The question of the spread of Islamic fundamentalism occupies a substantial part of political discourse in Kyrgyzstan. A new bill on “Freedom of religious practices and religious organizations” in particular is being actively discussed within the Kyrgyz government. While Kyrgyzstan’s two mainstream religious organizations, the Spiritual Administration of Muslims (SAM) and the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC), have approved the bill, the protests are being voiced by smaller religious associations (Vecherny Bishkek, July 11).
The new bill introduces harder requirements for registering religious organizations, increasing the number of signatures necessary for the registration process from 10 to 200. In this way the law purports to prevent the emergence of “totalitarian” religious organizations that could challenge the public security. As experts from the State Agency on Religion (SAR) explain, mostly smaller religious organizations are likely to be affected by the new bill.
It seems, however, that both the SAR and SAM are concerned about the rapid spread of a variety of Islamic organizations in the country that act without collaborating with the central authorities. Furthermore, as political analyst Asel Murzakulova notes, Kyrgyzstan’s Muslim and Russian Orthodox Church administrations have a long history of dialogue on a variety of political issues and often act in tandem. Both SAM and ROC see foreign Islamic and Christian organizations registering in Kyrgyzstan as a threat to their local authority, especially because, unlike protestant movements, ROC condemns proselytism. “For some, the collaboration between the two religious authorities also indirectly reflects Kyrgyzstan’s political relations with Russia,” Murzakulova observes.
Fears about the spread of potential foreign religious groups are based on different sets of perceptions among Kyrgyzstan’s politicians and academics. While some are concerned with the growing number of mosques, which often exceed the number of local schools and still cannot fit all visitors, others fear the spread of the Hizb-ut-Tahrir movement (an international Sunni political party aimed at uniting all Muslim countries) in various parts of the country. Still others are anxious about the rapidly increasing number of men attending mass prayers held in central Bishkek on Islamic holidays. Activities of various foreign sects are another source of fear. Finally, some Bishkek dwellers are concerned about the implications of the growing trend among women, especially of the younger generation, covering their heads and faces with scarves.
According to the SAR’s data, 2,158 religious organizations are registered in Kyrgyzstan today. Among them are 1,668 mosques and religious schools, 50 madrasas, 47 foundations, and three foreign Islamic organizations. Christian organizations of various dimensions, including Russian Orthodox churches, account for 359, with four Catholic communities and 307 protestant organizations. There are also Jewish and Buddhist organizations (Vecherny Bishkek, July 11).
According to the head of SAR, Kanybek Osmonaliyev, the law adopted in 1991 on “Freedom of Religion” is obsolete and too permissive (Vecherny Bishkek, July 11). The 1991 law, among the most liberal in the region, earned Kyrgyzstan an image of a state moving toward greater civil freedoms. Yet, as one Kyrgyz historian told Jamestown, the law allowed the registration of Scientologists and the Korean-based Sun Myung Moon church in the 1990s. Both were later banned under pressure from local politicians and academics speaking against them.
Meanwhile, the Kyrgyz government is trying to take a position of tolerance toward all religious denominations, while building an image of being in control of extremist organizations. On the one hand, individual cases involving religious rights, usually of non-Muslim background, are widely publicized. One recent notorious case of the government showing its equal treatment of all religions was overturning the Naryn city administration’s decision to refuse burying a Kyrgyz boy from an Evangelical Christian family.
On the other hand, however, both the SAR and SAM are infamous for their ambitions to control Muslim communities and movements. They are also known to have close links to the ruling regime and have intra-institutional brawls over leadership. Both seek to prevent the spread of Islamic extremists and moderate groups through controlling the religious practices of the Muslim population. The SAM informally demands that any Islamic organization register with them. Similarly, SAR previously imposed several awkward barriers on the practices of moderate Islam such as collecting taxes ($10) from each person traveling to Mecca or limiting the territory for prayers to the old square in Bishkek. Other local experts criticize the agency’s representatives for a lack of professionalism, and Osmonaliyev’s background in physics is regarded as a weakness.
A few Muslim activists began lobbying for a central mosque at Victory Square in Bishkek. Allegedly, SAM was the main supporter behind the project. However, when the idea received a strong negative reaction among political and civil society circles, no one admitted responsibility for the project.
The new bill will likely be complemented by another SAR regulation that is currently being discussed with the Ministry of Education to demand harsher procedures for religious schools. But since the mainstream educational system across Kyrgyzstan’s rural areas is in crisis, both SAR and the ministry could find other, more productive ways of collaboration.