Saturday, May 6, 2023

In Kyrgyzstan, There Now Really are More Mosques than Schools

Paul Goble

            Staunton, May 2 – Four years ago, the former president of Kyrgyzstan remarked that his country had “more mosques than schools.” Sooronbay Zheyenbekov said that was a good thing because the mosques helped raise children with good manners who then formed the backbone of the Kyrgyz nation.

            His remark, however, triggered concerns that Kyrgyzstan, which had largely the avoided the explosion of mosque construction in the first decade of independent life, was not becoming Islamicized and that the mosques were a major force in this process, something the state had to do something about lest Kyrgyzstan destabilize or become an Islamic state.

            Those concerns continue with each side in the debate offering evidence for its position. The state is confident that it has the mosques under control because it requires the country’s 2800 imams to provide monthly reports about what they are doing to prevent the radicalization of young people.

            But ordinary people can see not only that ever more women in Kyrgyzstan are wearing the hijab and ever more politicians are seeking to boost their prospects by appealing to Islamic rather than Kyrgyz national traditions. And experts point to the fact that the explosion in the number of mosques that hit other Central Asian countries earlier has come to Kyrgyzstan.

            According to experts, there were only 39 functioning mosques in Kyrgyzstan before 1991. After independence, their number rose relatively slowly and passed 1000 only in 2005. Since that time, their number has almost trebled to 2688 (

            But those are only the officially registered mosques, and even Bishkek officials concede that there are many other ones in fact, including some 300 prayer rooms they know about which act as mosques in all but name and still others they don’t know about that may be playing an even more nefarious role.

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