Cholpon Chotaeva, Ph.D., research associate at the Tohuku University (Sendai, Japan)

National resurrection of the Central Asian republics that took place at the turn of the 1990s went hand in hand with religious and cultural revival, rise of nationalism and ethnic awareness, and return to the Muslim traditions. The local peoples became aware of the need to identify themselves as full-blooded nations and full-blooded confessional and cultural communities.

Society was embracing Islam not only in the context of rejection of Marxist ideology, establishment of democratic institutions, and economic liberalization, but of a slump of living standards as well. During the transition Islam is becoming an instrument for overcoming mass alienation and social inequality, it has begun to serve as a psychological sheet anchor in the sea of instability and social changes. It is used to oppose the local cultural and religious traditions to Western individualism, to preserve national specifics, and restore the nations self-respect. Due to the fact that traditional institutions and ideas remain relevant people tend to use old habitual formulas to assess new developments. To find a remedy for modern problems they turn to the past. The modern and the traditional merge in their minds to give birth to something new, which is different in form and content.

In Soviet and post-Soviet times Kyrgyzstan remained a traditional society in which customs of the past dominate. The cultural traditions and customs continue to regulate social relations and are a part of social consciousness despite the efforts at secularization and desacralization of life carried out in Soviet times. The individuals social status is gradually changing: the individual is retreating in the face of the clan and regional social structure while all important political and economic issues are dealt with in the context of the tribal, clan and regional power institutions.1

This explains why the place and role of Islam in social life and peoples minds have so many aspects. In Kyrgyzstan Islam is not merely a religious system, it is rather a civilization that, all changes of material life notwithstanding, has preserved its significance as a sociocultural system. Special spiritual and axiological landmarks determine human behavior, peoples ideas about life and the way of life. In other words, Islam is more than a religionit is a cultural heritage and a tradition.

Islam has been and remains one of the key elements of the Kyrgyz peoples national identity together with their belonging to the same ethnos, the same state, their shared past and their common language. At the same time, the religious component as part of the national identity in Central Asia not always brings an awareness of belonging to a much wider national Muslim community. It was under the Soviet power that the Central Asian Muslims acquired their national identities and therefore their Islamic identity should be discussed together with the ethnic and national identities.

Islamization Specifics

The process of Islamization of the Kyrgyz took a long time to be completed and it proceeded in waves. The southern regions were exposed to direct Muslim influences earlier than the northern territories where Islam arrived in the late 17th and early 18th centuries together with missionaries from the Ferghana Valley. More likely than not the missionaries were Sufis, founders or members of Sufi brotherhoods. Tartar clerics came to the region as soon as the Russian Empire conquered the territory.

Sufism, or parallel Islam, played a huge role in Central Asian history: the Sufis were the first who brought Islam to the nomadic tribes; they were the main carriers and the main interpreters of Muslims duties and rituals. Their interpretation of Islam perfectly fit the traditions of tribal democracy and the nomadic way of lifeat least to a much greater extent than the Islamic dogmas and the Sharia that were never welcome there. The four major Sufi brotherhoods (the Naqshbandiyya, the Qadiriyya, the Yasawiyya, and the Qubrawiyya) are flourishing in the newly independent countries and enjoy an official status.

The local specifics of Islam in Kyrgyzstan are determined by the fact that this religion came late to this mostly nomadic people; its Sufi interpretation blended with ancient Turkic beliefs and earlier religious systems (Zoroastrianism, Christianity, and Buddhism) is responsible for the highly syncretic culture of the Kyrgyz. In fact, the production methods, the way of life and the ethical norms of the Kyrgyz and Arabian nomads (the latter brought Islam to Central Asia) helped the former to accept Islam as a philosophical, ideological, and ethical system. The traditional way of life of the Kyrgyz was rooted in a blend of varied cultural ideologies and the most viable Turkic religious ideas.

Under the impact of Islam the pagan rites and beliefs did not disappearthey underwent certain changes and preserved their basic features. Allah was identified with Qudai, one of the Turkish gods; the cult of nature was transformed into the cult of mazars (Islamic shrines) while shamanism never contradicted Sufism (elements of shamanism were parts of the much better organized Sufi cult). Islam helped centralization and structuralization of the pagan cults at a higher level.2 Today, all natal, marital, burial and sacrificial rites correspond to the traditional Turkic ideas. Chokah Valikhanov had the following to say about this: The Buruts (the Kyrgyz) call themselves Muslims while being ignorant of Muhammad. They bury their dead and marry their children according to shamanic rites yet always ask (if they can find) a literate Central Asian or a Tartar to read a prayer.3

It should be said here that Islam in Kyrgyzstan, as well as in the region as a whole, is mainly concentrated in everyday life; for this reason many researchers describe it as popular or everyday. Despite their high educational level the majority of the local Muslims are ignorant of Islam main duties: shahada (repetition of the main formula and faith in it); prayers five times a day; fasting in the month of Ramadan; zakat (alms), and hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca). The knowledge of these five rules makes a Muslim genuinely faithful at the individual level. In Central Asia about one-hundredth of the total adult population faithfully observes them (obviously much less than the total number of the Muslims in the region).4 On the whole, people observe the rites in which Islamic traditions are blended with the pre-Islamic ones. Popular Islam includes the Sharia (Muslim law) rites and norms of behavior together with those prescribed by adat (common law, the pre-Islamic system of behavior) that accompany man from birth to death. Those who adhere to them are considered to be Muslims.

The Kyrgyz rites can be divided into the calendar and family ones; the latter normally comprise three large ritual cycles: childhood, marriage, and burial ones that register the most important events of individual lives.

They have a wide social meaning related to the individual in question and to society and the community as a whole. They publicly demonstrate the familys social status, strengthen social relationships among relatives, friends, and neighbors. It is the duty of family members to demonstrate their new social status to everybody whom they see regularly. To miss a rite and to fail to treat guests is disgraceful. Any family would prefer to borrow to observe the rite. Traditions are tenacious: nobody can avoid them without marring his name.

There is another specific feature of the Kyrgyz rites: they are uncommonly lavish because they follow Muslim rules. People slaughter a lot of cattle and spend money freely. In fact when writing about expenses researchers tend to forget that they are recompensed for by friends and relatives. Actually, any such event incurs financial losses and brings financial profit. To recompense incurred expenses guests normally bring money or valuable presents. The host family is expected to do the same when invited to similar rites.

The Muslim holidays of Orozo ait and Kurman ait (two official holidays in Kyrgyzstan) are calendar rites. At the same time, the Kyrgyz look at them as pagan rites: the Orozo fast is associated with the ancestor cult; its end is celebrated as a remembrance day with special food (boorsok, or grilled dough) with which guests are treated. It is believed that everything eaten on that day is dedicated to the spirits of ancestors. Men visit burials of their parents to pray over them. Kurman ait is a holiday of sacrifice and of the living. Families kill sacrificial animals and share food with neighbors and relatives.

The Nooruz festival, dated to the pre-Islamic times, is celebrated in all Central Asian countries. After the declaration of Kyrgyzstan independence it became an official holiday here. It celebrates the coming of spring and the New Year (21 March). In the past the Kyrgyz marked the day with special food made of wheat, they built fires and leapt over them, and fumigated their homes and people with archa smoke. The holiday is a Zoroastrian remnant in the culture of the local people.

One should say that the degree of Islamization of various regions is different. It depends on the ethnic population structure. In this respect the country can be divided into three zones: the capital city of Bishkek and the Chu River Valley with considerable European population (Russians, Ukrainians, and Germans) who are mainly city dwellers; the Kyrgyz are in minority there and mainly live in the countryside. The cities have ramified infrastructure, high educational level and multinational population, which explains why Islam is not prominent there.

The second zone includes the northern regions (the Issyk-Kul, Talas, and Naryn) populated by nomads. Islam among them is dating back to the 18th century. Their attitude to their religion is superficial; popular Islam with the elements of shamanism and the local pagan cults predominate there.

The largest part of the Muslims lives in the south, in the Ferghana Valley. Their neighbors, settled Uzbeks, have at all times been regarded as better Muslims than the nomad Kyrgyz. The valley people are separated from the rest of the country with high mountains; therefore, from time immemorial the local Kyrgyz have been maintaining closer ties with their neighbors (the local Tajiks and Uzbeks) than with the Kyrgyz in the rest of the republic. This explains why the country is divided into Islamic south and less religious north.

The Ferghana Valley divided among Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan is the most vulnerable and the most volatile part of Central Asia. Independence of the three states disunited the earlier economically and culturally united area. This undermined economic exchange, cultural and family contacts and created a lot of problems for the local people. On top of this, extremely high population density, their severe poverty and instability caused by the wars in Tajikistan and Afghanistan created fertile soil for Islamism and extremism.

Researchers of Central Asian Islam frequently describe the valley as a source of Islamic fundamentalism. Back in the middle of the 18th century part of the local clergy formulated an idea of returning to pure Islam of the time of the Prophet and the four righteous caliphs. When the Kokand Khanate was liquidated in 1876 the idea of restoring the Caliphate acquired even more urgency. It stumbled across the local form of Islam that for centuries was functioning in very specific forms of rituals and traditions, was an inalienable part of the local way of life and the local peoples systems of values and self-identity.

Since that time the Muslims of the valley are still divided into the truly faithful and the followers of traditional Islam. Those who represent pure Islam denounce pilgrimages to the burials of local saints, sumptuous way of life, and pre-Islamic holidays. Early in the 1980s Soviet power, afraid of the traditional Islam as a potential threat to the state ideology, supported the fundamentalists and upset the balance between the two trends.5 Islamization that in Central Asia followed perestroika allowed fundamentalism to strike root and improve its organizational structure.

Islam Going Political

In the 1980s and 1990s Islam regained its pre-revolutionary level in the region; its institutions became completely legal, Islamic dogmas became revived. At the same time, political Islamic movements appeared and demonstrated a great deal of activity. Politization of Islam is a post-Soviet factor determined by the religious traditions and the regional context. Islam does not separate the secular from the religious: it is a faith that embraces all social spheres. By going political it has responded to the social crisis in which common people tend to turn to the traditional values and the religion of their ancestors.

More often than not the process is described as Islamic renaissance yet certain authors with whom I side do not accept the term. The concept is far from being correct and fails to reflect realities. It seems that it is better described by the term re-Islamization since everything that is going on in Kyrgyzstan and Central Asia as a whole has nothing to do with the revival of Islam. It just imparted legitimacy to the nearly clandestine religious and public structures.6

As a result, religious awareness has become much more pronounced in the republic: this is testified by a sociological poll during which in summer 2003 I distributed 1,000 questionnaires in two southern regions (the Osh and Dzhalal-Abad) and in two northern ones (in Chu and Issyk-Kul) as well as in the capital city of Bishkek. An absolute majority (81.7 percent) responded that they believed in Allah (81.6 percent of the believers had higher education). A considerable part (25.75 percent) followed all religious rules and performed all Islamic rites. Over half of the polled (51.7 percent) declared that they followed some of the rules, while 64.45 percent had the Koran at home.

What is important is the fact that Islam has returned to both politics and ideology; in the era of globalization Kyrgyzstan has become part of the global Islamic political system, something that has betrayed itself in mushrooming Islamic political organizations and movements.

Hizb ut-Tahrir al-Islami (Islamic Party of Liberation) has become active, especially in the Ferghana Valley in which the demographic, ethnic and religious situation is volatile. The party was formed in 1952 by Taki ad-din Nabhani al-Falastini (1909-1979), a judge of a Sharia Court of Appeals in Jerusalem, a well known in certain circles religious figure. According to the documents, it is a religious party, Islam being its ideology. Its stated goal is to help the Muslims to embrace the traditional Islamic way of life every side of which is ruled by the Sharia and which is expected to promote Islam through jihad. The restored Caliphate (a united worldwide theocratic state) is described as the only means to reach this goal.

At one time, the party had active branches in Egypt, Jordan, Tunisia, Kuwait, Palestine, and Turkey as well as in Western Europe. Today, its cells, invariably clandestine, are present everywhere where the population identifies itself with Islam.

In the wake of the Soviet Unions disintegration the party pressed into Central Asia. Like all other radical Islamic groups that have betrayed their presence in the region (Akramiya, Tablikh, Adolat, Islom Lashkarlari, and others) it pins its hopes on the revival of the Caliphate of the time of the four righteous caliphs. In fact, the majority of the Muslims look at it as a symbol of a just state in which brotherhood and equitable distribution of goods reigned supreme.7

The party mainly relies on clandestine propaganda; while rejecting violence it is illegally distributing religious literature in Arabic, Uzbek and Kyrgyz.

It was in the middle of the 1990s that Hizb ut-Tahrir reached Kyrgyzstan through Muslim radicals from Andizhan and Namangan. Today, it is mainly working in the Osh Region. According to the republican Ministry of the Interior, in 2000 and 2001 over 200 party emissaries were detained in the south; huge amounts of literature calling to jihad and deposition of the legal authorities in the Central Asian states were arrested. The party finds support among the local Uzbeks, the most religious part of the population in the south of Kyrgyzstan. During the years of independence the Osh Region received 677 new mosques and 4 madrasahs; 127 religious organizations were registered in the Dzhalal-Abad Region, of which 123 were mosques and 1, a madrasah. On top of this, there are 200 unregistered mosques and 2 madrasahs.8 Rich foreign sponsors paid for the majority of the new mosques. Recently the party has been working frantically to establish itself in the north of the republic, mainly among the local Uighurs and Dungans. The partys ideas have found fertile soil in the south because of the systemic crisis, economic hardships, a lower social status of all local people, especially of the younger generation. The unemployed young lumpens readily embrace the alternative offered by foreign emissaries of Hizb ut-Tahrir in an effort to change their situation.

One should say that Uzbek Islamists who in an effort to escape persecution at home came to the Osh Region played an important role in forming the partys local branches. They feel more at home in Kyrgyzstan than in Uzbekistan and they are exerting much more influence on the local Kyrgyz population of the Ferghana Valley than on its Uzbek neighbors. The party stepped up its activity in August 1999 when fighters of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) invaded the Batken and Chon-Alay districts of Kyrgyzstan.

Today, those who survived the anti-Islamist campaign in Uzbekistan form the partys core. They are former members of several Uzbek organizations: Adolat Uyushmasi (Society of Justice), Islom Lashkorlari (Soldiers of Islam), and Tovba (Redemption) banned in March 1992. They were set up in the early 1990s in Namangan with an active participation of the present IMU leaders Tohir Yoldosh and Juma Namangani. In 1992, when the heads of the extremist groups fled Uzbekistan, Hizb ut-Tahrir filled the vacuum.9

According to prominent researcher U. Botobekov, Islamic political organizations active in Kyrgyzstan are mainly engaged in religious propaganda and are busy disseminating leaflets and books. Hizb ut-Tahrir, for example, is convinced that the local Muslims are not yet prepared to plunge into a jihadit is still waging a holy war against the unfaithful with peaceful means.

In August 1999, IMU members captured 25 hostages in Batken while in the summer of 2000 armed Islamic groups invaded southern Kyrgyzstan. This confirms that radical Islamic groups active in the region are aggressive organizations. Repressions in Uzbekistan drove them underground; their majority maintains contacts with similar Arabian cells and groups in Pakistan and Iran from which they receive literature in Uzbek, Tajik and Russian and also get financial and other support. Books and leaflets adapted to the local readers call on people to restore the Caliphate and the Muslim Ummah; they promote extremist ideas, including the idea of jihad. A group of specialists engaged in field studies in Central Asia registered 20 Islamic organizatiowas were founded in the cities of the Ferghana Valley.


One should say that no matter how important the Islamic factor is limited to certain spheres. Islam does nothing to consolidate the Kyrgyz nation because there are many Russian speakers in the republic; there are also obvious attempts to shape a civil society according to the presidents formula Kyrgyzstan is our common home. Islam does not consolidate people on the ethnonational level either. Democratic changes are going on in the country together with restoration of the traditional tribal system while the regional, clan and tribal interests are seen as more important than a common religion.

The constitution adopted in 1993 defines Kyrgyzstan as a secular state in which religion and politics are separated: cultural rather than political Islam is expected to play a major role in social developments.

Despite all appeals to the Islamic tradition at the official ideological level and despite the fact that Kyrgyzstan joined several Muslim organizations Islam is not a factor of international consolidation of the Central Asian states. The local leaders rarely discuss their common religion.

The post-Soviet history of the region has amply demonstrated that it is important to take into account the impact of cultural traditions and other values on the socioeconomic and political structures. More stable cultural and confessional traditions can impart stability to more fluid economic and political relations. Modernization of economic and political life does not mean that the country is embracing the Western social model: rather it has entered a new development stage that will unite the achievements of world civilization and national specifics.

Central Asia is basically a conservative region: revolutionary doctrines of either Marxist or Islamic hues are not readily accepted. The traditional structures are very inert and cannot be transformed easily. They serve as the cornerstone of Central Asian society and will retain this role in future. Obviously, the region will have to overcome its Soviet heritage while its society will start functioning in accordance with the laws of the market economy (no matter how distorted there) where the local confessional and ethnocultural traditions remain fairly important.

1 See: R. Safronov, Tendentsii razvitia islama v Tsentralnoi Azii (K itogam konferentsii Tsentra strategicheskikh i politicheskikh issledovaniy SshA), Tsentralnaia Azia i Kavkaz, No. 4 (5), 1999, p. 9.
2 See: Ch. Israilova-Kharekhuzen, Traditsionnoe obshchestvo kyrgyzov v period russkoy kolonizatsii vo vtoroi polovine XIXnachale XX v. i sistema ikh rodstva, Bishkek, 1999, pp. 99, 101.
3 Quoted from: S. Abramzon, Kirgizy i ikh etnogeneticheskie i istoriko-kulturnye sviazi, Nauka Publishers, Leningrad, 1971, p. 271.
4 See: M. Berdyev, Islamprovodnik iranizmov v tiurkskuiu kochevuiu kulturu, Tsentralnaia Azia, No. 6 (12), 1997.
5 See: B. Babadzhanov, Ferganskaia dolina: istochnik ili zhertva islamskogo fundamentalizma? Tsentralnaia Azia i Kavkaz, No. 4 (5), 1999, p. 125.
6 See: A. Malashenko, Religia v obshchestvenno-politichekoy zhizni stran Tsentralnoy Azii (k postanovke problemy), Tsentralnaia Azia, No. 6 (12), 1997, p. 58.
7 See: B. Babadzhanov, op. cit.
8 See: A. Alisheva, Religioznaia situatsia v Kyrgyzstane, Tsentralnaia Azia i Kavkaz, No. 4 (5), 1999, pp. 53-54.
9 See: Ekstremizm v Tsentralnoy Azii, Almaty, 2000, p. 66.

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