Wednesday, 08 January 2014

Kyrgyzstan's Grand Mufti Resigns

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By Arslan Sabyrbekov (the 08/01/2014 issue of the CACI Analyst)

On January 7, Kyrgyzstan's Grand Mufti Rakhmatulla-Hajji Egemberdiev stepped down amid a scandal over a sex video posted on local websites on New Year’s Eve. The country’s spiritual leader had personally submitted his resignation to the Council of Ulemas (Religious Clerics), stating that it was an inhumane act with the objective of damaging his dignity and called on President Atambayev to intervene and protect his rights. Egemberdiev is now the sixth mufti replaced in Kyrgyzstan over the past four years amid different scandals.

Kyrgyzstan’s Congress of Muslims appointed Egemberdiev as Grand Mufti a little more than a year ago to a five year term, despite the fact he was under investigation for failing to pay taxes on money earned by organizing trips to the hajj, an annual Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca. The hajj, which is mandatory for all Muslims at least once during their lifetime, is seen as an opportunity for bribe taking for Kyrgyzstan’s Spiritual Board of Muslims or the Muftiate, which in 2011 assumed responsibility for administrating much-coveted trips according to the hajj’s quota. Egemberdiev stated then that the allegations against him are baseless and were intended to ruin his reputation and simply prevent his election as the country’s Grand Mufti. He asserts that the video is more of the same and was posted by people close to the Chairman of the State Commission on Religious Affairs, Abdilatif Jumabaev, who in turn called the ex-Mufti’s allegations baseless.

A video posted on New Year’s Eve appears to show the country’s highest religious authority engaged in a sexual act with a young woman, whose identity is unclear. Critics immediately characterized her as an unnamed lady, who tempted the nation’s spiritual leader into an extramarital affair. In his statement, Egemberdiev said that he is “clean before God” and that the woman in the video is in fact his wife through “Nikah,” an Islamic marriage ceremony that some men use to take additional wives in countries where polygamy is illegal (Kyrgyzstan being one of them). Furthermore, it was also reported that a new video has been released showing an older Kyrgyz couple stating to be the young woman’s parents and confirming that she is Grand Mufti’s wife. This, however, did not satisfy a small crowd of protesters, who immediately gathered in front of Egemberdiev’s Bishkek office demanding his immediate resignation and calling him an adulterer.

The resignation of the country’s grand mufti has provoked immediate and widespread public discussion. Orozbek Moldaliev, the president’s representative in the parliament, denied any orchestrated pressure campaign, accusing the country’s religious leaders of using their posts to enrich themselves rather than fulfilling their mission as religious leaders. Moldaliev went on to state that “an entire generation of mullahs has grown up with the same level of religious education, and they all want to become muftis and the financial benefit from hajj is the reason behind this wish.” Local experts talk about hidden profits of US$ 4 to 6 million annually.

Muslim Scholar Kadyr Malikov thinks the Mufti’s resignation was a right decision under the circumstances. He also stated that “the Muftiate is need of deeper reforms.  Its role and place in the society needs to be clearly defined and its reputation, especially in light of all the negative developments has to be improved and this requires many efforts.” 

Former Chairman of the State Commission on Religious Affairs Kanybek Osmonaliev believes that this incident shows Kyrgyzstan’s continuous struggle to find a true spiritual leader. “Over the past 20 years, Kyrgyzstan has not been successful in generating a single true and genuine religious leader meeting the expectations of our country’s Muslims.” He added that “this incident and all the previous dubious deals with hajj funding seriously undermined Muftiate's reputation in the eyes of the general public, which is an extremely challenging task to regain.”

On January 8, Kyrgyzstan’s Council of Ulemas appointed the former Mufti’s deputy, Maksat Toktomushev, as the country’s acting Grand Mufti. The new Grand Mufti is expected to be elected on February 8, 2014.

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The Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst is a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program, a Joint Transatlantic Research and Policy Center affiliated with the American Foreign Policy Council, Washington DC., and the Institute for Security and Development Policy, Stockholm. For 15 years, the Analyst has brought cutting edge analysis of the region geared toward a practitioner audience.

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