Wednesday, 14 August 2002

IS ISLAM IN KYRGYZSTAN DANGEROUS FOR GOVERNMENT?

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By Rustam Mukhamedov (8/14/2002 issue of the CACI Analyst)

While the war against the Taliban regime in Afghanistan is continuing, governments in Central Asia are strongly concerned by the role of Islam in society, especially radical movements that act under the Islamic flag, such as Wahhabi movements and Hizb-ut-Tahrir. The Uzbek government keeps all religious affairs under control, while the political atmosphere is much freer in Kyrgyzstan, although Kyrgyz authorities recently banned Hizb-ut-Tahrir. The question that is still open for discussion is whether Islam has a big influence on the people of Kyrgyzstan?

Kyrgyzstan is a multinational state, and this diversity influences the religious affiliation of its citizens.

While the war against the Taliban regime in Afghanistan is continuing, governments in Central Asia are strongly concerned by the role of Islam in society, especially radical movements that act under the Islamic flag, such as Wahhabi movements and Hizb-ut-Tahrir. The Uzbek government keeps all religious affairs under control, while the political atmosphere is much freer in Kyrgyzstan, although Kyrgyz authorities recently banned Hizb-ut-Tahrir. The question that is still open for discussion is whether Islam has a big influence on the people of Kyrgyzstan?

Kyrgyzstan is a multinational state, and this diversity influences the religious affiliation of its citizens. Excluding Russians and other Slavic people, the remainder of the population is Muslim.  Such ethnic minorities as Uyghurs, Turks, and Dungans (Hui) are the strongest followers of Islam. This can be observed in the districts of Bishkek populated by Uyghurs, Dungans, or Turks. There are many mosques in these areas. The reason for this difference between the ethnic groups in the country is that Islam is a traditionally sedentary religion, while the Kazakh and Kyrgyz people are nomads. According to one of the important pillars of Islam, men are obliged to pray at a Mosque. Before Soviet time, when nomads moved from djailio (place of staying) to djalio, it was impossible to pray together. The meaning of praying together is that it creates and strengthens the Muslim community, the Umma, and helps is spread. Only after the Soviet government established its rule over the territories of the Kyrgyz and the Kazakh were they settled.

Today the situation has changed, as many Kyrgyz people have became strong Muslims, though in Bishkek people are influenced more by Russian culture. The whole picture of Muslims in Kyrgyzstan can be divided into two different parts: in the south, where Uzbek culture has had a strong influence, more Kyrgyz became strong Muslims; while in the north, Russian influence has dominated. The difference can be observed in the ordinary manner of life: wearing clothes, speaking about God etc. As a rule, people from the South wear longer, traditional clothes, while people from North can feel free in modern clothes. Concerning marriage, sexual relations before marriage are strongly prohibited in the South, while in the north, people are less restricted by traditional values. These differences make the huge gap between the south and north more complicated.

Economically, the distribution of wealth also plays a great role in the spreading of Islam. The Northern region is richer than the South, and as a rule Islam has found a larger following in poorer areas. Moreover, such Islamic movements as the Wahhabis and Hizb-ut-Tahrir preach people to live in a modest way. Today, this line is a strong tool in the hands of radicals. Therefore people start to follow these radical movements due to bad economic conditions.

The influence of Islam is heavily colored by the country's ethnic diversity, and cultural traits that impede the spreads of radicalism. Dungans, Uyghurs, and Turks have a long experience with Islam, and it is hard for radical movements to change their minds. Meanwhile, Kyrgyz and Kazakh are still fresh in their Islamic teachings, and Islam often has a national character for them. An evidence of this is that in appeals to God, many Kyrgyz remind the name of "Manas" the mythical hero of Kyrgyz people. Moreover many Kyrgyz today became Christians, Baptists or choose another religion than Islam. Radical Islam can be dangerous only in the Southern region, where people live without water, gas and sometimes without electricity, and where economic and living conditions are very poor.

Rustam Mukhamedov

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The Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst is a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program, a Joint Transatlantic Research and Policy Center affiliated with the American Foreign Policy Council, Washington DC., and the Institute for Security and Development Policy, Stockholm. For 15 years, the Analyst has brought cutting edge analysis of the region geared toward a practitioner audience.

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