Wednesday, 02 October 2013

Hajj Remains a Source of Tension Between Kyrgyzstan's Muftiate and State Agencies

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Jamil Payaz (the 02/10/2013 issue of the CACI Analyst)

On August 30, Kyrgyzstan’s Muftiate complained that the pilgrimage to Mecca might be disrupted this year after the State Committee for National Security (GKNB) froze the Muftiate’s bank account, claiming tax evasion during previous pilgrimages. This dispute sheds light on more serious issues related to the Muftiate. As an organizer of the Hajj, which involves dozens of millions of dollars, the Muftiate is often associated with corruption scandals. Corruption opportunities, fueled by competition for limited hajj visas and an uncontrolled flow of money, makes the Hajj a source of tension between the Muftiate, state agencies, and even criminal groups.

BACKGROUND: After the Bakiyev regime fell in April, 2010, the Muftiate (the Spiritual Administration for Kyrgyzstan’s Muslims) was seriously disorganized just like the central government. On April 20, a criminal group kidnapped and assaulted the Supreme Mufti Murataly Jumanov, 37, who served for eight years, reportedly to extort one million dollars. He was released the same day, but died of cancer after about three months, as reported by his family members. In June, acting Supreme Mufti Suyun Kuluev was also severely beaten by unknown people who reportedly wanted him replaced as the Supreme Mufti.

Given this unstable situation, the government decided that the State Commission for Religious Affairs (SCRA) should organize the Hajj in 2010, with 5060 visas allocated to Kyrgyzstan. However, the SCRA’s organization of the Hajj became tainted with a corruption scandal, allegedly involving government officials and infamous pilgrim group leaders. In November 2010, the GKNB arrested an Iranian citizen at the Manas airport trying to leave the country with 139 hajj visas. The Kyrgyz Embassy in Saudi Arabia observed the arrival of over 900 foreign citizens from Turkey, Iran, and Uzbekistan with visas illegally obtained in Bishkek. The Financial Police estimated that these visas were sold to foreigners for up to US$ 4,000 each. A journalistic investigation by the RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz service revealed that up to US$ 5 million disappeared during the pilgrimage.

As a result, the parliament found the work of the SCRA as well as other involved agencies unsatisfactory, citing a lack of experience in logistical administration. It also recommended that appropriate agencies take measures against then President Rosa Otunbayeva’s Chief of Staff, Emil Kaptagayev, and his son Kubanychbek, who worked in the Foreign Affairs Ministry and reportedly had personal contacts with councils from Saudi Arabia. They were pointed out as the main masterminds and beneficiaries of the corruption schemes.

In August, 2010, the Council of Ulamas (religious scholars) elected Chubak Jalilov, 35, a graduate of Umm Al-Qura University in Saudi Arabia, as the Supreme Mufti. Jalilov, who was widely viewed as a reformer and an expert on Islamic law, set up the Center for Hajj-Umra, consisting of 17 people, including himself and his deputies, five parliamentarians from each political faction, and seven legal experts. Importantly, he made pilgrims pay their money to a bank to avoid the use of cash and published a list of pilgrims on the Center’s website as anti-corruption mechanisms. He also selected hajj group leaders anew from among the imams and madrasa teachers, with harsher requirements. He also carried out testing for all the Muftiate workers, including the Qazy of Bishkek, Osh and seven oblasts, and rayon level Imam Hatips to bring in qualified religious workers. He dissolved the Muftiate’s office in the country’s south and fired his first deputy there, accusing him of abuse of power and obstruction of the reforms. The successful organization of the pilgrimage in 2011 was acknowledged by many including the government, the Kyrgyz Embassy in Saudi Arabia, and Saudi Arabia’s Hajj Ministry.

IMPLICATIONS: On July 16, 2012, despite all the observable positive changes, Jalilov resigned from his post citing health issues. His resignation came as a surprise to those who believed in his competence. But his resignation was apparently dictated by different groups unhappy with his somewhat radical reforms. For example, two months earlier, the Muftiate openly called on President Atambayev to check a group called “Black Square” allegedly planning to change the Supreme Mufti by pressuring members of the Council of Ulamas to convene and vote against him. The names of Jantoro Satybaldiyev, who was then the President’s Chief of Staff and currently Prime Minister; Abdilatif Jumabayev, the head of the SCRA; and some GKNB officers were mentioned as a part of this group. In addition, in July, a group led by a former acting Mufti, Ruslan Jumagulov, announced an alternative Muftiate and set up a yurt outside the Muftiate.

Evidently, Jalilov was appointed Supreme Mufti with no serious contenders, as few would dare to challenge surging criminal groups, who had filled the vacuum left by the demoralized law enforcement after the April events in 2010. After the death of Jumanov, two of the three different acting Muftis resigned. Despite the SCRA’s failure to organize a uncorrupted pilgrimage, then President Otunbayeva vetoed the parliament’s decision to return the prerogative over the Hajj to the Muftiate in what was seen as her cabinet’s reluctance to give up control over large funds. Even though the parliament managed to override the president’s veto, different groups attempted to gain control over the Supreme Mufti or replace him with someone more manageable. It remains unclear what specifically made Jalilov resign, but he was bombarded with populist accusations in local media. His opponents declared that the Center for Hajj-Umra was not representative, that the Hajj costs were unreasonably high, and that foreigners were buying Hajj visas. The SCRA questioned the legitimacy both of the Supreme Mufti and his Center for Hajj-Umra.

The next Supreme Mufti, Rahmatulla Egemberdiyev, managed to gain the support of the Kurultai of Muslims in December 2012. His path to become a legitimate Mufti was also marked with attempts to sideline him. On the eve of the Kurultai he was pressured by President Atambayev’s advisor Farid Niyazov and the GKNB not to put forward his candidacy, informing him that in October 2012 a criminal case had already been launched against him and Jalilov, allegedly for committing economic crimes in 2011, particularly tax evasion. The GKNB then froze US$ 3.5 million in the Muftiate’s pilgrimage bank account. The Muftiate appealed to court, claiming that no financial violations were found during the inspections. At present, when the first groups of pilgrims have already departed for Mecca, about US$ 300,000 remain frozen, a sum that the Muftiate supposedly needs to pay the Tax Service and the Social Fund. Recently, the Mufti complained in parliament that he spends half of his working time answering questions of the GKNB.

In a nutshell, while the Muftiate remains dragged into legal issues, which are not likely to be settled any time soon, and preoccupied by constant allegations of corruption, the religious situation seems to develop on its own, in an unpredictable direction in the long-run. The GKNB blamed the Tablighi Jamaat for attracting children aged 15 or younger to study in Bangladesh. Currently, 50 children from remote villages were reported to be studying in unofficial madrasas in Dhaka. There is also an increasing number of cases of girls dropping out of school due to local pressure. It is also said that many religious parents abstain from routine vaccination of their children, finding it un-Islamic. Criminals exploiting Islam for their own ends seems to be another underestimated issue.

CONCLUSIONS: Kyrgyzstan’s Muftiate, as a remnant of the Soviet Union’s Spiritual Administration of the Muslims, is clearly going through a process of adjusting to new realities. Without the government’s financial support, it remains dependent on charity from pilgrims. The Muftiate faces enormous temptation for corruption, as more people than allowed for by the quotas are willing to go to Mecca and to pay more money than the basic cost of a package visa. Such lucrative opportunities attract government officials to interfere in organizational matters, as well as cadre politics within the Muftiate through the GKNB and SCRA. The Muftiate remains far from a democratic institution with its vaguely defined rights and responsibilities with the Council of Ulama. These factors taken together increasingly risk undermining the Muftiate’s reputation when various Islamic movements are challenging moderate teachings of Islam in Kyrgyzstan.

AUTHOR’S BIO: Jamil Payaz is a Bishkek-based freelance journalist who specializes in economic, political, and security issues in Kyrgyzstan.

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