The Kyrgyz Interior Ministry intends to ban public prayers at the central square in Bishkek during Islamic holidays. The ministry’s main rationale for its decision is that because Kyrgyzstan is a secular state, religion should be everyone’s private business as opposed to state-sanctioned public events. This decision comes amid Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev’s drive to curb civil society organizations that could potentially mobilize the masses against his regime.
Two huge public prayers are held at the old square of capital city Bishkek annually, on Kurman ait and Orozo ait – two major Islamic holidays. What began as a gathering of 4,000-10,000 people five years ago has grown into events collecting crowds of 40,000-50,000. Anyone could join the prayers, and city residents from various social backgrounds and age groups would attend. Local officials and diplomatic representatives from Muslim countries gathered for the prayers as well (24.kg, January 24). For some participants public prayers on religious holidays became an important part of their identity, while others joined in because of their wish to learn Muslim prayers and traditions better.
Former interior minister Bolotbek Nogoibayev’s decision to officially ban prayers was likely dictated by higher-ranking government members or influential political leaders. In his memo to the government on the subject, Nogoibayev, who was sacked last month (see EDM, January 17), complained that on the days of large public prayer assemblies, Bishkek’s central streets must be shut down due to the large numbers of people. He was instantly supported by the governmental Agency on Religious Affairs, led by Toigonbek Kalmatov. Without further delay, Kalmatov sent an official letter to Kyrgyzstan’s chief mufti, Murataly aji Jumanov, ordering him to hold all public prayers on the grounds of the Central Mosque.
Kalmatov’s advisor, Shamshibe Zakirov, presented more arguments in favor of the ban, saying, “During namaz on the street in snowy weather some of Kyrgyzstan’s Muslims might want to go to the toilet, and this will distract them from the prayer itself. According to Koran this can already be interpreted as a sin” (24.kg, January 25). The Kyrgyz officials’ interpretation of the implications of public prayers reveals a general lack of expertise on religious issues among government members.
Kyrgyzstan is known for its pluralism of religious identities with thousands of ethnic Kyrgyz converting to Christianity and other religions. A greater proportion of the population in southern parts of the country, where the influence of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan is stronger, follows more conservative religious practices.
Whereas the population in Kyrgyzstan’s south might be influenced by their neighbors’ more traditional approach to Islam, the Kyrgyz government is under pressure from the Uzbek government as well. Kyrgyz intelligence services are infamous for cooperating with neighboring governments in capturing unwanted Islamic leaders. The killing of popular imam Muhammadrafiq Kamalov in the outskirts of the town of Osh in Southern Kyrgyzstan in August 2006 showed how the Kyrgyz National Security Service carried out instructions from the Uzbek regime, which had accused him of organizing terrorist acts in May 2006.
When outspoken Kyrgyz journalist Alisher Saipov was shot dead in October 2007, the Kyrgyz government agreed with Uzbekistan’s accusations that he had connections with terrorist organizations. Saipov was an ethnic Uzbek who researched and wrote about the repressions of the Uzbek regime, harshly criticizing President Islam Karimov’s authoritarian regime for allowing torture.
The Kyrgyz Interior Ministry has stepped up its efforts to capture groups believed to be propagating religious fundamentalism.
Unlike public officials, most experts on the Central Asian region do not see a threat in the diversity of Islamic practices in Kyrgyzstan. Speaking at a Central Asia-Caucasus Institute (CACI) forum on February 6, Martha Brill Olcott from the Carnegie Endowment in Washington, DC, explained that it is mainly the younger generation that promotes conservative religious ideas, in an effort to revive the form of Islam that existed prior to the Soviet regime, while the older generations try to set political and ideological contexts for religious practices in Central Asia.
A number of civil society organizations, including the Congress of Muslims, have expressed their concerns with the Bakiyev government’s ban on mass prayers. The most common interpretation of the decision was linked to the government’s efforts to prevent any further significant political demonstrations in central Bishkek.
Similarly, Bishkek Mayor Daniyar Usenov has recently banned large public demonstrations in central Bishkek. Anyone organizing large meetings must notify the mayor in advance to receive a special permit. This ban has already resulted in a number of arrests of young civil society activists.
As Islamic holidays approach this year, tensions between the religious public and the government might intensify. At a December 12 CACI meeting, Eric McGlinchey from George Mason University rightly argued that the Kyrgyz government, based in the north of the country, is the main source of problems regarding religious practices in the country’s south.