There are some interesting things going on in Kyrgyzstan. The Russians are beefing up their military presence there and Russian media outlets talking about the threat of Islamization in Kyrgyzstan.
Officially, Russia is preparing to use Kyrgyzstan as a line of defense against whatever comes out of Afghanistan once the United States leaves. Unofficially, Russia has begun a low key campaign against Saudi religious influence in its sphere of influence.
President Almazbek Atambayev’s comments about Islam have to be seen in the context of Russia’s growing collision course with the Saudis. And recent sex scandals involving its top Muftis as well as a Fatwa by Grand Mufti Maksat Hajji Toktomushev calling for the murder of homosexuals have provided further justifications for reform.
As an initial step, Kyrgyzstan will follow the Russian model by taking closer control of its clergy, especially at the educational level.
President Almazbek Atambayev’s comments are a warning that the tolerance for Salafis may be coming to an end.
Political leaders in Kyrgyzstan tend to have their roots in the atheist, Soviet past, and thus are prone to be skeptical of religion. Yet unlike their counterparts in other Central Asian states, they have been relatively tolerant of Islam’s revival. But now speculation is swirling about whether President Almazbek Atambayev’s recent broadside against Islam signals a changing government stance on religion.
Criticizing the spread of “Arab culture” at the expense of “native ethnic culture,” Atambayev, speaking at a meeting of the Defense Council on February 3, lamented that “there are many people with long beards on our streets now. They force our girls to dress in black instead of light and colorful clothing. This is what widows usually wear here.”
The comments, picked up by almost every news agency in the country, quickly developed into a national talking point. The timing was seen as significant, coming in the wake of yet another scandal at the state-sanctioned Spiritual Administration of Muslims of Kyrgyzstan, or Muftiate, which is reeling after a third leader in four years was forced out.
Atambayev’s remarks would be seen as normal coming from a president in neighboring Uzbekistan or Tajikistan, authoritarian states that have little tolerance for religious freedom. But they have generated lots of buzz in Kyrgyzstan.
Many in Kyrgyzstan – the only Central Asian republic that has not banned Tablighi Jamaat, a proselytizing Islamic group, and the only one to allow Islamic dress in public schools – fear rising adherence to Islamic practices is undermining security. Changes made to the Law on Religion under then-President Kurmanbek Bakiyev in 2009 upset proselytizing religious communities, whose members complained of government encroachment. At the same time, the legislation did not go far enough for many secularists.
Kyrgyzstan has always been an eager puppet of Russia, but that could change if the Salafis dig in deep enough. The Russians appear to be making sure that doesn’t happen. Though the idea of a safe government controlled Islam that is so vital to Putin’s dreams of Eurasia are much of a myth in Russia as they are in Europe.
Atambayev is treating the Salafi incursions as “Arab culture” which is a neat way of segregating it from Islam without directly criticizing Islam in a Muslim country.