«Muslim identity» and the political process in Kyrgyzstan

Usubaliev Esen

One of the most important consequences of the collapse of communist ideology in 1991 for the masses of Kyrgyzstan was the problem of personal self-identification and the search for new ideological reference points. On the wave of the «revival» of Islam, this religion has become the defining factor in identifying not only the titular nation of Kyrgyzstan, but also other Muslim peoples of the country belonging to the Muslim community.

Meanwhile, almost simultaneously, the beginning of Islam’s ‘revival’ in Kyrgyzstan was accompanied by an active conversion of the population to its national-cultural foundations. The long years of state atheism have led to the rooting not only in Kyrgyzstan but throughout Central Asia of a peculiar form of Islam, the so-called everyday or traditional Islam, in which religion has always been identified with ethnicity. This principle, although not to the same extent as before, continues to influence the Muslim community of Kyrgyzstan. Under such conditions, nationality remains a meaningful marker that divides an outwardly united religious community.

At present, however, the Muslim community of Kyrgyzstan is increasingly becoming a full-fledged participant of the political process. On the wave of further democratic transformations that have led to the new constitution of the country and the formation of the parliament based on party lists, various parties are quite actively drawing Muslims into the political life of the republic.

In reality, the Muslim resource of Kyrgyzstan is a potentially influential force, but it has not been fully utilized yet. Further development of the state and society of Kyrgyzstan depends on how and by whom it is used and what form participation of Muslims in political life will take, especially given the growing political consciousness of Muslims in the country and the ongoing development of Islam. In other words, Kyrgyzstan is on the threshold of a real struggle of various political forces for attracting ‘Muslim resources’ to its side. The parliamentary elections in 2007 have shown to the full extent how and in what form this struggle is manifested. But first of all, it is worth to understand the most important aspects forming the rather multifaceted problem of modern political development in Kyrgyzstan.

Of particular research interest is the practical question of whether the entire Muslim community can be mobilized as a single political force, given its multi-ethnic composition and tribal and clan divisions. And, can the entire community, in the long term, act as a unified political force capable of influencing reforms and transformations in public life?

In the future, the identification of these factors will make it possible to come to a conclusion about the prospects of participation of the Muslim community of Kyrgyzstan in the political process of the country. In this respect, the primary task is to determine the national composition of the community, the peculiarities of their intra-community identification and mutual relations.

According to data for 2001, the national composition of Kyrgyzstan, taking into account Muslims: Kyrgyz — 3225 thousand; Uzbeks — 683 thousand; Tatars — 45 thousand; Dungan — 51 thousand; Uigurs — 46 thousand; Kazakhs — 42 thousand; Tajiks — 43 thousand; Turks — 33 thousand; Azeris — 14 thousand.

Accordingly, from above mentioned data we see that two groups inside Moslem community are of special importance from the point of view of political object — Kyrgyz and Uzbeks, whereas representatives of other nationalities due to their small number can’t be a significant factor in emerging political fight for «Moslem resource». At the very least, the importance of other nationalities in the political struggle is much lower compared to the two main ethnic groups. Considering that the scope of this article does not permit a comprehensive examination of the issue of Islamic identity for all nationalities inhabiting Kyrgyzstan, we suggest a brief analysis of the situation only in the framework of one, the titular ethnic group of the republic.

For a long period of time, the prevailing view in expert circles was that the Kyrgyz, due to their nomadic way of life in the past and under atheistic Soviet rule, were extremely insensitive to Islam even as part of their traditional way of life. In fact, even «traditional» («household») Islam, widespread among the titular population, has always had rather bizarre and bizarre forms in the form of a mixture of shamanistic conceptions and the concept of Islamic monotheism. That certainly led to the perpetuation of the view that the Kyrgyz in their bulk are less religious than, say, other peoples of Central Asia, a predominantly sedentary way of life.

One of the significant results of Central Asia’s ‘opening’ to external influence and the process of Islamic ‘revival’ is that, in the 17 years of Kyrgyzstan’s independent development, Islam has significantly strengthened its position among the Kyrgyz, gradually broadening the horizons of its influence in the system of social relations. Today, Islam is becoming the highest ‘authority’ appealing to the Kyrgyz people in resolving different life issues.

However, it should be noted that Islam is still unable to fulfil one of its important functions in Kyrgyzstani society: the integrative function. The potential of Islam as a powerful means of integrating society has not yet been realized both at the national and intra-national levels, in particular when we are talking about the titular nation of Kyrgyzstan. And this is largely hindered by the tribal structure of Kyrgyz society and, as a consequence, by the peculiarities of the intra-national identity of the Kyrgyz.

Identification of this important feature of the Kyrgyz nation has a direct impact on the process of attracting «Muslim resources» in the political struggle of the republic, because it is important to identify the extent to which regional and tribal identity of the Kyrgyz can influence the receptivity of Islamic slogans at this stage. In more concrete terms, this is necessary to determine the extent to which Islamic political ideology is developing — is it national or is it already Islamic in its perception of the surrounding reality?

The tribal structure of the Kyrgyz and the system of relationships within the state built on this basis is a very stable social phenomenon that has retained its relevance, despite attempts by the Soviet regime to eliminate it completely. This has always been particularly acute in the distribution of power and representation in state institutions.

A higher level of Kyrgyz identity runs along the natural geographical division of the country into North and South. At present, it is a much more important factor in Kyrgyz politics than small tribal divisions within both Northern and Southern clans. Indeed, years of attempts to overthrow the tribal structure of Kyrgyz society have led to a shift towards regionalism in power structures. This has always been reflected in the succession of factions in government, in line with the unspoken ‘queue’ to govern the country.

However, with political forces showing keen interest in Kyrgyzstan’s ‘Muslim resource’, the question of the receptivity of Muslims to political slogans with an Islamic slant depending on regional and tribal affiliation has not been studied separately, and this may be the first time we have attempted to imagine possible scenarios.

At present, if we take a Muslim Kyrgyz aged 18-60 years old who reads namaz or regularly attends Friday prayers, 75% of respondents, according to the survey, define themselves first of all as a Kyrgyz and only then as a Muslim. While no more than 25% put their religious affiliation first and only then their nationality.

The results are noteworthy insofar as they indicate the supremacy of nationality over religious identity, and also indicate that in the minds of most Kyrgyzs, following tradition, ethnicity is still equated with religious affiliation. It should be noted, however, that the 25% of respondents who indicated their religious affiliation in the first place represents a new, modern view of the issue of personal identity, which is gradually spreading among Muslims.

It should also be stressed that the issue of self-identification depends on the age, social status and education of the respondents. It is interesting to note that those who call themselves Muslim first and only then Kyrgyz are predominantly young people aged 25-35. However, theological education or secondary training in this area is not a key factor in determining the nature of these beliefs. More than 70% of them have higher education unrelated to religion or are engaged in private business. In essence, we can observe the emergence of a purely Islamic level of identity and a thinking that goes beyond national boundaries. It is worth recognizing, however, that these trends are only beginning to spread among Muslims, and that this category of people, although gradually growing, is still a minority within the Kyrgyz part of the Muslim community of Kyrgyzstan.

In contrast, the majority of the Kyrgyz Muslim community is intent on defining itself within the framework of a nationally oriented Islam. It undoubtedly leads to separateness within the Muslim community in relation to other Muslim peoples. At the same time we should note that the national character of Islamic identity is peculiar to all the nationalities that make up the community of Kyrgyzstan. And for the sake of objectivity, we recognize that this process is reciprocal in nature, which certainly makes the process of integration within the Muslim community much more difficult.

At present, despite the direct prescriptions of religion about the inadmissibility of divisions based on nationality and, accordingly, of divisions within the nation, the regional and tribal divisions that are rooted in the minds of Kyrgyz Muslims remain a special feature.

Regional tensions, distrust and alienation within the Kyrgyz part of the Muslim community are not manifested openly and openly, and are not given publicity in the media. Unofficially, however, the regional divisions in the distribution of power within organizations and institutions in the religious sphere are a direct consequence and partly a reflection of the situation that has developed over the years in society.

The monopoly of the southern regional group in the religious sphere has been an established tradition since Soviet times — the proximity of the southern Kyrgyz to the Tajiks and Uzbeks and the close ties between these peoples in the Fergana Valley context have predetermined greater religiosity among the population than in the north. This in turn led to the fact that in practically all oblasts of the country, with the exception of Talas, the heads of Muslim communities came from the southern region.

In reality, this circumstance reveals the essence of the main regional contradictions within the Kyrgyz part of the Muslim community, which have always been in the religious-traditional dimension rather than theological one.

The first layer of contradictions is the different understanding of traditional Islam, which mainly concerns the ritual and cultural aspects of Kyrgyz life. The imams of mosques, appointed in the northern regions of the country, brought with them the cultural specificity of the south and the stereotypes and psychology of religious thinking, which were not understood in a Muslim environment.

For example, in the south, under the influence of the rather sedentary way of life of other peoples, beliefs that have nothing to do with Islam took root, such as: women should not receive education and go to mosque; the imam has a special status of «holy person» in society and many other things, which certainly, in the conditions of the north, given the Soviet period and the preservation of many traditions inherent in nomadic societies, caused misunderstanding.

Another feature of so-called «Southern Islam» is the open commercialisation of ritual services. One of the most striking examples is the phenomenon of davran, which is widespread in the south. Davran — most likely originating from the Tajik language — is a term of late Sufi Islam. It is based on the Arabic root, dau’r — circumambulation, circle, turn. In traditional «southern» Islam, daw’ran means to count the missed namaz, from the time of adulthood until the funeral prayer, translating this into a material basis in the form of a lump sum payment in the form of food (grain), which is then converted into money. Imams in the south explain this by the provisions of the Shariah, but do not back it up with any sources. It should be emphasised that there is no such term as dawaran in Islam, nor any similar practice of payment for missed prayers. It is, in fact, a local, rather perverse and dangerous distortion of the principles of religion.

Meanwhile, in the south, the phenomenon has long taken on a large and threatening scale. Some families are forced to sell livestock or real estate in order to «pay off» the deceased in this way. Attempts to apply the ransom in the north have caused resentment, and mosque imams have been forced to give it up. But this in any case put a negative strain on relations between the community and its head. However, a number of paid services did enter the practice of imams, though not to the extent customary in the south of the country.

Education and training remain another important issue. The subject of discontent among Kyrgyz Muslims in the north is that, as a result of the long-standing «monopoly of southerners» in the spiritual sphere, the distribution of educational quotas in the leading universities of the Muslim world is skewed towards southerners. People from the north have practically no opportunity to be sent to study by the Spiritual Administration of Muslims of Kyrgyzstan.

Thus, the factor of regional affiliation has a strong impact on the Kyrgyz part of the Muslim community, and this divide, although strictly internal and not visible, is a serious problem for society and the state. It is a serious problem for society and the state, particularly in terms of the stability of inter-communal relations.

However, it must be admitted that there has been no open confrontation or conflict on this ground. Throughout the period of the republic’s independence, these contradictions have never gone beyond a generally accepted principle in Islam — the inadmissibility of drawing not only national but also clan and tribal distinctions. In fact, this factor has always played a restraining role in intra-community relations, thanks to which the problem has never reached the level of open discussion in society and the media. This is also an example of the stabilising role of Islam, an important mechanism for regulating relations in society.

Another important factor in the absence of conflicts on the basis of regional divisions has been the fact that for a long time the religious consciousness of the population in the North has been much lower than in the South. One could even put forward the thesis that the «renaissance» of Islam in the south led to Muslims being able to perform the ritual aspects of Islam more openly and perhaps even with greater zeal than before. In other words, what used to be always performed, but not so openly, subsequently became common practice for the majority of the population. But it did not lead to any further modernisation of religious thinking, but reinforced the traditional (everyday) form of Islam.

The situation in the north of the country was somewhat different from that in the southern regions of Kyrgyzstan. Traditionally, the level of education of the Kyrgyz in the north has always been higher, and since Soviet times, in the process of breaking down the traditional nomadic way of life, the Kyrgyz have been actively involved in obtaining special and higher education. But, of course, the majority of the population who remained in rural areas as well as in the south adhered to the priorities determined by traditional economic activities.

The main changes took place after the collapse of the USSR and the collapse of the former system, which preserved agriculture and other traditional activities. During this period, the outflow of population from rural areas and their relocation to the capital and Chui Oblast increased significantly. As in the south of the republic, the «revival» of Islam led to a strengthening of its traditional ceremonial role in social relations. But later, as the population’s religious consciousness grew, its attitude to Islam began to gradually acquire the features of meaningful study and attempts to apply it in everyday life, not only as a religious tradition.

External influences from the Muslim world and the opening of various institutions and educational and enlightenment centres of an Islamic character were not the least important factors in this. The main result of these activities over the past 16 years has been that the educational level of the ordinary Muslim has grown considerably, contributing to a more conscious approach to Islam. Year by year, the understanding of Islam is gradually moving beyond its customary traditional and ritualistic side.

Meanwhile, the growth of religious consciousness in the north has already led to serious changes in the structure of the country’s Muslim community. Previously, only in Talas was the head of the community from this region, while in the other northern provinces the imams of the main mosques were from the south. Now, in Naryn and Issyk-Kul provinces, the heads of the communities are natives of these areas.

This example is indicative — the growth of religious self-consciousness, combined with the influence of regional identity has led to a quite logical conclusion in local communities — «we must have our own imam». It can be assumed that this process will continue as mid-level cadres are trained for mosques within the region.

This has already led to the formation of individual groups, formed on a regional or tribal basis, which are trying to create a lobby and nominate their own candidate for the post of supreme mufti of the country.

It is possible to suggest a possible scenario for relations within the Kyrgyz part of the Muslim community in the medium and long term. The process of Islamization of northern provinces continues, gradually affecting the representation of northerners in local kaziyats, mosques and Muftiyat administrations. Apparently, the «monopoly» in the spiritual sphere of representatives of the south will gradually diminish, although the post of the head of the Muftiate will remain in the south. This is due to the fact that over the years of traditional control in this sphere, the spiritual leaders of communities and educational institutions have been largely ‘stuck’ in terms of the further development of Islamic thought, confining themselves to the ritual and mundane side of the interpretation of Shariah. The prolonged concentration of power within one regional group has already led to intra-regional rivalries for the post of head of the Muftiate. This is clearly recognised by some clerics in the north. The appointment of imams from among the local population in the provinces is a signal that serious changes are taking place in Kyrgyzstan’s spiritual realm.

One imam in Chui Oblast admitted that southerner control in this area has led to a breakdown in the basic principles of selecting the head of a Muslim community. «There is a fierce struggle in the muftiat and the government for the right to be a mufti, and the main thing here is not knowledge or personal qualities, but money».

Reflecting on ways to consolidate the community at the intra-national level and eliminate regional and clan divisions, it seems that this will only be possible if representatives of the north increase their participation in decision-making and in the work of the muftiate. Proportional representation in the Muftiate bodies should lead to the necessity of introducing new policies in the religious sphere, including education and training, and the principles of electing the head of the Muslim Spiritual Board.

Regionalization of the spiritual sphere is undoubtedly a negative phenomenon in the Kyrgyz part of the Muslim community. But it is a natural process caused by the growth of religiosity among the population and conditioned by the remaining problem of north-south regional division. However, it should be considered as a temporary phenomenon, which should certainly be overcome as the educational level of both ordinary Muslims and imams of mosques increases. The increase in the level of education among Muslims is the only means capable of consolidating the Muslim community at the intra-national level in the future.

Obviously, as the Muslim community realizes the supranational nature of Islamic identity and real attempts at consolidation on the basis of the principles of Islamic solidarity within Kyrgyzstan, the significance of the Muslim community in the political process of the republic will increase manifold. In this case, whoever controls the «Muslim resource» will potentially become an influential «player» in the political field of Kyrgyzstan.

As a matter of fact, Muslims, if they handle the general provisions of religion correctly, may soon become the only stable group of voters for whom the political appeal will be greatly facilitated by the existence of a long-standing concept of a system of social structure in keeping with the norms of religion.

As for the prospects of Muslim participation in the political struggle at present, in the practice of independent Kyrgyzstan there was already a case of a presidential candidate in 2005 who openly declared himself a Muslim. Tursunbai Bakir uulu, a well-known human rights activist in the country, actively used his religious affiliation and Islamic view of economics, politics and social relations as the main arguments of his election programme. This was perhaps the first attempt to use the ‘Muslim resource’ for political purposes.

In the future, it seems that the «Muslim resource» will be more actively used by both parties and the authorities, as its influence in politics is only becoming more evident with each passing year. However, what many overlook is that it is very difficult to control Muslims completely, either through finance or administrative resources.

Here the question of the legitimacy of this or that political figure in the eyes of Muslims comes to the fore — whether he has the right not only to speak on behalf of all Muslims, but also to claim the right to defend their interests in general. There are no such politicians or spiritual leaders nationwide at present.

Instead, we have many individual political forces that are strenuously trying to win over various Muslim groups to their side for petty, short-term political agendas. However, until the Muslims of Kyrgyzstan are able to resolve the issue of regional, tribal and national divisions and attempt to consolidate on the basis of common principles of Islamic solidarity, any political activity involving religion is highly dangerous for both the integrity of the Muslim community and social stability as a whole.

21 October 2007 .

Esen Usubaliev, PhD, Director of the Analytical Centre «Prudent Solutions»

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