Religion Plays Growing Role in Kyrgyzstan’s Parliamentary Election Campaign

In many areas of Kyrgyzstan, especially in the South, religion is playing a prominent role in the parliamentary election campaign. The involvement of Islamic and Christian spiritual leaders in politics is an unsettling development for authorities.

During the run-up to the February 27 election, state agencies responsible for religious affairs have tried to draw a clear line between religion and politics. For example, the Spiritual Directorate of Muslims in Kyrgyzstan recently issued a fatwa, or religious decree, calling on Islamic clergy and scholars to "avoid involvement in politics ... and prevent the politicization of Islam." The ban, however, is not being observed by a significant number of clerics, who are otherwise loyal to state-sanctioned religious institutions.

Many spiritual leaders see the parliamentary election campaign as an opportunity to secure improvements and other favors for their local mosques from parliamentary candidates. One religious leader in the southern Kyrgyzstani town of Aravan, Habibullo Abduraupov, defended the participation of clerics in local political contests. "There is nothing wrong in supporting candidates who offer to help our community. Thanks to one candidate, we now have water pipes and drinkable water in our neighborhood," he said.

Some imams have used their mosques as forums for the expression of political preferences. Others have accompanied candidates during campaign appearances, said Mahamadzhan Urumbayev, an Osh-based political analyst. According to the pro-government Vecherny Bishkek newspaper, 10 new mosques have been registered in the country in recent weeks, most of them with the help of parliamentary candidates.

In one of the most prominent examples of the blending of religion and politics, Allawudin Mansoor, an Islamic scholar who gained notoriety in southern Kyrgyzstan by translating the Koran from Arabic into Uzbek, has campaigned for Alisher Sabirov, a pro-government MP who is running for re-election.

Kyrgyzstan is a predominantly Muslim country, but the State Committee of Religion estimates that up to 20 percent of the country's inhabitants are Christian. Leaders of at least one rapidly growing Christian evangelical sect, the Seventh-Day Adventists, have supported candidates who pledge to help prevent official harassment of their activities.

While in most cases, spiritual leaders are backing candidates deemed friendly to President Askar Akayev's administration, authorities are nevertheless nervous about the growing role of spiritual leaders in the country's political life. Kyrgyzstan, along with other Central Asian nations, has struggled to contain Islamic radicalism. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Many officials worry that the political activities of state-sanctioned spiritual leaders could have the unintended consequence of fueling a destabilizing religious trend, political observers in Bishkek say.

The highest profile radical group active in Kyrgyzstan, Hizb-ut-Tahrir, has sought to influence the election by issuing a call for all Muslims to boycott the election. The group, which is officially banned and operates largely underground, distributed leaflets in early February saying the boycott call could be lifted if candidates met several conditions, including renouncing capitalism and supporting the establishment of an Islamic caliphate in Central Asia. The group espouses non-violent methods in advocating the overthrow of incumbent governments in Central Asia and the establishment of a regional Islamic spiritual union. The group's agenda and secretive nature, however, have prompted regional official to view it as a terrorist organization. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].

Hizb-ut-Tahrir supporters have openly participated in demonstrations. On February 9, for instance, about 50 Hizb supporters protested outside government offices in Osh, Kyrgyzstan's southern capital, calling for the release of Ulugbek Ruziyev, a local leader of the group. Ruziyev and 25 others were taken into custody February 4 after authorities raided his home and discovered printed matter deemed "anti-constitutional" in his possession.

Despite the boycott appeal, Hizb supporters have gotten involved in campaign-related activities. On February 7, they joined supporters of the political opposition in blocking the road near the Osh City Court. The opposition activists sought to overturn a judicial decision barring a local politician, Achahon Turgunbayeva, from challenging Sabirov, the pro-government incumbent, in the parliamentary election. Activists from the radical Islamic group, meanwhile, were rallying solely against Sabirov, who had described a local mosque widely believed to be affiliated with Hizb-ut-Tahrir as the "headquarters of an extremist organization."

Current indicators, according to Urumbayev and other observers, show that few Kyrgyz citizens plan to heed Hizb-ut-Tahrir's boycott call. Thus, the radical group stands to have little, if any impact on the election results. More broadly, the participation of more mainstream spiritual leaders could succeed in putting religious issues on the country's political issues, some political analysts believe. It is unlikely, however, that the composition of the next parliament will be directly influenced by the religious vote.

Osh residents recently questioned at random indicated that religious considerations play a secondary role in their decision-making calculus. "Ethnic, kinship and clan ties play a greater role [in determining voting preferences] than religious affiliation," said one resident who gave only his first name, Oybek.

Alisher Khamidov is a PhD candidate at the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) of Johns Hopkins University in Washington D.C. Freelance writer Bakyt Ibraimov contributed reporting for this article.

Religion Plays Growing Role in Kyrgyzstan’s Parliamentary Election Campaign

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