Kyrgyzstan: Government Religious Policies Fueling Societal Tension

While the December 16 parliamentary elections were designed to promote political stability for Kyrgyzstan, President Kurmanbek Bakiyev's administration still faces broad social challenges. Perhaps none is greater than the question of religion's relationship to the state.

Tension between devout Muslims and the government is high during the latter half of December, as thousands of Kyrgyz are making the Hajj, or the traditional pilgrimage to Mecca. The government is tightly regulating the process – action that many local political analysts say is motivated by the government's concern over the rise of radical Islamic sentiment in the country. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Existing policies, however, are causing friction with mainstream believers.

Authorities implemented a more stringent regime for qualifying for the Hajj in 2006, justifying the measures on security grounds. Under the changes, privately arranged trips to Saudi Arabia were prohibited and pilgrims were required to pay a flat ratein US dollars to the State Committee on Religious Affairs to arrange for visas, lodging and transportation on state-designated airways. The decision came after more than a hundred pilgrims were stranded near the borders of Saudi Arabia during 2005 Hajj season, when the Saudi government denied them entry for a lack of visas.

According to a state television report December 14, two Kyrgyz pilgrims died in Mecca after suffering from heatstroke. The last batch of Kyrgyz pilgrims departed Kyrgyzstan for Saudi Arabia on December 12.

Government regulation of religious affairs stands to become even more stringent in the coming months. Toigonbek Kalmatov, head of the State Committee for Religious Affairs,called for the adoption of a stricter law on religion in September, a move that many see as an attempt to curtail the rising influence of the underground radical Islamic group Hizb-ut-Tahrir. Kalmatov also said that the government would soon begin the process of re-registering and inspecting religious associations and religious educational institutions.

The tightening of control over religious life has fueled corrupt practices, some observers say. At a November 16 meeting of state officials and Muslim clerics, Murataly Ajy Jumanov, head of the Kyrgyz Muslim Spiritual Board, complained that authorities were continuing to accept applications to from individuals wishing to make the Hajj, even though Kyrgyzstan's quota of 4,500 pilgrims had already been filled. "Why are you [officials] still collecting new applications?" Jumanov asked at the session. An imam from Osh, who spoke to EurasiaNet on condition of anonymity, said he suspected corruption. On November 27, Zamir Moldoshev, chief of the Kyrgyz border protection service that responsible for screening the passports of Hajj applicants, said in an interview broadcast on state television that over 100 Hajj applicants had been added to the list, despite having improper documents.

Believers are upset over several other aspects of state religious procedures connected with the Hajj. Saudi Arabia annually allots Kyrgyzstan about 4,500 Hajj slots. According to Shamshibek Zakirov, an adviser to the State Committee on Religious Affairs, residents from southern Kyrgyzstan, where traditional Islamic practices and beliefs are more widespread, were slated to receive 3,300 permits, while northerners were to get the remaining 1,200 slots. Last year, the southerners received 3,500 permits. Despite receiving more spaces this year, northerners are said to be still upset about not supposedly receiving a fair share.

The state price for making the Hajj is also a source of discontent. In 2006, the cost of travel was fixed at $1,700. This year, authorities have hiked to price to $1,800. Authorities said that the additional $100 is expected to cover mobile connection, uniforms for pilgrims, and cultural events such as construction of a Kyrgyz yurt in Mecca.

Another source of discontent is transportation. Itek Air, a national airways company, which was chosen by authorities in 2006 to transport pilgrims, withdrew its bid this year, reportedly because it failed to collect appropriate authorization papers from the Saudi authorities. As a result, Muslims will be transported by four other airways companies that offer flights from Bishkek to Dubai only. From Dubai onwards to Mecca, Kyrgyzstani pilgrims were required to arrange for transportation on their own.

The total number of Kyrgyz pilgrims making the Hajj this year has reportedly reached 4,580 pilgrims or 80 pilgrims over the Saudi quota.

For some clerics, dissatisfaction has reached the point where they feel compelled to speak out. "This all is happening because officials are busy with a great number of other issues," said Jumanov, referring to the government's preoccupation with the December 16 parliamentary vote. "Besides, the organization of this holy affair is being handled by people who have never gone to Hajj; As a result, we have what we have, namely the lack of any progress."

Jumanov's comments indicate that backing for the Bakiyev administration is eroding at the Muslim Spiritual Board, an influential entity that has been previously supportive of the state.

The Hajj regulation additionally seems to be causing tension within the state apparatus. At the November 16 meeting, Nur Uulu Dosbol, an acting deputy prime-minister, accused Kalmatov of preferential treatment of some airlines involved in facilitating the Hajj for pilgrims. Kalmatov responded by saying that he made selections based on instructions received from "higher ups," hinting that top administration officials may have been meddling in the process.

Alisher Khamidov is a doctoral candidate at the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) of Johns Hopkins University in Washington, D.C.

Kyrgyzstan: Government Religious Policies Fueling Societal Tension

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