Monday, November 30, 2009

Window on Eurasia: ‘Traditional’ Islam Said Losing on ‘All Fronts’ in Kyrgyzstan

Paul Goble

Vienna, November 30 – “Traditional Islam is suffering defeat on all fronts in Kyrgyzstan,” a trend that reflects the growing strength of both radical Islam and Protestant Christian groups and the continuing weakness of the state and of secularism as a governing principle, according to a leading independent Bishkek specialist on religious affairs.
In an interview with the agency, Kadyr Malikov, director of the Bishkek Center on Religion, Law and Politics there, says that this process, which he called “an unrecognized struggle for spheres of influence,” is happening in other post-Soviet states as people attempt to recover their roots (
Malikov argues that this competition is part of an overall and irreversible “process of Islamization” in Kyrgyzstan, a place where he says the population earlier displayed less “religiosity” than in neighboring Uzbekistan but that is moving toward becoming more overtly religious religious than any of its neighbors.
Young people there “are beginning to see in Islam not only a tradition but precisely an ideology and are approaching it in that way in a conscious manner.” As a result, there is “a struggle going on between the new directions of neo-Christian trends and Islam,” which itself is divided among “the official mosque,” “traditional Islam” and “independent Islam.”
The official mosques in Kyrgyzstan, Malikov observes, are not strong and now faced a choice: “Either they will become the core around which will unit disparate groups of Muslim society or they will not be recognized as a legitimate organ,” a challenge Islam in particular faces because of its lack of a clergy and of hierarchically arranged church structures.
“Traditional Islamic thought” in Kyrgyzstan, he argues, as a result of “long years of pressure by Soviet power,” is at “a low intellectual level which does not correspond to contemporary standards and is cut off from reality.” As a result, “it is suffering defeat on all fronts” against radical Islamist imports and Protestant groups.
Another reason for its defeat, Malikov continues, involves “the politicization of religion,” something that the powers that be “opened the door to” by their actions but which they appear to have lost control of as a result of their corruption and to the lack of an adequate understanding of secularism and the separation of church and state.
Indeed, because there is so much corruption among officials and especially judges, he said, “the authority of the secular institutions of the state is falling rapidly,” and radical religious groups who present themselves as the only available supporters of justice are winning the kind and level of support they could not have achieved on their own.
If the current trends continue, the Bishkek specialist adds, then the state will have to come up with “a new model of government-confessional relations with the participation of Islam and possibly of the Russian Orthodox Church in official and unofficial political spheres … and to incorporate ‘certain religious organizations’ in the political system of the state.”
In Kyrgyzstan today, Malikov says, “there is neither a real secular society nor democracy,” but he insisted that there is no chance that it will become “a religious state.” Instead, he said, what is going on resembles to a certain extent what is happening in Russia, where the Orthodox Church is positioning itself as “the state-forming” religion.
Such a position, he argues, is entirely “normal, because in all states, even those which have the principle of secularism [enshrined in their basic documents], religion plays not a small role in political life.” And he insists that there are three kinds of secularism: complete separation of church and state, a state religion without force, or a set of accords between the state and religious groups.
A rapprochement between the state and religious groups, Malikov suggests, is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is critical that the powers that be “correctly place the accents” in the relationship and “definite what place religion will occupy in the state because religious values are important in it. “
In making that observation, the Bishkek specialist says, he “has in mind namely religious organizations” of whatever kind “and not religion in general.” But even if the state holds to that, it is going to be necessary “to rethink the doctrine of [Kyrgyz] society itself and of its unity under conditions of multiculturalism.”
In many ways, the wildcard in this process, however, is the growth in popularity of Protestant groups whose attraction to those traditionally identified as Muslims presents a challenge not only to official Islam but also to Russian Orthodoxy which typically insists on an ethnic definition of faith and to the Kyrgyz state.
Such conversions, however, have become sufficiently numerous that they have not only created tensions within the Islamic community and within individual families and clans, Malikov pointed out, but they have called attention to the reality that religious choices are not simply about freedom of religion but also “ideological and strategic” for Kyrgyz society.
And while he makes it clear that he favors a secular outcome, one in which the state, however much it may be informed by one religion or another, will nonetheless stand above all of them, Malikov concludes that the situation in his Central Asian homeland is unlikely to resolve itself with regard to that issue anytime soon.

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