Religious tension in Kyrgyzstan is increasing as the population appears to be growing increasingly pious, while the government shows an expanding tendency to crack down on various forms of religious expression, according to an American expert.
"2006 has been the worst year in Kyrgyzstan as far as state-Islam relations," said Eric McGlinchey, an assistant professor of politics and government at George Mason University. McGlinchey spoke January 11 at an event titled "Religious Freedom and State Policy in Central Asia," sponsored by the Washington, DC,-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.
State-Islam tension has two dimensions in Kyrgyzstan: an increasing mobilization of religious groups, including those with purely religious aims and those with a political agenda, and "a parallel, and disproportionate, rise in the state monitoring of these groups," McGlinchey said.
"These two dynamics are mutually reinforcing the state repression of Islam increases mobilization of Islam," he said.
Several incidents in 2006 bore out this thesis, McGlinchey maintained. He cited an incident in May, when protests broke out in the southern city of Jalalabad after a local official criticized the wearing of the hijab, saying that prostitutes often wear it. "It was a direct attempt by a state official to go after the hijab, and we really didn't see this under [Askar] Akayev," the former president who was ousted in 2005, McGlinchey said.
The trend was also evident during a June dispute, in which an Islamic group, Jamaat Musulman, threatened protests in Bishkek after President Kurmanbek Bakiyev's administration reneged on promises to provide land for the construction of a new mosque in the capital. In the end, administration officials relented and gave the land for the mosque.
In August, there were massive protests after the killing of a popular imam in Kara Suu, Mohammed Rafik Kamalov. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. "What's interesting about this is how the Kyrgyz government's story has changed about how the imam died in response to mass protests. Originally, the Kyrgyz government claimed that Kamalov was a radical and he was shot while he was sitting next to Hizb-ut-Tahrir members. Later, after many protests, the government said Kamalov was kidnapped and was unfortunately caught in the crossfire as the government was trying to secure his release," McGlinchey said.
McGlinchey added that November and December protests calling for the ouster of the country's chief mufti are part of the trend. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. "We're seeing uprising after uprising after uprising, which is something we haven't seen in Kyrgyzstan before, and it's very much directed at the state," he said.
McGlinchey contrasted the situation in Kyrgyzstan to the situation in Uzbekistan, where the dynamic is relatively straight-forward: government repression fuels the mobilization of religious groups, spurring, in turn, further repression. "In Kyrgyzstan there's more going on than simply mobilization encouraging state response and state response encouraging mobilization in turn. I think in Kyrgyzstan there's a really strong grass-roots interest that is also driving the renaissance of Islam that is perhaps not so much driving the renaissance we've been seeing in Uzbekistan," he said.
Part of the tension comes from the fact that an Islamic identity is relatively new to the Kyrgyz, he said. "What's going on in Kyrgyzstan is that there's a desire now, which we don't necessarily see in Uzbekistan, to finally at long last define who they are as Muslims.