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Religious and Secular Radicalism in Kyrgyz Society

“The role of the state – political leaders and various institutions – must be to promote public dialogue, sustainable diversity in the society and accept this diversity as a value. The state must prevent, not worsen, any divisions between insiders and outsiders, “us” and “them”. This is what can make our current social situation, not Soviet any more, secular,” political analyst Emil Dzhuraev wrote in his article for the analytical portal CABAR.asia.

Русский Кыргызча

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Presidents of Kyrgyzstan and Turkey and high-ranking officials of both countries at the opening ceremony of the new central mosque in Bishkek built at the cost of the Turkish party. Photo: president.kg
First, the speaker of the parliament spoke at the celebratory prayer service dedicated to Kurman Ait holiday, where he said the country would be developing with the blessing and prayers of true Muslims. Later on, the president spoke at the opening ceremony of the new central mosque in Bishkek, where he said there was nothing bad about the domination of mosques and madrasahs over secular schools in Kyrgyzstan and that they (mosques) could contribute to the strengthening of piousness and upbringing of the youth.

These statements along with the regularly voiced opinion of some religious figures (especially former mufti Chubak Zhalilov) have drawn public attention to the place and role of religion in our life. If one part of public didn’t hear anything controversial in the speeches of the president and speaker, the other part found these statements violating the principle of secular state which is expressed in the Constitution of Kyrgyz republic.

Secularism in modern political life of Kyrgyzstan

As the Kyrgyz society tends to observe the precepts of Islam, the issue of a secular state will be probably raised more often, and disputes on this issue may only escalate. However, to prevent any social conflict related to this issue, Kyrgyzstan as a society and every concerned person should think carefully about the meaning of secularism and what place religion can take in a secular state.

The perception of secularism and its criteria in Kyrgyzstan are known to have been established in the USSR, which, in turn, took these ideas from the German philosopher Karl Marx and the French Republic. In this model, secularism was publicly announced and became a key idea of the nation-building, which was always in the limelight. Tentatively speaking, the place of religion is a family, private life of a person, and its manifestation in any form in public life and particularly in politics is forbidden. Nothing was said about how a person who could practice religion within their family should have stopped to be religious as soon as they left their house.

“In modern Kyrgyzstan, requirements to the secularism in the state remain Soviet-like, while the religious practices have absolutely new scopes and level of freedom.”
A part of society that is especially concerned about preserving the secularism observes the status and advancement of religion in the society, the growing impact of religious institutions and theologians on defining the rules and values of the society. With this development and ill-considered and unrealistic concept of Soviet-like secularism, this part of society becomes deeply concerned, which makes it turn to radical oppositions and parallels. For example, a secular school is being opposed to mosques and madrasahs, freedom is being opposed to religiosity, religiosity is being opposed to illiteracy, intolerance, and, which is more troublesome, to extremism.

Media impact on understanding

A parallel drawn between the Islam as such, extremism and other negative manifestations is both the result of the said unrealistic perception of secularism and the tool used to necessitate control over religious practices and institutions in order to prevent more impact of religion on various aspects of public life. This circumstance is negatively affecting the ability to rethink both secularism and place of religion in the society. Moreover, or in particular, it negatively affects the division of normal religious practice from its troubled and destructive forms.

The parallel between religious and religious extremism was due not least to the prevailing discourse in the global media space and political framework. Religion was equated to the activities of such terrorist organisations and groups as Al Qaeda, Islamic State, Boko Haram, and Taliban. Daily discussions and coverage of the Islam have focused recently on such groups and the like and their distinctive activities. The fact that they collectively have always represented the tiny portion of Muslims out of more than the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims has never affected the way information is presented.

However, many studies regarding the reasons for radicalization and extremism in recent years have found that insufficient understanding and knowledge of Islam have led many people to radicalization and extremism. Almost all of such studies recommend improving religious education and involving powerful theologians on this matter. In other words, radicalization doesn’t come from the contents of religion, but first of all from the lack of knowledge about the fundamentals of Islam.

Nevertheless, it’s obvious that the issue of preserving the secular principle of politics becomes complicated because the supporters of secularism tend not to see the difference between religion as such and extremism. This situation only contributes to the development of antagonism rather than to finding mutual understanding and tolerance. Whereas the religion will be practiced more in future, this antagonistic and uncompromising enforcement of secularism will prove vain and very damaging.

Departure from “secular extremism”

What could be a more acceptable approach than a strict, inflexible Soviet-like secularism? It’s clear that an acceptable pattern should be found, which will enable free practice, study of and belief in any legitimate religion along with a choice to remain an atheist or a non-practicing person.

Many thinkers and political analysts, including John Rawls, Michael Walzer and Jean Elshtain, have suggested various approaches to this matter. If we sum up their thoughts, which are most constructive and practical, and emphasise the most important points, we will have: acceptance of diversity, mutual respect and reciprocity, constructive and on-going public dialogue.

The cultural, religious, linguistic and other diversities are the integral characteristics of populations of all countries today. Even the most homogeneous societies such as Japan and South Korea are not absolutely homogeneous. Kyrgyzstan is far from being a homogeneous society and diversity has many dimensions here. However, the acceptance of diversity is not always natural, which, in turn, causes social conflicts.

“The acceptance of believers and non-believers as well as other different categories co-existing in one society and state is a minimum requirement for peaceful existence and development of the society.”
Here “acceptance” means “tolerate” in its weakest meaning, and “welcome” and “appreciate” in its stronger and preferable meaning. For a comfortable, free and happy living of every person within their community, diversity needs to be “welcomed and appreciated.”

Acceptance of diversity will be more realistic if the reciprocity principle and especially mutual respect will be practised. If believers can live freely, study and participate in public life, non-believers should have the same opportunities, and vice versa. Very often, the believers don’t follow this principle because the majority of them know and practice their religion on the basis of dogmatic teachings, where there’s only one truth, and the rest is unacceptable. However, this behaviour can be observed among people who are far from religion.

A positive acceptance of diversity and reciprocity is possible only with on-going, healthy, open dialogue in the society.  The dialogue can lead to harmony and mutual understanding, as well as to disputes and disagreement. Should any disputes arise, they will be based on some social contacts, mutual perception of dissenting parties. A long-term dialogue can either solve, or accept differences. In other words, a diverse society doesn’t mean that various groups should agree on everything with everyone, this is the fundamental principle of diversity. However, they learn to co-exist and even cooperate following a longstanding interaction.

“They” are us

All of the above contain what in social theory is designated as “outsiders”, i.e. strange, and different from us and ours. The definition of “others”, “outsiders”, “them” as opposed to “us” and “ours” is often the strategy of self-determination of social groups, whether it is racial group, ethnicity, class, etc.  The same phenomenon apparently manifests itself in the combination of religion and secular society and particularly in the language of many supporters of secular principle in terms of the growing number of practicing and faithful Islamic society in Kyrgyzstan.

The Islam and Muslims as “They” have appeared as result of a series of phenomena. First of all, it was a media discourse, where Islam was often associated with extremism and terrorism opposed by law-abiding, civilized and non-radical “Us”. Second, this description of Islam in its certain visual aspects such as wearing a hijab, wearing a beard by young men contrasts with a secular, Europeanised or national appearance of “Us”. Third, this association of Islam with Arabic and therefore strange and vague, especially in such notions as Salafism, Wahhabism, Takfirism, emphasizes the division between “Them” and understandable “Us”.
The believers and those who support the increasing role of Islam in public life also use the elements of division between “us” and “them”, just like Chubak Zhalilov, who has used such elements in his provocative statements against politicians that have failed to support his recommendations regarding religion.  However, despite the dogmatic religious rules (which became a tragedy when it came to the burial of a woman who had adopted Christianity), the believers take others rather as people who need to learn and adopt a religion (and who needs to be helped with that) than categorically different outsiders.

Overcoming this visible barrier, the borderline between “Us” and “Them” needs relevant attempts and openness from both parties (more precisely, from all the parties, including Christians, Tengrians, diverse Muslims, and others), open critical thinking and willingness to listen, hear and perceive the other side. A good example of it is how Zhalilov has taken the notorious song and video by Zere easily. Real extremists, destructive for society, are those who are unable and are not willing to accept this diversity and live peacefully with it. It makes no sense to deny another party and realising there’s no other way out makes the “Us-Them” structure impossible.

Role of the state and institutions

Coming back to the speeches delivered by speaker Dastan Zhumabekov and later on by president Sooronbai Zheenbekov, they don’t seem to contain any significant error proceeding from the rhetoric of secularism and piety and the need for positive acceptance of different opinions and values, reaching the dialogue based on mutual respect.  Both president and speaker delivered their speeches paying due respect to religious institutions and their role in the society, without suggesting that the religion should be involved in politics and the governance of the country.

The frenzy and criticism of these leaders by secularism supporters were caused mainly by the failed dialogue in our society, in addition to the relevant media coverage, and by the fact that the supporters of secularism are being within the paradigm of division between “Us-Them”. Second, the negligence of the two politicians (as is often the case in Kyrgyzstan) involved the vague delivery, articulation of their own thoughts. The same statements, yet with other accents, could have been taken much easier.

One thing the president and speaker were right about is that they saw a positive role and place of religion for the state. In the majority of their speeches and activities, they have claimed that secular culture, education and politics have the same role. For example, it contrasts with a slogan and a billboard “Poor people, where are we heading to?” or words “You can name us anything, just don’t shoot us” voiced by ex-president Atambaev, who often appealed to god.

The role of the state – political leaders and various institutions – must be to promote public dialogue, sustainable diversity in the society, and accept this diversity as a value. The state must prevent, not worsen, any divisions between insiders and outsiders, “us” and “them”. This is what can make our current social situation, not Soviet any more, secular.


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