Islam in Kyrgyzstan: current situation


The vast majority of Kyrgyzstan`s population, including the titular people are followers of Islam. There has been a revival of Islamic practices since independence of this Central Asian country in 1991, although the state remains secular. Bishkek-based political analyst Baktybek Kainazarov, PhD in Social sciences, provides comprehensive information on the present situation of Islam in Kyrgyzstan.


Interviewer: Rusif Huseynov


Huseynov: What role or status does Islam carry in contemporary Kyrgyzstan? Does it seem part of culture or alien to national identity? 

Kainazarov: Since Kyrgyzstan obtained independence, Islam has played an increasingly significant role to address socio-cultural issues. Most of local experts view the role of Islam is crucial to nation-building as well as to a peace-building process in multicultural society of the post-Soviet Kyrgyzstan, which accommodates close to 80 ethnicities. In this context, Islam, a peaceful religion that teaches for peace and respect for diverse culture and tradition, would have powerful role to national identity building policy of the country. 

At the same time, while analyzing national identity building, one can note that it is not just about religion, as the national identity is also based on our common past, culture and tradition. Our common values are in their turn based on national heroes, myths, symbols, holidays, folk music, traditional games, national cuisine and national dress, which make Kyrgyz society unique. Even seventy years of suppression by Soviet regime did not eradicate Kyrgyz nomadic culture, which is very rich and diverse. During pre-Islamic period, Kyrgyz society embraced shamanism, tengrianism, totemism, spiritualism, and Zoroastrianism. As social scientists state, Kyrgyz people preserved much of their pre-Islamic beliefs, which is close to nomadic culture, and they may still be reflected in daily life. Among them, totemism and spiritualism has a central place to study. For instance, names of use of tribal totems are preserved till recent days. The cult of some animals, e.g. deer (bugu in Kyrgyz), wolf (boru), yellow deer (sary bagysh) is associated with the origin of a number of tribal names. Furthermore, spiritualism is still very popular among traditional Kyrgyz people, whereby people believe that spirit of dead ancestors (arbak) can protect against evil eye and defend from illness and unhappiness. Unfortunately, some radicalized Muslim Kyrgyz people do not share our common values. Today, even moderate Muslims in Kyrgyzstan consider spiritualism not acceptable to Islam. But as I said above, in our nomadic culture, spiritualism was an integral part of Kyrgyz tradition. In this respect, it brings some contradiction and raises question to what extend Kyrgyz people can incorporate Arabic culture into their national identity. 


From time to time, we witness emergence of radical elements in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. What sects are especially stronger in Kyrgyzstan? Do they pose any threat for secularity of the country?

Among the strongest extremist movements, local experts mention Hizb ut-Tahrir, which claims itself to be an avowedly non-violent organization, the East Turkistan Islamic Movement, Tablighi Jamaat and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. Besides, some extremist Kyrgyz people joined domestic and foreign organizations such as Islamic State (IS). According to statistics, more than 500 Islamic militants from Kyrgyzstan participated in Syrian war. Some experts, however, state that this figure is underestimated and could read one thousand, including women. One of the main reasons of the radicalization of Kyrgyz citizens is connected with the fragility of society, due to high unemployment rate and extreme poverty in rural areas of Kyrgyzstan. 

Among the radical movements in Kyrgyzstan I would highlight Tablighi Jamaat (TJ) which is identified as an extremist group in other Central Asian countries. According to local experts, today, TJ is the biggest religious movement in Kyrgyzstan and has own cells in every village of the country. One of the distinguishing feature of TJ followers is that they are committed to door-to-door preaching, which is called dawah in Arabic and davat in Kyrgyz (davatchy means “person who does preaching”). The number of davatchys across the country is increasing although Tablighi Jamaat is not officially registered in Kyrgyzstan. There is no statistics about the exact number of TJ members in Kyrgyzstan and there is no information whether TJ recruited Kyrgyz citizens for ISIS. However, local experts already recognize TJ as a radical Islamic sect that does not incorporate into Kyrgyz culture and tradition. 

The next influential extremist group in Kyrgyzstan is Hizb ut-Tahrir. There is no doubt that Hizb ut-Tahrir pursues similar goals as do ISIS, which aims to create an Islamic state or caliphate by overthrowing constitutional order. According to Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB), Hizb ut-Tahrir was identified as one of the active transnational extremist movements that recruited Islamic militants from Central Asia to Syria and Iraq. Since the eruption of Syrian conflict, State Committee for National Security of Kyrgyzstan has been arresting members of Hizb ut-Tahrir in the country who have been recruiting jihadists and militants for the Islamic State-controlled cities in Syria. In 2015, State Committee for National Security snatched a group of militants in Osh who were planning attacks in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. Therefore, Hizb ut-Tahrir presents political and security threat for Kyrgyzstan. 

As for the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), it already created burden to all Central Asian countries when invading Fergana valley through Tajik and Kyrgyz territory in order to create Islamic Caliphate in 1999-2000. Composed of Islamic extremists from Uzbekistan and other Central Asian states, IMU was initially created against Karimov’s regime in Uzbekistan. For the last decade, IMU leadership has renewed its commitment to attack the government leaders of all Central Asian states. To some extend it shares Al-Ka'ida's ideology of global jihad that aims at fighting against Western values. In this regard, IMU presents direct threat for secularity of multi-ethnic and diverse Kyrgyz society. 


How does increasing religiosity changing patterns in Kyrgyz society? How does it influence, let`s say, women`s rights? 

For the last decade, the number of mosques and madrasas skyrocketed in Kyrgyzstan. According to the State Commission on Religious Affairs under the President of the Kyrgyz Republic (SCRA), currently there are 2,743 mosques (compared to 39 in 1990), 79 madrasas (religious schools) and nine Islamic universities. In remote areas of Kyrgyzstan, the number of mosques exceeds that of schools and kindergartens. Some villages even host three different mosques (Turkish, Arabic, Pakistani), which may divide inhabitants into several groups. Local experts warn that overwhelming proportion of moderate Muslim families in rural areas, particularly in Southern Kyrgyzstan, educate their children in madrasas, while education of children under 15 (particularly among adolescent girls) has dropped. Indisputably, this is a direct threat to secularity of country.

Contemporary Kyrgyz society lives in a secular country where all citizens enjoy equal rights for education, human rights, political and civic participation regardless of gender, age, belief and/or nationality. What one witnesses today is that the application of rule of law and law enforcement, particularly in girls’ education and women’s rights is backsliding. Kyrgyzstan has perfectly written laws which guarantees access to education to girls and protection of women’s rights. However, due to rationalizations of women’s rights through Islam, girls` education is under threat. Moreover, in remote areas underage marriage is growing although it is not allowed by law. 

The next issue is the decrease of women’s political and civic participation. For instance, the latest dynamics of women`s participation in local council election clearly shows that it dropped reasonably. According to recent statistics, the representation of women as members of local councils is less than 15% in 2016. In Kyrgyz Parliament, women occupy 18% of the seats - the lowest rate in Central Asia. Gender experts connect it with the increasing religiosity in Kyrgyzstan, because of which women is becoming passive in political as well as civic participation process.  

Internationally agreed documents including Sustainable development goals recognize women’s participation in politics and decision-making as an important measure of the status of women in any particular country. However, in developing countries women remain seriously underrepresented in decision-making level. One of the casual factors is connected with increasing religiosity, which negatively influence education of girls and women’s political and civic participation.