Women’s Center claims that collective patience with the new parliament is already wearing thin. She contended that that the debate over parliamentary prayer has fostered an impression that MPs have already lost touch with the day-to-day concerns of their constituents.
“When these MPs were out campaigning they spoke of completely different things: lowering poverty, improving quality of life and so on. Now they are in the parliament we see that they are mainly concerned with using public money to create places for their own personal salvation. Once again, the country lives one life, and parliament lives another,” she said.
Chris Rickleton is a journalist based in Almaty.