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(Non)-Secular Kyrgyzstan or Compliance with Equal Attitude Principles in Republic

The Constitution of Kyrgyzstan has it that religion does not interfere in public administration, yet this principle does not always apply. 

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Ryskul Dzholdoshev, candidate of historical sciences, professor of the department of history and regional studies of the Zh. Balasagyn Kyrgyz National University, said that before the formation of the Soviet Union the majority of Kyrgyz had religious society in the territory of modern Kyrgyzstan.

“Back in the Soviet period, the Kyrgyz were secular, and the term was seen as atheism. Only after the collapse of the Soviet Union, secularism was not treated as atheism. People began to understand that secularism is a separation of church and state,” he added.

Now the very first article of the Constitution has it that the Kyrgyz Republic is a sovereign, democratic, law-bound, secular, unitary and social state.

Ryskul Dzholdoshev. Photo: Sputnik / Tabyldy Kadyrbekov

The term “secularism” emerged during the Renaissance in Europe in 15-16th centuries. According to Dzholdoshev, it is in the 16th century that a great reform against the catholic church was held. Back then the system, where the divine was separated from the politics, was decided to call a secularism.

“It is wrong to say that the state in a secular country does not interfere into religion. The state may not control religion, while religion may not interfere into politics. This is the concept of secularism,”  the historian said adding that the question is about control, but not about the restriction of rights to the freedom of conscience.

Secularism in the world

Independent ecologist, theologist Daniar Muradilov said that there are a few types of secularism in the world.

  1. Total control. Like in the Soviet Union. This is the separation of religion not from the state power, but from the state and the society as a whole. In other words, religion is prohibited by promoting atheism.
  2. Separation of religious organisations from the state power. For example, like in Germany, Turkey, where religious organisations may not join the authorities, take part in elections, etc.
  3. Separation of religious organisations from the state power, with the main, state religion in place. However, other religions are not prohibited. This is practised in such countries as Egypt, United Kingdom. 

According to Zakir Chotaev, deputy director of the State Commission for Religious Affairs of the Kyrgyz Republic (GKDR), the constitution, particularly clause 7, describes the secularism in Kyrgyzstan.

“No religious organisation should interfere with the public administration. Another clause says that no religion can be mandatory or state one. Also, we say that religious activity is separated from public administration,” Chotaev said.

Zakir Chotaev. Photo: CABAR.asia

He noted that when it comes to secularism, it should not be confused with atheism. According to him, the principle of secularism is the equal attitude of the state towards all religions, when no faith is a priority. It also means equal attitude towards atheistic and other groups.

“When we speak about equal attitude, we mean that the country ensures the freedom of conscience and religious freedom. This is the integral part of a secular state. Therefore, when we speak about the freedom of conscience and religious freedom, we say that the state recognises the religious freedom and treats all religions equally, including atheistic groups,” Chotaev said.

However, according to Muradilov, the legislation of Kyrgyzstan needs to describe the secularism model clearly, i.e. what it infers, prohibits and allows. It would help to avoid issues with hijab wearing, religious education, etc.

“The lack of definition of this model gives some miserable politicians or some failed religious people a key to act with a mercenary motive. […] It could be a campaigning in favour of a political party or, vice versa, a politician in their rhetoric can promote religion and try to win more voters and thus politicise the religion,” the theologian said. 

Borderlines of secularism

Kyrgyzstan has repeatedly reported cases of violation of the secularism principles. Most often, they are reported during elections. Perhaps, there were more cases, yet the media covers only some of them.

According to Zakir Chotaev, such violations took place during the election of deputies of local councils and the parliament. Namely, religious organisations campaigned for one or another political party.

“Back then we warned religious organisations, and the Central Election Commission warned the parties,” the deputy head of GKDR said.

In 2015, ex-head of the State Commission for Religious Affairs, expert Zholbors Zhorobekov, told to Azattyk that representatives of political parties held meetings with voters in the regions and involved religious activists or mullahs.

“In southern regions, it is a common practice when parliamentary candidates or deputies involve religious activists to win support of local people. Religious activists, in turn, claim they don’t take part in campaigning, but accompany politicians as relatives, friends or followers,” as Zhorobekov was cited.

Another high-profile scandal of violation of secularism principles was the campaigning by the ex-mufti of the country, member of the board of religious scholars, Chubak Zhalilov, in favour of one of the presidential candidates in 2017. The video was posted in social media and caused discontent of the public.

Back then, the Central Election Commission issued a warning and recognised the speech of Zhalilov illicit.

“The question of borderline between secularism and human rights is quite difficult. We understand that the state power controls religion. There is no secularism when the religious idea is enforced by the state. However, it should be emphasised that religious activists, either Muslims or Christians, may take part in the state activity, but without promotion of the idea of religion,” historian Ryskul Dzholdoshev said.

The legislation of Kyrgyzstan ensures equal attitude towards all, regardless of religion. However, according to Zamir Chotaev, human rights and liberties stop where the rights and liberties of another person emerge.

“There is no such thing as unlimited rights. You have the freedom unless you violate the rights of others. This is one borderline.  The second one is when we say that your religious freedom must not violate the applicable laws,” the deputy head of GKDR said.

Title photo: slide-share.ru

This article was prepared as part of the IWPR’s Giving Voice, Driving Change — from the Borderland to the Steppes Project.

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