On November 5 the Kyrgyz parliament agreed to increase the number of members required to register religious organizations from 10 to 200. According to the ruling Ak Zhol party, such measures were necessary to restrict the spread of religious extremism in the country and modify the law on “Freedom of religious practices and religious organizations” adopted in 1991.
The measures follow an incident on October 1 in Nookat city in southern Kyrgyzstan, in which a group of young men gathered on an Islamic holiday for mass prayers. The local government was ordered to disperse the crowd but was met with aggressive resistance. The incident led to speculation about new extremist Islamic groups that the government could not control.
The are also fears of clandestine religious groups spreading in other religions as well. Kadyr Malikov from Kyrgyz-Slavic University, for instance, warns about the swelling number of Christian groups in the country promoting the “evangelization” of the Kyrgyz public (www.24.kg, November 5). Several other Kyrgyz experts, however, have argued that the Spiritual Administration of Muslims (SAM) and the Russian Orthodox Church are both concerned with containing the uncontrolled expansion of foreign Islamic and Christian groups and are therefore interested in cooperating with the government.
SAM, for example, welcomed the idea of testing the Islamic clergy across the country to prevent false and extremist interpretations of Islam. Those clergymen who fail to meet SAM’s requirements for knowledge of Islam, would need to take special classes designed by the administration. Furthermore, several MPs have spoken out in favor of creating a common Islamic ideology that would furnish law-enforcement agencies with tools for fighting religious extremism. Minister of Internal Affairs Moldomusa Kongantiyev, in turn, has suggested increasing the number of forces fighting extremist groups, especially in rural areas (www.akipress.kg, November 5).
SAM also allocates quotas to each oblast for the number of citizens allowed to make the pilgrimage to Mecca. This year SAM allowed 4,500 Kyrgyz citizens to travel to Mecca, with the majority of the allocations distributed to southern Osh, Jalalabad, and Batken Oblasts, where the public is believed to be more religious, and only a fraction to the northern parts of Kyrgyzstan (www.24.kg, November 5). SAM previously collected fees from anyone traveling to Mecca from Kyrgyzstan, but this practice has been abandoned.
Today, there are 2,158 religious organizations registered in Kyrgyzstan, with 1,668 mosques and religious schools, some 360 Christian communities, and Jewish and Buddhist organizations as well (Vecherny Bishkek, July 11). The approximate number of clandestine groups or those consisting of fewer than 10 members is unknown.
The recent modification of the law on religion further complicates relations between the Kyrgyz government and religious groups. In heated discussions in parliament over the amendment, opponents of stricter requirements for religious groups argued that it would lead to a greater spread of underground movements that would be antagonistic toward the secular government.
The regulation was adopted despite the insistence of Zainidin Kurmanov, head of the parliamentary Committee on Constitutional Legislature, the State System, and Human Rights, that the necessary number of members needed to register religious organizations should be increased to no more than 50 (www.akipress.kg, November 5). According to Kurmanov, religious organizations with fewer than 50 members are widespread, meaning that they will automatically be forced underground. At the same time, new limits will not stop the spread of larger extremist groups such as Hizb-ut-Tahrir.
The amendment of the law on religion has been discussed in the media and parliament for the past few months. Proponents of the stricter rules, including the head of the State Agency on Religion, Kanybek Osmonaliyev, argue that the 1991 law is outdated and does not reflect reality and that when it was adopted there were fewer religious groups and sects than today.
The amendment, however, follows a trend in other legislative changes in recent years that augment the government’s control over the public life. In particular, the law on mass media that is currently being discussed allows the government to regulate the work of local TV channels, requiring them to broadcast mostly in the Kyrgyz language and produce reports about Kyrgyzstan. The government has also introduced a number of regulations restricting public protests.
With Kyrgyzstan’s current energy crisis, which is resulting in daily 10-hour blackouts and is affecting the work of schools, hospitals, and businesses, extremist ideas have a good chance to breed in society, regardless of government efforts to control clandestine movements. The new regulation, in effect, once again demonstrates the Kyrgyz government’s lack of competence in implementing effective policies except by using coercion.