Foreign Policy Blogs

Differing Views on Islam in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan (Part 1 – Big Mosques)

Bishkek's central mosque, in process [credit: Jason Anderson]

Bishkek’s central mosque, in process
Photo credit: Jason Anderson

With many eyes on the World Cup, another international contest has been brewing in Central Asia: the region’s biggest mosque.

Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, both former Soviet republics, each have under construction mega-mosques in their respective capitals, funded by foreign partners. While perhaps unsurprising in predominately Muslim countries in the fading shadow of the USSR, the nature of each partnership coincides with each nation’s approach to Islam.

Tale of the tape

In Kyrgyzstan’s capital Bishkek, a movie theater was razed to make way for the current project: a 70-meter-high dome on a mosque occupying 1300 square meters and parking for 800 cars. Begun in 2012, it is expected to welcome worshipers in 2015, when it should hold some 10,000 faithful.

The Turkish government is funding the vast majority of the estimated $25 million total. To many, this is fitting since Kyrgyz are ethnically Turkic, as are three other Central Asian nations. Perhaps this is a continuation of Turkish foreign policy that has over the last 20 years built private Turkish high schools and universities throughout Central Asia, known for their excellent instruction and — notably — skilled graduates. Cynics would point out the similar expansion of Turkish goods in the region during the 1990s, suggesting Turkey was also looking for a large new regional, but brotherly, market.

The governments of Kyrgyzstan and Turkey are both known for public secularism. Kyrgyz traditionally have been “Muslim-lite,” nominally professing Islamic rites during birth, marriage and death but not necessarily visiting mosques or otherwise observing prayer rituals. Many scholars trace this to their (as well as the Turkmen and Kazakh) nomadic history, which did not allow time for involved prayer and ritual. Such an attitude pervades most of Kyrgyzstan today, though southern Kyrgyz are generally more religious. Formation of a political party with an Islamic platform has little public or parliamentary support.

In the tradition of Mustafa Kemal, modern Turkey’s founding father, the Turkish Republic has since the 1920s been committed to a legal and electoral system independent from its widespread Muslim faith. The strong secular tradition of the military for decades was a check on anything not resembling representative government. Though Prime Minister Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party threaten this outlook, Turks remain spread along a spectrum of religious views, with the Kemalist vision of a secular republic widely revered.

Meanwhile, south of the border

Dushanbe, Tajikistan’s capital, already has the world’s tallest flagpole, and is likewise working on a mosque to not only dwarf Bishkek’s but rival those in Medina and Mecca. Begun in 2011, this mammoth is an estimated $100 million investment, with Qatar funding 70 percent. Reportedly, it is designed to host 115,000 worshipers at once.

Qatar is an odd partner, since it is known to have funded the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and militants in Syria and Libya, and Tajikistan’s President Rahmon has vigilantly disempowered Islamic political power since the 1990s while brooking no real opposition. But the Emir of Qatar also does not tolerate dissent, among a moderate Sunni populace. Both accept and embrace Islam, but expressed and worshiped in a way that the state dictates.

Dushanbe's Palace of Nations (and mancured grounds) [credit: Jason Anderson]

Dushanbe’s Palace of Nations (and manicured grounds)
[credit: Jason Anderson]

Looming in Tajikistan’s political background is the civil war of 1992–97, which pitted regional powers against one another, including Islamist groups. President Rahmon, who emerged from the war in power, while gradually sidelining these regional and Islamist interests, still contends with a populace that is much more religious than the Kyrgyz. By controlling the premise of worship — through registering mosques and appointing imams — the state prescribes its own version of Islam.

The Qatari relationship may also be about investment. Soon after the mosque agreement, Qatar also agreed to spend some $180 million in a residential and hotel complex in Dushanbe. All the exorbitant price tags are visible with a look around the capital these days: a fountained one-kilometer park walk with lush greenery and roses, book-ended by a shining new National Library and a majestic Palace of Nations, looking like a Romanov retreat. If Tajikistan is the poorest of the five Central Asian republics, the people in charge don’t seem to know it.



Jason Anderson

Jason has lived and worked for over five years in Russian-speaking countries. He spent April-May 2014 researching religious extremist groups in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. He has project experience in Afghanistan, Central Asia, and the Caucasus. He previously served as a trainer for U.S. military and civilians working alongside counterparts in Afghanistan, and as a coordinator with Afghan ministerial advisors on National Priority Program (NPP) funding proposals. Jason speaks conversational Russian and holds a Master of International Affairs from Columbia University.

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