“Concern with Islam will surely rise. In terms of what? All these events happening in the Middle East are on the agenda and make believers, religious activists become active. They preach and explain Islam, which has its impact, as well,” ex-director of State Committee for Religious Affairs of Kyrgyzstan, specialist in religious extremism and terrorism issues Orozbek Moldaliev said in the interview to CABAR.asia.
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CABAR.asia: Kyrgyzstan is predominantly an Islamic country, with nearly 80 per cent of people considering themselves as the followers of Islam. However, what is the origin of and when did other religions that the rest of the population follow emerge in our country?
Orozbek Moldaliev: Islam emerged in our country after the 7th century, somewhere around 8th-9th centuries. So it’s only the Arabs who can say that Islam is their local religion.
As to other religions, the orthodox Christianity appeared with the Russia’s conquering of Central Asia. Missionaries were actively spreading orthodoxy and local orthodox Christians even managed to build churches in Talas region, if we take the current territory. There were more orthodox Kazakhs in Kazakhstan. Historians explain this fact in different ways. Some say it was due to the socioeconomic status of local people. They received some benefits; their children were admitted to schools. It all relates to orthodox Christianity.
Buddhism emerged and spread at the time of the Silk Road. Buddhism was brought to China via the Silk Road. Many people think this is the country of Buddhists, but it’s not, it turned into it later. Islam also spread via the Silk Road.
The rest of religions… we used to have pre-Islamic faiths. Now they try to prove that [Tengrism] is a religion. There are videos about their trips to Altai, how they invite shamans here. However, they don’t understand the main point of the name. It comes from a Chinese word ‘tian’ – ‘sky’. ‘Tiangri’ is a ‘sky man’. So, it’s purely Chinese phenomenon. There is a sky temple in China, which has a circle, which is less than a meter in diameter. An emperor would step into this circle and speak to the sky and listened to the sounds echoed back from there. People would see the emperor speaking to the sky and the sky responding to him. This mechanism still exists.
Now let’s talk about Islam. It takes a form of the Hanafi madhab here. Our people, nomads, came to Islam because its’ a tolerant madhab, tolerant branch of Islam, which says that Islam does not contradict local customs, but accepts them and doesn’t deny them. That’s why we celebrate Nooruz every year. They usually shout it’s not our holiday, it’s not a religious holiday. As if someone says it’s a religious holiday. They even urge us not to celebrate it. However, we haven’t had any prohibition long since and our Hanafi madhab Muslims have celebrated it and haven’t made ‘religion’ of it and just celebrated the beginning of spring.
Even in Tashkent, near the spiritual administration of Uzbekistan, there are premises where the third copy of the original Quran is stored and there are premises where the roof and the floor have a hole and every March 21 the sunlight always enters through this hole. The building was designed with this purpose.
As to other [religious] minorities, they have reduced in number in the independence years, but we had had western Christian religions before that. During the relocation of the Germans during the Great Patriotic War, baptism and other western Christian movements appeared with them. So we cannot say this is a new religion, its branches have existed for a long time.
All Soviet republics had representatives of the committee for religious affairs and they built relations with religious organisations. Afterwards, when [Kyrgyzstan] became independent, all of them were eliminated and no one took care of religion. A temporary provision was adopted to allow registration for anyone. Many used this opportunities and registered as religious organisations.
As to other religious movements, is it right to say that they were massively spread in the 90s, after the collapse of the Union?
Forbidden fruit is the sweetest. At the time, religious organisations were forbidden, and when the ban was removed, many people rushed into these movements, but later their numbers began to decrease.
Another point is that the majority of western Christian organisations used to provide and are still providing humanitarian and financial aid. They had some materialistic interests. Some said they would leave abroad with the help of their brothers and sisters whether they were needed there or not. However, there were true believers who sought spirituality and wanted to have fellowship with God.
We studied this issue a few years ago. We have a Jesus Christ Church and the main members there are young women, young people. Many of them said, “We wanted to enter Islam. But when we came to a mosque to ask something, they kicked us out saying we should wear a headscarf. They were rude to us. Why do we need this religion if they treat us like that?” And many of them joined Christian organisations. This is the point.
Are there any new religions registered in Kyrgyzstan? Or do we have all possible religions represented here?
Some Satanists tried to register here, but then changed their mind or something. It was a few years ago. They were looking for adherers here, but left.
We have no new organisations so far. I think we have all religions represented here.
Scientologists discontinued their activities and filed a report. Also, we closed down the Ahmadiyya branch (a religions movement founded by Ahmad Mirza Ghulam, who declared himself to be a prophet – editor’s note) for a violation of the charter. The Muslims don’t recognise this religion; however, if a person wants to believe, they are free to do it. But they violated the charter, so we closed them down. The rest of organisations are functioning.
How would you estimate the current situation in the country? Many people say Central Asia, including Kyrgyzstan, is in the process of Islamization.
I wouldn’t say it’s total Islamization, but concern with Islam will surely rise. In terms of what? All these events happening in the Middle East are on the agenda and make believers, religious activists become active. They preach and explain Islam, which has its impact, as well.
Also, there’s more literature in Kyrgyz, the Quran was translated. However, I wouldn’t say there’s more inclination to Islamization.
It is commonly believed that if you are a Kyrgyz, you are a Muslim by default. That’s why there’s some negative attitude towards Proselytism. In your opinion, what makes Kyrgyz convert to other religions?
There are many reasons for that. We think that if parents are Muslims, their children must be Muslims, too. Who were Muslims back in the Soviet period? They were very few. There was only one madrasah in Bukhara in the whole country. All people were atheists. That’s why atheists’ children didn’t have any idea of Islam.
Moreover, there was propaganda. After the war in Iran, the stereotype was that Islam consisted of fundamentalists, extremists, terrorists. After the war in Afghanistan, the rhetoric was that the mujahedeen destroyed the democratic regime in Afghanistan and so on. And it did have its impact. More peaceful people converted to the Christianity.
Another point is that Christian organisations are interested in more girls joining them. Because women become mothers, who will later bring their children with them, and girls can invite their boyfriends. It has a long-term perspective.
On the other hand, hijab makes it difficult for girls to find their way to Islam. They don’t want to wear a hijab because they have to go through a certain stage of life and get ready for that.
What is the origin of the belief that once you are a Kyrgyz, you must be a Muslim by default?
These are good intentions of our religious leaders. Children of the Muslims, or even the believers can convert to other religions or become atheists.
A Kyrgyz need not necessarily be a Muslim. A son of the Muslim need not necessarily be a Muslim. Although parents are responsible for and give support [to their children] in a choice of religion. However, if [a child] decides to convert to another religion, his rights are guaranteed by law. We have a secular state, not religious one.
Recently an international organisation Open Doors held a research on the status of Christian movements in Central Asia. Almost all countries oppress them. How do you evaluate the situation of religious minorities in Kyrgyzstan?
I cannot say everything is fine here. It can be seen during the funerals, for example. Some zealous local imams start saying, “These were people of another faith, not Muslims, and they may not be buried here.”
The muftiate doesn’t make it clear if there is such an order or not. I have never seen in the sharia law that they may not be buried [in the same place]. However, aalyms of our madhab say that in the times of Prophet Muhammad both Jews and Christians were buried at the same cemetery.
In this regard, we initiated a decision in 2014 so that local authorities, aiyl okmotus should provide plots for people of different religions to avoid such conflicts. If you remember, there was a conflict in Dzhalal-Abad region when a woman couldn’t be buried.
There was another case in Tamchy, when a person was listening to music too loud and strangers came and said, “You listen to music too loud, you are not a Muslim.” This case wasn’t settled, I think.
Such situations need to be carefully reviewed to avoid any recurrence. Such things should not be hidden.
In your opinion, why Kyrgyzstan is more tolerant than, say, Kazakhstan?
There are a few factors. The situation in Kazakhstan is more complicated because the influence of the Salafis (one of the branches of the Sunnism – editor’s note) has become stronger in recent years. Now they want to strengthen the Hanafis, but I don’t see it happening.
Even Quranists have appeared there (a religious movement, whose representatives accept the Quran as the only sacred text in Islam and reject the religious authority of hadiths – editor’s note). High-ranking officials favour these movements, which have very strict approaches to other religions, even to our Hanafi madhab Muslims.
You see what has happened in Syria. ISIS declared that Muslims who don’t agree with them are not Muslims and should be killed.
Another factor is that here [in Kyrgyzstan] we are more committed to democracy and freedom of speech. In case of any incident, it is made public and the community demands for its solution. There’s no such practice in Kazakhstan. Uzbekistan does have a lot of media outlets, yet they cover culture, sports and other areas but politics.
In your opinion, how well are people in Kyrgyzstan aware of other religions? Not only major branches, but all of them.
In 2014, we suggested that our schools introduce classes in the culture and history of religions. School students must study this issue and learn in school the variety of religions, their origins, their impact on the world culture.
By the way, all European culture emerged on the basis of Christianity. Many statements in films, theatre have been taken from the Bible, but they have become so common that many people don’t even know they were taken from the Bible.
Therefore, we should start [religious education] in schools, universities, and improve religious awareness of people.
This publication was produced under IWPR project «Forging links and raising voices to combat radicalization in Central Asia»