Kyrgyz journalist turned politician Myktybek Arstanbek — who is known for promoting Islamic values on social media and in public statements — insists he is not a religious person.
But Arstanbek also points out that his newly established political party Noor (which means “light” in Arabic) has no religious agenda despite its plan to call for a “public discussion” on introducing Shari’a norms in Kyrgyzstan.
Despite his reassurances, many Kyrgyz remain unconvinced as Arstanbek’s statements and his party’s agenda continue to focus on religion and its role in society.
Arstanbek has even courted controversy recently by suggesting that the predominantly Muslim Central Asian country should drop the phrase “secular state” from its constitution.
The remarks were criticized on social media by users who questioned whether Arstanbek and his party were in favor of an Islamic system of government — an allegation Arstanbek was quick to deny.
“Nothing of the kind, we didn’t suggest renaming Kyrgyzstan an ‘Islamic state,'” Arstanbek told Kyrgyz media. “We just proposed removing the word “secular” from the constitution…this won’t change the state structure, it will still be a democratic and unitary state.”
Arstanbek argues that calling Kyrgyzstan a “secular state” could discriminate against women who wear the Islamic hijab.
“Female students might not be allowed to enter schools with their head scarves under the pretext of secularism,” Arstanbek says.
‘Religious Values’ Party
Arstanbek, 55, first announced his intention to start a political party on January 12, just two days after the Kyrgyz presidential election in which he ran as a candidate but didn’t fare well, finishing a distant fourth.
In an Instagram video, Arstanbek said his political goals include the “spreading of Islam in the political Maidan and bringing it to people’s attention.”
Kyrgyzstan’s constitution explicitly bans creating political parties on the “basis or religion” or the “pursuit of political goals through religious associations.”
On January 14, Arstanbek called a press conference in Bishkek to announce that his new party had already been registered. He sought to clarify that his party “is based on the principles of democracy.”
“We do not say that our party is based on religion,” he said. “But we will definitely uphold religious principles.”
Arstanbek said that Noor will be the first political movement in Kyrgyzstan to rely on “religious and traditional” values.
“We will call for open public discussions on Shari’a norms and see what happens. If it doesn’t work, then it doesn’t work,” Arstanbek said. He pointed that there was “no radicalism whatsoever” in his party’s agenda.
Norms or restrictions similar to Shari’a law could be a tough sell in Kyrgyzstan, a country of 6 million that is arguably the least religious country in Central Asia, having been Islamicized much later than its neighbors.
But many believe Kyrgyz society is becoming increasingly religious, with Islamic piety being especially on the rise among young people.
Calling For Shari’a Norms
Islam and its role in society was at the center of Arstanbek’s policy programs during the presidential election campaign.
In a televised debate, Arstanbek advocated for introducing Islamic Shari’a laws in Kyrgyzstan, claiming that it would make people more responsible.
He suggested that the country must introduce economic reforms based on the Islamic norms for the economy. In no uncertain terms, Arstanbek said “Kyrgyzstan cannot develop unless it becomes a Muslim state.”
He also spoke of the need to “get rid of atheistic obscurantism” in Kyrgyzstan and urged Muslims to vote for him.
“If Muslims want to bring religion into their lives, then today there is an opportunity for that…. Today’s choices will affect both this life and the afterlife,” he said.
Arstanbek received just 1.7 percent of the vote in the January 10 election won by Sadyr Japarov, who got nearly 80 percent of the vote.
Freedom Of Speech Or Recipe For Disaster?
The native of the southwestern Jalal-Abad Province, Arstanbek has been a prominent public figure in Kyrgyzstan since the 1990s when he began his career as a state television journalist.
A road engineer by profession, Arstanbek went on to study political science and taught journalism and theology at various universities in Bishkek.
Since 2011, Arstanbek has also been the head of the Halal Industry Development Committee, a body run by the state-sanctioned Spiritual Administration of Muslims.
A charismatic public speaker, Arstanbek actively uses social media to share his views on religion and other matters.
Kyrgyz experts express divided opinions on Arstanbek’s statements.
Some support his views while others say he has the right to freedom of expression regardless of his opinions.
Others are quite alarmed by his religious bent.
“Law enforcement agencies should have paid attention to the [campaign] statements, and give their assessment,” says Nurlan Ismailov, a leading Kyrgyz expert on law and theology.
“If religion was involved in politics, then the Central Election Commission was supposed to remove the candidate from the presidential race,” Ismailov told RFE/RL.
According to Orozbek Moldaliev, a former head of the State Commission for Religious Affairs, there is a “trend” among some Kyrgyz politicians to exploit religion for political gains and popularity. He warned that mixing religion with politics could be a recipe for disaster.
“It’s a dangerous trend. When religion interferes in politics it often leads to conflicts,” Moldaliev said. “We must not forget how the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan turned into a terrorist organization. Initially, they also intended to just spread their religion, but over time they became extremists.”
The religious affairs commission is aware of the launch of the Noor party and Arstanbek’s statements, according to the body’s head, Kubanychbek Abakirov.
“Since the party has been registered with the Justice Ministry it means that the party’s charter doesn’t contradict the constitution. The charter defines the party’s goals and ways to achieve them,” Abakirov said.
But Abakirov warned that if the party undermines laws by “changing its specified goals or the way of implementing those goals, then the authorities must take action.”
During the press conference in Bishkek, Arstanbek and his team announced they would “work out the party’s platform and program and present them to the people” at the first party meeting in late January.
The party missed that deadline.