Perceptions of corruption penetrate just about every aspect of life in Kyrgyzstan, including the spiritual side. For years, the Hajj – the pilgrimage to Mecca required of every able Muslim – has been beset by allegations of graft involving those responsible for distributing the limited number of places.
Given the obligation involved, local religious leaders, seeing no alternative, often tolerate, and even tacitly endorse, the payment of bribes by the faithful in order to secure Hajj slots.
“I performed Hajj this year, which was a very special and sacred event in my life, and I feel very happy about this,” beamed 55-year-old Makhamazhan, a trader from Jalal-Abad province. “I had to pay a $300 bribe to have my papers processed. I am a believer, and I know it is sinful not only to take bribes, but also to offer them, but it was something unavoidable.”
Makhamazhan, who asked his surname not be printed, told EurasiaNet.org that after repeated refusals from officials who oversee the Hajj quota, he had consulted a local imam on whether he should offer a bribe to “expedite” the acceptance of his papers. The imam, conceding there was no other way, blessed the transaction.
In 2012, an official Hajj package cost $2,250 per person, including the visa, processing, round-trip air ticket, hotel and meals. According to the quota set by authorities in Saudi Arabia, 4,500 Kyrgyzstanis went on the pilgrimage, which fell in October.
Getting one of those coveted spots is the hard part. Theoretically, they are distributed by a blind lottery. But the process is opaque and involves cash transactions with middlemen appointed by Kyrgyzstan’s Spiritual Board of Muslims, or Muftiate. Several pilgrims told EurasiaNet.org they were only able to obtain spots by offering these officials “incentives” ranging from $200 to $1,000.
Such anecdotal evidence, buffeted by near-annual press reports of Hajj-related corruption , indicates that Makhamazhan’s tale is far from an isolated case. Though local observers say the level of Hajj-related corruption has decreased since the violent ouster of President Kurmanbek Bakiyev and his venal family  in 2010, they remain concerned by regular controversy at the highest levels at the Muftiate – the quasi-official religious body that oversees all mosques as well as Hajj quotas.
Leading the Muftiate can be a dangerous job. On April 20, 2010, a few weeks after popular protests unseated Bakiyev, a group of unidentified men kidnapped then-Supreme Mufti Murataly Jumanov, beat him, demanded $1 million, and left him for dead in a village near Bishkek. He died of his injuries two months later. Jumanov had fought corruption allegations for years. That June, the acting mufti was also kidnapped and beaten by unknown assailants, and was hospitalized with a concussion.
Until May 2011, the State Committee of Religious Affairs, whose director was appointed by the president, was nominally in charge of organizing the Hajj. Today, the Muftiate – where representatives did not respond to EurasiaNet.org’s repeated requests for an interview – is fully responsible for the process. Though the Muftiate has promised to boost transparency, observers say the agency is overlooking even the simplest and most urgent changes—and has done little to increase public confidence in its operations.
In December, local media reported that the State Committee on National Security (the GKNB) charged Chubak Jalilov, a former supreme mufti, with tax fraud. Jalilov stepped down in mid-2012 amid allegations of corruption and observers say the scandal underscores concern about procedures at the highest levels of the Muftiate. Others wonder if the powerful and opaque GKNB didn’t have other designs on the Muftiate and its sources of revenue.
“In order to eradicate corruption, it is necessary to change the whole system,” Bakyt Nurdinov, president of the Congress of Muslims, a Bishkek-based non-governmental organization, told EurasiaNet.org. “All payments should be made by bank transfers and quotas should be distributed evenly through all the country’s regions. In addition, the list of pilgrims must be posted online.”
Kadyr Malikov, a religious-affairs analyst in Bishkek who describes himself as a believer, has called on the Muftiate to do more. “The mufti of Kyrgyzstan should define and propose concrete steps and timelines for a reform. There must be transparency with regards to financial flows,” Malikov told EurasiaNet.org. If the Muftiate doesn’t open its books, the government should “intervene and have Hajj procedures and services conducted and delivered by a travel agency selected by an [open government] tender,” he said.
Malikov expressed concern that corruption was discrediting the Muftiate, something that “could lead to rapid radicalization” among disaffected Muslims.
Since Bakiyev’s overthrow, Kyrgyzstan’s leaders have regularly acknowledged corruption as a problem, but they have made scant progress in cleaning up sleaze. The country continues to plumb the bottom of Transparency International’s annual Corruption Perceptions Index , coming it at 154 out of the 174 countries evaluated in December.
Corruption has become such a feature of daily life in Kyrgyzstan that local religious leaders say they have no choice but to condone it. One Osh mullah told EurasiaNet.org that he tells adherents to consider the necessary bribes an act of charity, reasoning that the rewards of performing the Hajj outweigh the sin of bribery.
“The whole Hajj system is corrupt, so if you want to make the Hajj without paying bribes, or as we say, without ‘greasing palms,’ you could end up waiting 20 years,” said the mullah, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Since you are a Muslim, and making the Hajj is your obligation, if you are forced to give a bribe you should say, ‘I am giving this money as an act of charity,’ and let those who take bribes answer for what they do.”