Islam as a political resource in Kyrgyzstan: Opportunities and consequences.

Esen Usubaliev. March 2008

The progressive transformation of Islam into a full-fledged factor in the political process in Central Asia following the collapse of the USSR came as no surprise and was a completely predictable outcome, even for those countries where Islam had previously had only a traditional cultural significance. The opening of borders and the nominal return of Central Asia to the bosom of Islamic civilisation, in an ideological vacuum, inevitably led to an increase in the population’s interest in Islam. A characteristic feature of the current situation in the region is the growing influence of Islam in many spheres of social and political relations. During the short period of independent development in the region’s countries, Islam has not only gradually recovered the role in society it lost over 70 years, but has also acquired new spheres of influence in which its influence cannot be ignored.

The political dimension of Islam, or in other words the political component of Islamic doctrine, is now a subject of particular concern in many Central Asian countries, since the use of its powerful ideological base for political purposes is perceived as a serious threat to the stability of the political (secular) regimes of many countries in the region.

Meanwhile, the Islamic political movement, while already tacitly an integral part of the political process in the countries of Central Asia, is certainly not a unified whole that affects developments in all the countries of the region equally. In the early stages of the ‘Islamic revival’ it may have been expected that in the wake of a general return to Islam, the former Soviet republics would rally around a common religious basis for their peoples. As the history and practice of developing independent states have shown, the national component prevailed over religious identification, and the countries were engaged primarily in restoring their peoples’ national and cultural particularities, which gave a prominent place to Islam. An exception was Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, where even during the Soviet period Islam retained an important function as a regulator of social relations in society. Meanwhile, in terms of the study of the relationship between Islam and politics in the region, the two republics have played the role of incubators for the subsequent development of Islamic political ideas for Central Asia.

In Tajikistan, where the Islamic opposition took an active part in the civil war, this led to the recognition of Islam’s right to create political parties on its basis, with representation in parliament and a number of government structures. The use of political slogans with a religious connotation subsequently spread to Uzbekistan, but the specifics of state rule there prevented further (open) manifestation of the Islamic political movement, forcing it to go deep underground.

In the case of Tajikistan, the Islamic political movement has gone into decline and no longer enjoys the prospects of development and influence it once did. Partly because the Islamists have failed to realise in practice the benefits of Islamic governance, which include much more than mere political slogans and appeals to ensure their progressive expansion in society. As a consequence, amid a loss of ground among the population, the official leadership has tightened its grip on the sphere and is gradually moving to restrict the activities of the religious party in the country.

The Islamic political movement in Uzbekistan has not been given a chance even for partial realisation, and is unlikely to get one, given the state’s tight control in this sphere. The worst that can be expected, given the growing social tensions within the country in the face of repressive methods of influencing Uzbekistan’s Muslim community, is that of Tajikistan, where as a result of internal conflict Islam as a political force may achieve political representation. Even so, it is unlikely that the results of the legal incorporation of Islam into the political process will be any different from Tajikistan’s experience.

A characteristic feature of the Islamic political movement in these countries remains the fact that with the exception of political rhetoric aimed primarily at the poorly educated masses of the population, it is objectively unable to offer anything. We should not forget that Islam and its doctrine carry with them not just a political agenda but also a large social and economic programme that neither these countries, nor the region as a whole, have the necessary Islamic scientific potential to implement. Whereas the existing ideological and political potential, which draws inspiration from the experience of the Near and Middle East, is designed for «first-stage» transformations involving only general changes.

Going back to the not so distant history of the region’s independent development, in terms of restoring Islam’s position in society, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan stand out as countries that have placed greater emphasis on developing and restoring the national component of statehood. However, the process of Islamic ‘revival’ in these countries has also proceeded in its own way, albeit not as intensively as in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. However, Turkmenistan should be clearly excluded from this process, since it is the specific national path of development, under strict state control, which has not weakened even after the change of leadership in the country, that now defines the prospects for the country’s development.

In any event, by now we can say that the process of Islam’s politicization in Central Asia has taken more or less predictable forms. However, the evolution of political Islam in the region has also taken on another dimension: the secular regimes of Central Asia are beginning to show greater interest in ‘incorporating’ Islam into the political processes in the country, and this can be seen as one of the new trends in relations between religion and state.

Here, too, one cannot ignore the trend towards a moderate and controlled development of Islam in Kazakhstan, where, despite the presence of a number of political movements of both radical and moderate persuasion, the country’s state policy allows for their minimal influence in society and national politics. On the other hand, Kazakhstan itself uses traditionalist Islam to maintain social stability, noting Islam’s important role in the nation-building of the state.

For a long time, the possibility of religious interference in political decision-making has always been perceived exclusively as a threat to secular regimes, especially in the context of the permanent instability in Afghanistan. Kyrgyzstan was no exception, where as in many countries of the region, politicised Muslim groups have often declared either the need for reforms taking into account the moral and ethical norms of Islam, or have called for more radical methods of changing the social order.

But the distinctive feature of Kyrgyzstan is that with the change of power in March 2005, the country has experienced periodic political upheavals and crises for the last 2.5 years. By all accounts experts agree that Kyrgyzstan’s new leadership is still far from attaining full stabilisation in the country and consolidation of power, especially given its traditional tribal and regional divisions. Against the background of a general crisis of power and tribal clashes tearing the society apart, the Muslim community is gradually becoming a full-fledged subject of state policy.

The involvement of the Muslim community in solving separate, as yet insignificant, problems in the political field has already become a reality of the current situation in the country. This is indicated, in particular, by the fact that the country’s leadership has repeatedly come out with initiatives designed to attract the attention of the Muslim community and to show the loyalty of the authorities to the further development of Islam in the country.

Undoubtedly, the significance of the Muslim community as an important factor in the political process in Kyrgyzstan is still growing. But it must be remembered that in the absence of clear-cut stratification in society, where there is no division into classes — intellectuals, workers, peasants — but only the rich and the poor, the gap between them is exacerbated, a special role in society is played by the religious identification of the population. The Muslim community, in theory, represents a ready-made group of voters, for whom it is much easier to find the necessary political or other slogans to attract to their side.

On the other hand, the level of political consciousness within the Muslim community is growing every year, it is developing and looking for new ways to defend its interests in society and, in the long term, political representation in parliament. It is not difficult to foresee that in the near future the issue of establishing a number of Islamic political parties in Kyrgyzstan may arise.

The desire of the state to use the Muslim community to maintain the existing order, on the one hand, and the desire of Muslims to have political representation in public structures and influence political decision-making, on the other, form a major set of problems the Kyrgyzstani leadership will have to face in the future.

Another problem block could be the unfulfillability of many pre-election promises made to bring the Muslim community to its side. In any case, the state and other political forces have started to «play» on the «Islamic field», but they have not yet defined for themselves the necessary rules and limitations, legal and ethical as well as purely ethnic, that take into account the specificities of Islam as a religion in a multi-ethnic country.

Meanwhile, it is obvious that understanding Islam and its political potential is impossible without studying the experience and current situation in the countries of the Near and Middle East, where the Islamic political opposition has long been an active and legal participant in the political process.

It is well known that the Muslim community of Kyrgyzstan is not homogeneous. It is divided into ethnic, tribal and regional divisions (division of the titular nation). Moreover, there is another no less important factor in the Muslim community, which potentially influences the development of the political consciousness of Muslims in the country to a greater extent than the national and tribal aspects: ideology.

Needless to say, Islam has such an important feature of Islam as the inseparability of religion and politics in everyday life — Islam is, in a sense, politics. Throughout the 20th century, events in the Near and Middle East have shown what a powerful political force the political movement under the slogan of Islam is. The situation in Kyrgyzstan creates more than favourable conditions for the development of Islam for expressing and defending the interests and rights of Muslims.

Naturally, like any other political system in the world, the Islamic political movement is not homogenous and presents many different ideological concepts for achieving its aims and goals. To some extent, some of these concepts, originating in the Near and Middle East, are also present in Kyrgyzstan, which naturally affects the formation of the perception of the Muslim community and in terms of Muslim ideology, which in this respect is not homogeneous either.

There is a danger of a situation in which the Muslim electorate will demand that the state or political parties fulfil their obligations, a failure to fulfil which could lead to a destabilization of the country, but now with a religious overtone. But this time there is no guarantee that the Muslim community will not use the experience of Islamic political protest and struggle, already tested in the countries of the Near and Middle East.

Esen Usubaliev, PhD, Director

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