By Timur Toktonaliev
The role played by Islam in Kyrgystan has been steadily growing ever since independence in the early 1990s. Although it remains a secular republic where religious parties are banned, analysts say that Islam is likely to play a part in upcoming presidential elections.
There are also fears of radicalisation, with at least 600 Kyrgyz nationals known to have travelled to fight in Syria and Iraq.
Alexey Malashenko, chief researcher at the Dialogue of Civilizations (DOC) think-tank, spoke to IWPR about the likely impact this trend may have on the future direction of the state.
IWPR: Do you think growing interest in Islam among the Kyrgyz population will lead to the Islamisation of politics, and then of the state itself?
AM: The growth of Islam in society is inevitable, and is taking place across the entire Muslim world. To some extent, it is more about re-Islamisation – Islam has always been there, and nobody got rid of it. This re-Islamisation means that people become more interested in religion, its doctrines, and more strictly observe Islamic traditions and norms of behaviour, including restrictions and prohibitions. But [it also means] that Islam is politicised, becoming not only a religion but also an ideology, which is radical to some extent.
Islam is increasingly being used by politicians as an instrument for achieving personal success. It becomes a political factor, which, as is known from the experience of many countries, contributes to destabilisation. The state’s actions play a significant role. On the one hand it must properly monitor and restrain the process of such re-Islamisation, but, on the other hand it must not resort to systematically harsh methods to suppress it. Otherwise, it will provoke a response.
We should acknowledge that Kyrgyzstan is a kind of miracle: with the highest political and even revolutionary activity of any society in Central Asia, religion has not become a serious political factor, which could have happened. And it is to the state’s great merit that it has managed, not without difficulty, to develop a reasonable approach to Islam.
If the secular system fails to demonstrate its effectiveness, what would it look like if the state adopted some Islamic principles? Would it be like Malaysia or Indonesia or should we expect something more radical?
The mixture of secular principles of government with religious attitudes, including even some Shariah norms, is inevitable. However, a lot of complex collisions can arise and different countries solve them differently. It should be noted, however, that even in the 28 Muslim countries where Islam is a state religion, the constitution takes priority, even when it appeals to Islamic traditions.
In this context, Kyrgyzstan… can be compared with Malaysia and Indonesia. I would add Algeria and even Egypt, which, despite the successes of Islamists at the beginning of the second decade of our century, still retain a de facto secular nature of government.
Kyrgyz politicians are increasingly using Islamic rhetoric for their own purposes. What is the likelihood that purely Islamist political parties will emerge, and how would the population perceive them?
Serious ‘Islamic parties’ will most likely not appear in Kyrgyzstan. The ship has sailed, as they say. They would have needed to have been created earlier on. However, marginal groups – they could declare themselves to be parties – might emerge that would be capable of organising loud rallies but would not have public support. People do not want riots. Moreover, there is the experience of the middle east, which shows what religious extremism can lead to.
As for specific politicians, I do not yet see charismatic personalities that could successfully use Islam as a rallying call. We don’t have that political culture or tradition. The emergence of such a kind of personality is possible only amid chaos. But I don’t see it coming.
What about other countries in Central Asia? How much does Islamisation influence their policies, or is Kyrgyzstan in a unique situation?
I think the most difficult situation has developed in Tajikistan, where the state and the president, in an effort to establish complete control over Islam, have gone too far [in clamping down on Islamist parties] which sooner or later will evoke a response.
In general, the re-Islamisation I describe will continue, as well as the inevitable politicisation of Islam to some extent. The authorities and ruling elites are scared of it. However, on the other hand, they have gained some experience not just of struggle, but a kind of communication with Islamists. They keep an eye on some, and take harsh measures against others prone to action.
The influence of Islamism persists because it is mainly the response to domestic economic, social and other challenges. Moreover, except for Kyrgyzstan, in the rest of the region Islam is actually the only form of protest, since there is no real opposition there.
Are there any examples in the world when a secular country gradually adopts some Islamic norms? How successful has this proved to be?
The world has experience of the coexistence of religious and secular systems. Sometimes, let’s take Russia, for example, the secular law turns a blind eye to Sharia. For example, in Muslim regions, first of all in the North Caucasus, polygamy takes place. Everybody knows about this – from President Putin to the local policeman.
The head of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, used to justify polygamy saying that during the two wars in Chechnya, many men were killed.
So, the compromise between the secular law and religious tradition is quite possible and even necessary.
This article appeared at IWPR’s RCA 814
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