Political leaders in Kyrgyzstan tend to have their roots in the atheist, Soviet past, and thus are prone to be skeptical of religion. Yet unlike their counterparts in other Central Asian states, they have been relatively tolerant of Islam’s revival. But now speculation is swirling about whether President Almazbek Atambayev’s recent broadside against Islam signals a changing government stance on religion.
Criticizing the spread of “Arab culture” at the expense of “native ethnic culture,” Atambayev, speaking at a meeting of the Defense Council on February 3, lamented that “there are many people with long beards on our streets now. They force our girls to dress in black instead of light and colorful clothing. This is what widows usually wear here.”
The comments, picked up by almost every news agency in the country, quickly developed into a national talking point. The timing was seen as significant, coming in the wake of yet another scandal at the state-sanctioned Spiritual Administration of Muslims of Kyrgyzstan, or Muftiate, which is reeling after a third leader in four years was forced out.
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