Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program
Silk Road Paper
June 2020

 

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Since independence, religion has become ever more important as an identity marker in Kyrgyzstan, with increased practical relevance in the everyday lives of many citizens. This religious revival poses challenges for a state that, like the other Central Asian states, has remained secular after the fall of communism. For this Muslim-majority state, the challenge has been to sustain the secularism of the state that was instituted during Soviet times, while replacing the anti-religious prejudice that characterized the militantly atheist socialist system with tolerance and respect for all religions. How has this played out in the past three decades?

In the early years of independence, the government took a liberal approach to religion, and the number of mosques and religious schools expanded rapidly. Foreign sources of religious influences, including ideological and financial, met few restrictions and could flow into the country from Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the Indian Subcontinent. By its fifth anniversary of independence, the number of mosques in Kyrgyzstan had already grown to more than 1,000, and the burst of mosque-building has continued unabated since then, standing at 2,669 officially registered mosques by 2016. Kyrgyzstan counts far more Islamic educational institutions than its larger neighbors Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

Meanwhile, many Evangelical missionaries arrived in Kyrgyzstan in the 1990s in order to attract converts to various Christian churches. Protestant denominations from Europe, North America and South Korea played a particularly active role and thrived under the liberal religious environment of the 1990s. Since the beginning of the 2000s, however, foreign missionaries became subject of stricter controls effectively halting their expansion.

While Kyrgyzstan’s first decade of independence was characterized by a liberal approach to the sphere of religion, measures have thereafter been taken to strengthen the government’s regulatory powers and take a less neutral and more proactive approach to religious matters. First, Kyrgyzstani laws and policies separate between what is referred to as traditional faiths, on the one hand, and non-traditional faiths on the other. The former – Hanafi Islam and the Russian Orthodox Church – are prioritized and given preferential treatment due to their historical influence on the development of Kyrgyz statehood. In particular, support of official Hanafism has attracted increasing policy attention. The government has taken upon itself the task to promote and safeguard the traditions and principles of Hanafism in order to stem the influence of international Salafist movements in the country and to ensure the cohesion of society. The distinction between beneficial religious traditions and allegedly harmful versions of religion has become an increasingly central part of the relationship between the secular state and religious communities.

Second, the government has instructed the chief religious institutions – the nominally independent Muftiate and the State Commission for Religious Affairs – to provide better control and monitoring of religious organizations, but also to engage in closer cooperation with them. State intervention into the activities of religious institutions is mainly justified on the grounds of preventing religious extremism. For example, the hardened legislation introduced in the religious sphere in 2008 was intended to restrict the activities of extremist foreign religious organizations, such as the banned global Islamist movement Hizb-ut-Tahrir.

The Islamic extremist threat first emerged on Kyrgyzstan’s political agenda in the late 1990s among growing fears that radical Islamic groups had established a presence in the religiously more conscious southern part of Kyrgyzstan. The threat became real in the summers of 1999 and 2000 when the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan carried out armed incursions into southern Kyrgyzstan. Isolated terrorist incidents inside the country as well as radicalized citizens from Kyrgyzstan travelling to fight for the Islamic State and other jihadist groups in Syria have ensured that religious extremism and terrorism remain central factors in forming government policy in the religious field.

Kyrgyzstan’s political project of secularism has had to confront and adjust to an increasingly diversified religious situation. The country’s first president, Askar Akayev, initially took a rather laissez-faire approach to religion, while eventually driving state policy more in the direction of sheltering state and society from unwanted religious influences. His successor, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, continued and strengthened these policies as he mostly paid attention to Islam as a potential threat. While the third president, Almazbek Atambayev, was highly suspicious of foreign Islamic traditions, he endorsed traditional Kyrgyz Islam in public in a much more pronounced manner than his predecessors. Current president Sooronbai Jeenbekov appears intent on taking this rapprochement further by fostering a partnership between political and religious leaders.

In simple terms, three main attitudes can be identified in contemporary Kyrgyz society. First, there is the predominantly secular political, economic and intellectual elite in Bishkek. This once dominant group is gradually losing its position in a less secular society. Second, there is a large group of nationalist-minded Kyrgyz citizens who increasingly embrace moderate Hanafi Islam as part of that identity. Third, there are Islamic currents whose representatives try to convert existing Muslims to more conservative versions of Islam. It can be assumed that the relatively strong support for Sharia in Kyrgyzstan, reported in certain survey data, is located chiefly among this group.

Despite the fact that religious organizations are prohibited from interfering in the government of the state, Islam has become an increasingly potent factor in politics. As society has become more religious, Islam has become an important source of legitimization for politicians and a resource for the mobilization of voters. In the early years of independence, the rapid increase of mosques was largely the result of foreign investments, the continued proliferation is now mainly secured through the financial prowess of local sponsors, including members of parliament. This is a reciprocal relationship. Clerics use their political connections to build up their own power bases. Politicians, in turn, enjoying clerical support strengthen their local electoral base.

In this light, Kyrgyzstan stands at a crossroads; sooner or later there will be a power shift away from the Soviet generation that has governed the country since independence. The question is, what comes with a new generation in power, and whether a post-Soviet generation of leaders will maintain the separation between politics and religion. Much depends on which of the three above-mentioned groups will constitute the backbone of future decision-makers.

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Religion and the Secular State in Central Asia: The Examples of Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan

This event marks the publication of two Silk Road Papers on the state-religion relationships in Central Asia, a study of Kyrgyzstan by Johan Engvall and one on Turkmenistan by Victoria Clement. This forms part of the ongoing research effort on secular governance, religion and politics at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center, and follows the publication of studies on Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.
Johan Engvall’s study of Kyrgyzstan’s experience is timely given that country’s experience, starting with a more permissive atmosphere that subsequently aligned itself with policies in the rest of the region. Victoria Clement’s study of Turkmenistan is the first treatment of the subject to appear in print, and sheds light on the similarities of Turkmenistan’s approach with the rest of Central Asia as well as its specificities.

Speakers:

Victoria Clement, Eurasia Regional Analyst, Center For Advanced Operational Culture Learning, Marine Corps University 
Johan Engvall, Senior Research Fellow, Foreign Policy Research Institute

Moderator: Svante E. Cornell, Director, Central Asia-Caucasus Institute at AFPC 

When: Monday, June 15, 2020 at 10am EDT

The event was live-streamed on our Facebook page and is now available on Youtube

 
Published in Forums & Events

S. Frederick Starr

AFPC Defense Dossier, May 31, 2020

This Spring, the Trump administration formally released its official strategy for Central Asia. The occasion marks the first time in more than two decades that the United States has articulated a serious approach to a region where vast economic, geopolitical, and civilizational stakes are in play. Coming on the heels of repeated visits to the region by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the new strategy emphasizes American support for the sovereignty and independence of the Central Asian states, encourages the growth of regional cooperation among them, and acknowledges positive steps toward political and economic reform. Crucially, it also supports the expansion of relations between the Central Asian states and Afghanistan.

In releasing this strategy, the Trump administration has made clear that it views Central Asia as a world region where the United States has intrinsic economic and security interests. This represents a significant departure from the past practice of various U.S. administrations, who allowed the region to slip between the cracks of other national security and foreign policy concerns that were deemed more important.

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Tuesday, 18 February 2020 00:00

A New Strategy for Central Asia

U.S. Central Asia policy has room to improve, but the Trump administration is steering things on the right track.

S. Frederick Starr and Svante Cornell
The Hill, Febuary 18, 2020

This month, the Trump administration released its strategy for Central Asia. This marks the first time in more than two decades that the United States has come up with a serious approach to a region where vast economic, geopolitical, and civilizational stakes are at issue. It follows visits by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, the first trip to the region by someone in that role in half a decade.

Long seen as a stagnant land of Soviet holdovers, Central Asia has been undergoing a dramatic transition led by its two most powerful countries, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Leaders in both countries have plunged into meaningful domestic reforms that are now focused on expanding citizen rights, governmental responsiveness, and the rule of law. They have also taken some important steps toward establishing their own structures for regional cooperation, a process that could result in a kind of Central Asian version of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

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U.S. Central Asia policy has room to improve, but the Trump administration is steering things on the right track.

S. Frederick Starr and Svante Cornell

The Diplomat, March 01, 2020

In a recent opinion pieceDiplomat editor Catherine Putz offered a thoughtful criticism of our Feb. 18 article marking the publication of a new U.S. Strategy for Central Asia. While the main purpose of our article was to note the areas in which U.S. policy needs further development, we do indeed believe that the approach of the present administration to the region to be an improvement on those of its predecessors, both Democratic and Republican.

Putz challenges our contention that the new strategy marks the first time in two decades that the U.S. has come up with a serious approach to the region. She points to the 2011 “New Silk Road,” a 2015 Strategy document, and that year’s creation of the C5+1 mechanism as evidence that the American approach to the region was equally serious during the Obama Administration.

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