Following the lead of neighboring Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan is debating banning the activities of Tablighi Jamaat, a non-political movement which aims to bring Muslims towards a deeper embrace of Islamic religious practices, propagating the total cessation of smoking, drinking, and drugs. The movement has proved controversial in parts of former Soviet Central Asia where Islam is widely practiced, but where a strongly secular political culture mistrustful of religion still predominates.
The issue of Tablighi Jamaat has divided political and religious leaders as well as ordinary citizens into two groups – those who support the movement and view it as a solution to social problems, and those who identify Tablighi Jamaat as an extremist organization.
Established in India in 1926, the movement first became popular in Central Asian countries during the late 1990s when bearded men in long Pakistani-style dress raised concerns among security officials and people seeking to fashion a strong Kyrgyz national identity. A Bishkek resident quoted by Radio Azzatyk said [ru] in July 2011:
Мы мусульмане, но у нас есть своя национальная одежда. Почему эти дааватчы в обязательном порядке, одевают, национальную одежду пакистанцев и арабов? Они что думают, что это мусульманская одежда?
We are Muslims, but we have our national clothing. Why do these ‘daavatists’ [Tablighi Jamaat members] only wear the traditional clothes of Pakistanis and Arabs? Do they really think this is Muslim dress?
At the moment, Kyrgyzstan is the country in Central Asia where the followers of the movement are most active. Tablighi Jamaat differs from traditional religious practice in the region by the structure of the sermon.
Commenting on a Radio Azattyk article about the group, a resident of the broadly secular Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek, Aybek says [ru]:
Я бы запретил их! Если надо мы и сами можем пропагандировать свою религию. Зачем нам эти даваатисты из Пакистана? Разве оттуда что-нибудь нормальное выходило?
I would ban them! We can spread the message of our religion on our own. Why do we need these ‘daavatists’ from Pakistan? Has anything normal ever come out of there?
Tablighi Jamaat missioners normally go out for three-day, forty-day, and four-month ‘daavats’ to rural areas of the country, inviting people to visit the local mosque where they conduct sermons. A young village man who may be witnessing a sermon for the first time in his life will then be asked to join the movement. Kyrgyz authorities fear that poorly-educated rural youth are often swayed in such a way by radical Islamic organizations.
The State Commission on Religious Affairs has repeatedly called [ru] Tablighi Jamaat an ‘extremist organization’. According to the Commission, preaching in Kyrgyzstan should be organized and implemented by the Spiritual Directorate of Muslims. Interestingly, however, the head of the body himself stated [ru] during a hearing in Parliament on March 5:
Это не боевое течение. Будьте к ним более снисходительны.
Similarly Kadyr Malikov, director of an independent Kyrgyz think-tank, said [ru]:
Движение не является ни экстремистским, ни террористическим, ни политическим… Вмешательство в политику считается для них неприемлемым.
The movement is neither extremist nor terrorist or political… Interference in politics is unacceptable to [Tablighi Jamaat].
Indeed, Tablighi Jamaat repeatedly claim that thet do not seek to influence the politics of any country. Missioners typically call on the population to abstain from intoxicants and to become more pious. They set an example by sleeping on the rough floors of regional mosques, wearing modest clothes, eating simple food, and reminding Muslims of their religious beliefs. But precisely because of this mission-based approach, Tablighi Jamaat activists are often accused of intrusively encroaching on individuals’ freedom of choice. An anonymous commentator on the Russian-language news site Vecherni Bishkek says [ru]:
[…] надо прекращать эти нравоучения со стороны дааватчи. Они же вторгаются в частную жизнь, со своими проповедями. В место того, что бы пойти на работу устроится, и детей своих накормить, обуть и дать нормальное воспитание, они ходят по дворам и учат как правильно жить.
[…] we need to stop the preachings from ‘daavatchi’. They interfere with our personal life through their preaching. Instead of finding jobs, feeding their children, and providing them with proper education, ‘daavatchi’ go from house to house and teach people how to live their lives.
Burul, another commenter on Azzatyk argues [ru]:
[…] даваатчы- это пропаганда, а любая пропаганда – это навязывание, то есть вмешательство в выбор человека, несвобода.
[…] ‘daavatchi’ is propaganda, and any propaganda is necessarily compulsive, that is, it is an interference with people's freedom of choice; it is unfreedom.
However, supporters of Tablighi Jamaat may argue that the movement is only presenting an option, albeit persuasively, without preventing Muslims from making a different choice. The movement's followers argue that they do not force people to become more religious. Instead they increase people's awareness of practical side of Islam, and expand knowledge of the religion. In the Azzatyk comments section, Malik replied to Burul [ru]:
Бурул, почему нельзя пропагандировать веру, религию? Когда вокруг столько безнравственного. Может Кадыр Маликов прав, в том, что мы боимся того, чего просто НЕ знаем. Что нас больше пугает неизвестность, а не вера.
Burul, why shouldn't the message of a faith or religion be spread? There is so much immorality around. Maybe Kadyr Malikov is right [in saying] that we are afraid of something we simply DO NOT understand. What frightens us the most is our lack of knowledge, not the faith itself.