Political scientists are predicting that candidates in Kyrgyzstan’s upcoming presidential elections will try to court growing religious feeling in the country to win over voters.
Although it remains a secular state in which all citizens have equal rights, religion has been growing steadily in popularity in the Muslim majority republic since independence.
For instance, there are now some 2,500 mosques across Kyrgyzstan, in comparison to only a few dozen in the early 1990s.
This increased interest in Islam has also been associated with growing radicalisation. Some 600 Kyrgyz nationals are known to have travelled to fight in Syria and Iraq.
Aman Saliev, an expert on Islam at the Institute for Strategic Analysis and Forecasting at the Kyrgyz-Russian Slavic University (KRSU), said that the public simply placed greater trust in officials who professed religious belief.
“People commonly associate religiosity with honesty,” Saliev said. “Unfortunately, most of the population has certain stereotypes. They think that if an official or a politician, or any other prominent public person, describes themselves as a religious person, then they must be honest, decent, and probably educated.”
He said that in recent years politicians had begun to gradually introduce religious language into their discourse in an attempt to win believers over.
For instance, one presidential candidate, former prime minister Temir Sariev, recently presented a valuable, 18th century copy of the Koran to the Islamic University of Kyrgyzstan.
His press secretary, Nazira Akhmedova, denied that gift was meant to attract the attention of religious Muslims.
“It was a mere coincidence, this action did not have any special purposes,” she told IWPR. “We do not divide our citizens into Muslims, Christians or other groups. For us they are all the same, we work for everyone, and it’s wrong to single out Muslims in the election.”
Saliev disagreed, adding, “The fact that politicians are actively displaying their religiosity during the election campaign shows that religion is a serious indicator of support, or vice versa, lack of support.
“Sometimes, this can be a determining factor. If an ineffective politician portrays himself as a religious figure, his weaknesses are overlooked.”
Chubak azhy Zhalilov, a former mufti of Kyrgyzstan and still an influential religious leader, agreed that “playing on the feelings of believers will be evident in the upcoming presidential and later parliamentary races”.
“For example, I believe that there have been and will be attempts to win the votes through the use of religious figures,” he continued.
Zhalilov noted that after he proclaimed his intention to join a party and run for office during the 2015 parliamentary election campaign, almost all the country’s major parties had approached him. He subsequently decided against it.
Although it remains illegal in Kyrgyzstan to set up a faith-based party, Zhalilov has claimed that the constitution allows him to run for president, although he has made clear he will not run this year.
He said that it was important for people to understand that a religious figure, like any other citizen, had the right to seek political authority.
“But it does not mean that if a mullah comes to power, he will be able to work well,” he conceded. “There may be those among them who would pursue the wrong policy, go in the wrong direction or would not know anything in politics, and such persons should not be allowed to power.”
Prominent politician Ulukbek Ormonov argued that the new interest in religion among the political class was sincere, and simply reflected a countrywide trend.
“But I don’t think that politicians, once they become religious, automatically become clean, start working honestly,” he continued. “It takes time, it’s not a quick process.”
Saliev agreed that professions of faith did not necessarily translate into more ethical governance.
“I have not seen how the internal religiosity [of politicians and officials] has encouraged them to fight for the independence of the justice system so that it really works. Such sincere faith should have pushed them for such actions. Unfortunately, our understanding of religion…has more personal interests.”
Current president Almazbek Atambaev has walked a fine line between religion and secularism.
He sometimes refers to the Koran and Islamic principles in his speeches, and in 2015 presented a large plot in a desirable part of Bishkek to build a mosque dedicated to the memory of those killed during the April 2010 revolution.
But the tension between ideologies has remained. In 2011, the opening of an Islamic prayer room in Kyrgyzstan’s parliament raised questions about the principle that state and religion should be kept separate.
Then last year, controversy erupted after an initiative by lawmakers to formally extend the lunch break for civil servants so that they could take part in Friday prayers.
After consulting religious figures as well as opponents of the initiative, Atambaev finally vetoed the plan on the grounds that would violate the secular nature of the state.
(See also Islam and Secularism Clash Again).
Saliev said that the state needed to take responsibility for this growing interest in Islam, having failed to deliver justice and decent living conditions. Although Kyrgyzstan is Central Asia’s most democratic state, corruption is rife and official institutions have little authority.
“Ordinary people hope that one day a sector of intellectuals with a sense of conscience will appear, and politicians who will honestly fulfil their duties will emerge. Religion gives hope,” he said.
Despite Islam’s growing influence on public discourse, experts say that it has yet to have much of a tangible impact.
“Politicians and officials are mostly secular,” said Tamerlan Ibraimov, director of the Centre for Political and Legal Studies. “There is no sign that Islamic principles are being lobbied for in state bodies.”
“It’s hard to say whether these trends might lead us to the Malaysian [or] Indonesian model of the state,” Ibraimov continued. “It depends on a number of factors. If we happen to have a technological trend here, an innovative model of business and economic development, then the Islamisation of the population will not have a significant impact on the state or its policy.”
Saliev agreed that Kyrgyzstan was still in the early days of a process.
“It is too soon to say that the increased religiousness of society has made secular institutions surrender their positions,” he said. “We must understand that the modern, global system of law and economy is still secular and we will not avoid it. We are part of this system and we will keep being part of this system for a long time.”
It was down to the state, he argued, to demonstrate the effectiveness and stability of secular governance if it wanted to halt the trend towards religiosity.
“If secular representatives of our society are really worried and want to preserve this system, this system should be fair and effective for all members of society, not just for a certain group of businessmen and oligarchs,” Saliev said. “If the secular scenario does not prove its effectiveness, it will begin to vanish and unfortunately no one will notice.”
For his part, Zhalilov insisted that the effect of Islam playing a larger part in public life had been misunderstood.
“It does not mean, as some people believe, that we will start wearing Pakistani [religious clothing],” Zhalilov warned. “I believe that a good Muslim country would be the country where we live now, but with no place for corruption, theft, violence. There would be justice in law, freedom of speech and religion.”