Kyrgyzstan is “the only country of former Soviet Asia where religious questions are controlled quite weakly by the government,” the Fergana analyst says; and as a result, religion, often in its most radical forms, is filling the vacuum” caused by the lack of a national idea and by the failure of the traditional religious leadership to provide more than rituals.
In addition to the obvious growth of religious dress and behavior in the streets, a clear sign of the problem, Elvira Ilibezova of the El-PIkir public opinion firm says, is that the Kyrgyz government does not have laws which allow it to move against religious radicals and does not conduct studies of what is taking place among believers.
Many studies of religious life in Kyrgyzstan have been undertaken, Ivashchenko says; “but these investigations are undertaken only on the orders of foreign companies” and frequently the results are not released either to the government or the public. As a result, Ililbezova continues, few are aware of how far Kyrgyzstan has gone in the direction of Islamist radicalism.
The pollster suggests that the first thing that the authorities need to do is to track money coming in from foreign sources that is being used to build new mosques and to promote Islamic values. Much of this money comes from Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf states. And then it needs to make sure that Muslims do not engage in discrimination against others.
Unfortunately, at present, there is only anecdotal evidence about foreign funding; and there are clear indications that radical Muslim leaders often independent from mosques and medrassahs are promoting hostility against followers of other faiths. That is a dangerous development that threatens to undermine civil society in Kyrgystan, experts say.
Today, there are 2856 mosques and 107 medrassahs in Kyrgyzstan, figures that dwarf those for other faiths (401) and the number of public schools (2262). In 1991, there were fewer than 40 mosques there. Some of these mosques and medrassahs are controlled by radicals, but most simply provide ritual services and thus do not represent a bulwark against the Islamists.
Young people in particular want the mosques to provide them with answers to key social and political questions, but the mullahs in them seldom do so. As a result, ever more Kyrgyz are turning to mullahs and imams not connected with the mosques and offering radical answers at a time when the mosques are not offering any at all.
In recent months, Bishkek has closed seven mosques because of radicalism; but that focus on the mosques alone is doing little to stop the Islamization of the country. Now, ever more Kyrgyz are demanding that the government block the distribution of religious literature by Muslims just as it has sought to do in the case of the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Civil society activists and some government officials say that the government must focus on providing better religious instruction for mullahs by establishing special religious schools as Uzbekistan has so that the leaders of the mosques can serve as the first line of defense against radicalization rather than being a doorway through which people go on their way to radicalism.
Kadyr Malikov, the director of the Religion, Law and Politics Analysis Center in Bishkek, says that the current situation reflects the religious vacuum that Soviet power created. Kyrgyz want religion to help fill it, but the poorly educated mullahs lack the skills needed – and missionaries, often radical, are responding.
Increasing religiosity by itself is neither bad nor a problem, he argues. Rather the problem is that the mosque leadership isn’t performing its tasks adequately and the government has lost the initiative less to them than to the missionaries who can give answers neither the mullahs nor the officials can.
The government needs to work with the Muslim leadership rather than simply attack it. If it does the latter, it will push the ritualists into the arms of the radicals and then the government will face an opponent that will almost certainly prove stronger than it is.