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Of Mosque And State In Central Asia

FILE: The new central mosque in Bishkek.
FILE: The new central mosque in Bishkek.

Rulers and leading Islamic clerics in Central Asia have lived in complicated symbiosis for more than 1,000 years. Both sides have often sought to increase their influence by using the other.

Two recent events -- one in Kyrgyzstan, the other in Turkmenistan -- show how little some things have changed in the region.

In Kyrgyzstan, the matter at hand was the separation of mosque and state. According to RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service, known locally as Azattyk, a parliamentary committee on May 21 reviewed proposed amendments to legislation on presidential and parliamentary elections. One of the amendments would tighten restrictions prohibiting religious figures from participating in election campaigning. Kyrgyzstan is scheduled to hold parliamentary elections in 2020.

During presidential campaigning in 2017, several respected religious figures took part in political rallies.

For example, less than one month before the presidential election, former chief mufti Chubak aji Jalilov appeared at a rally for the man who eventually won the presidential election, Sooronbai Jeenbekov.

Jalilov said at the time, "I came here not as the former mufti, not as a member of the international council of the Ulema, nor as a member of the Ulema Council of Kyrgyzstan, but as a son of the Kyrgyz people, as a citizen of this country." But he continued, "Standing here, on our soil, in front of our people...we say...we will also give our support [to Jeenbekov]."

People pointed out at the time that Jalilov's campaigning for a political candidate appeared to violate Article 22 of the Electoral Code, but Jeenbekov's campaign team replied that Jalilov had been invited to the rally and that members of a workers' group had asked him to speak.

The proposed amendments would seek to close such purported loopholes. Clerics such as Jalilov command a great amount of respect among some segments of society and their endorsements almost surely convince some people to cast their votes for recommended candidates.

No one in Kyrgyzstan is suggesting limiting the role of Islam in the country, but some in government seem intent on ensuring mosque and state remain separate.

In Turkmenistan, meanwhile, the state seems to have enlisted the clergy to boost domestic support for President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov.

According to RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, the May 17 Friday Prayers at a mosque in the capital, Ashgabat, included the imam asking Allah to grant Berdymukhammedov "good health and a long life, and keep him from all troubles and misfortunes."

That is nothing new in Central Asian mosques. Similar appeals for emirs and khans have been made in the region's mosques for centuries. In modern-day Tajikistan, imams are praising President Emomali Rahmon during Friday Prayers.

But in Berdymukhammedov's case, the imam also called for The Almighty "to punish all [Berdymukhammedov's] enemies and foes" so that such enemies would "grovel at his feet."

The comment speaks volumes about how the situation has seemingly deteriorated in Turkmenistan. For years, the country's policy of "positive neutrality" was supposed to ensure it would have no enemies and that revenues from its vast natural-gas reserves would ensure that the Golden Age declared by the government would endure for decades to come. But apparently someone thinks Turkmenistan's president now has enemies.

The use of the clergy is especially striking, since the Turkmen government has succeeded for years in keeping the influence of religion at a bare minimum in the country. Islam is, at best, tolerated by Berdymukhammedov's government; it is far from being embraced by his regime, which makes resorting to the mosque as an instrument to gain popular support all the more curious.

The events in Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan in the last week may be familiar, and perhaps comforting, to students of Central Asian history. This is a new age and there are new faces, but the interplay between mosque and state seem to have hardly changed at all.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL

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    Bruce Pannier

    Bruce Pannier writes the Qishloq Ovozi blog and appears regularly on the Majlis podcast for RFE/RL.