Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Westernized North and Islamicized South in Kyrgyzstan Increasingly at Odds, Laumulin Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, February 5 – In a new book, “The International Situation and the Domestic Development of Kyrgyzstan,” Bishkek researcher Murat Laumulin says that the divide between the Russianized and Westernized North and the Islamicized South instead of weakening over time has become more important in the political life of that Central Asian country.

            The North-South division has profoundly affected presidential politics there: the first president Askar Akayev was a northerner. He was succeeded by Kurmankek Bakiyev a southerner. And that pattern of rotation has continued with Atambayev being from the north and Zheenbekov from the south (

            This rotation has not solved the problem of tribalism and Islam in Kyrgyzstan but rather reflects those deep-seated realities, Laumulin continues.  “The difference between the two sides of one country are quite great,” and that drives not only the domestic politics of the country but its foreign policies as well.

            “Northern elites are more open to cooperation with the Russian Federation and the West,” while “Southern elites are more isolationist but at the same time less pro-Western,” giving Russia an opening even if Moscow has difficulties with the Islamist attitudes there. But at present, there is not a single Kyrgyz politician with a strong base in both places.

            This North-South divide is exacerbated by the increasing Islamization of Kyrgyz life, the researcher continues. Earlier, it appeared that Northern elites could cope with this by making references to the Koran, but now it is obvious that Islamization has moved beyond religion and culture and become political.

            Bishkek is seeking to control this development by creating its own “state Islam,” a reflection of the fact that “today, Kyrgyzstan is a completely Islamic country, with the traditions, customs and worldview of Islam. Although officially it is hardly likely to become an Islamic republic, the role of political Islam is growing, Laumulin says.

            Religious leaders, like ex-republic mufti Chubak azhy Zhalilov, control many politicians because of their influence on voters, and in many regions, “the mosque is becoming one of the main social institutions” driving political choices. Their role has been reinforced as well by a growth in the number of imams and their expanded role in public life.

            As a result, many government officials now leave work to take part in Friday prayers, Laumulin continues.

            “In fact, Bishkek has become the most religious city of Central Asia and Kyrgyzstan the most religious country. It has 102 functioning medrassahs, seven Islamic institutes, and one Islamic university.” For the first time in Kyrgyz history, ever more women are wearing the hijab and ever more men are wearing Pakistani-style shalvars and kamiz,” Laumulin adds.

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