Kyrgyzstan: Islamic Schools in the Spotlight

A new mosque rises in the Kyrgyz landscape.  Photo by Irene2005. Creative Commons licensed.

A new mosque rises in the Kyrgyz landscape. Photo by Irene2005. Creative Commons licensed.

OSH, Kyrgyzstan | Islamic schools are coming under increased official scrutiny since the harsh response to a religious disturbance in southern Kyrgyzstan last autumn. The authorities say madrasas flout the law, while some Islamic educators charge that public schools are not meeting the growing demand for religious education.

On 28 November, the Osh regional court sent 32 people to jail for up to 20 years for crimes connected with a riot in Nookat, a town in Osh Province. On 1 October a crowd that authorities said numbered more than 1,000 attacked the state administration building after the local authorities turned down residents’ request to celebrate the Orozo-Ait Islamic holiday on the main square. Furious protestors broke windows and beat police officers.

Following the disturbance in Nookat, the authorities stepped up checks on madrasas and ordered the municipal education department to compile a list of children not attending public schools. Inspectors said they found bad conditions, poor teaching standards, and improper curricula in some madrasas.

Within a week after the rioters were sentenced, four madrasas in Osh Province said they were temporarily closing their doors. A month later, they remain closed.

A Fair Trial?

The 32 defendants were convicted of various offenses including infringement on the constitutional system, involving minors in the riots, and affiliation with Hizb ut-Tahrir, a religious-political movement banned in Kyrgyzstan. One of the defendants was a 16-year-old boy sentenced to nine years’ imprisonment. Appeals filed by the defendants are expected to be heard by mid-January.

Rights activists questioned the length of the sentences and the trial’s fairness.

“We do not agree with the verdicts,” said Sadykjan Makhmudov, a lawyer who heads the human-rights pressure group Luch Solomona. “We are going to appeal to the Kyrgyz president, because not all those convicted are really guilty and because the punishment was much too severe and unacceptable.”

The authorities alleged that Hizb ut-Tahrir activists organized and conducted the riot in Nookat. The organization is active in several Central Asian countries and advocates creation of an Islamic state in the region. The National Religious Affairs Agency claims the organization, which says it is opposed to violent tactics, recruits young men and women and even children.

Some Muslim educators see a link between the rise of Hizb ut-Tahrir and other Islamic groups and what they see as the poor level of religious education (including the teaching skills of Muslim clergy) and the failure to meet demand for such education in public schools.

“Teachers from the theological departments of state universities are not capable of providing lessons to our students. In fact, they come here to take lessons from us,” Janara Maksudova, head of one of Osh’s madrasas for girls, told TOL.

In officially secular Kyrgyzstan, at 82 percent of the population Muslims make up by far the largest religious community.

Parallel Worlds

The number of Islamic centers and institutions has grown steadily since the end of the atheist Communist government. According to the parliament’s religion committee, 1,791 Islamic establishments were registered as of July 2008, out of a total of 2,168. These include mosques, madrasas, foundations, muftiats (high Islamic councils), and kaziats (Islamic courts).

Orozo-Ait and Kurman-Ait (in Arabic, Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha) have become the main Kyrgyz holidays, having replaced Soviet-era festivities. Friday prayers are becoming essential religious public events. Educators complain that children often skip school to attend these prayer gatherings.

Another sign of the growing strength of Islam is early marriages, particularly among girls.

“According to state law, only people above 18 can officially marry. So young people register their marriages at mosques according to sharia, ignoring the government,” activist Makhmudov said. “And the government is at a loss.”

Even representatives of Islamic institutions acknowledge the problem.

“Our main problem is early marriages by our students,” Maksudova complained. “Only a few students graduate from our school. There’s little we can do about it. Our authority is not enough to stop this.”

The quasi-independent Muslim Spiritual Board operates public madrasas, but they seem not to be satisfying the growing demand for Islamic education.

“The need for religious education emerged after our country gained independence,” Maksudova said. “Our purpose is to teach the basics of Islam.”

Fifty madrasas operate officially, according to the parliamentary religion committee. The committee also acknowledges the existence of illegal Islamic schools.

Under a Microscope

After the religious disturbances in Nookat, the National Religious Affairs Agency began examining religious schools.

“During the inspections, we found first of all that the madrasas we checked do not meet sanitary and hygienic requirements, and they lack [proper] conditions for students to study,” said Kurbanaly Uzakov, the representative of the National Religious Affairs Agency in southern Kyrgyzstan. “In one madrasa, teachers were ineligible [to teach] because they did not have the appropriate education. A husband and wife who called themselves teachers had graduated from the madrasa that they established themselves.”

After the disturbances authorities instructed the agency and the Education Ministry to monitor the curriculum of religious schools, a task previously done only by the Muslim Spiritual Board. The religion agency set up a working group to develop standards for religious education, which will include classes taught in public schools. In effect this means Islamic education only, as no other faiths operate public schools.

The agency was also given co-responsibility with the Spiritual Board to register and operate public madrasas, and will check that madrasa students also attend secular primary or secondary school.

At her madrasa, Maksudova said, girls study Kyrgyz, English, and Arabic, the history of Kyrgyzstan, law, accounting, and computer skills, as well as cooking and dressmaking.

Many Paths to Islamic Education

Kyrgyz authorities are also concerned with the growing number of school children missing their classes during Friday public prayers and children attending madrasas instead of public schools.

One reason girls in the upper grades stop attending public school is the prohibition on wearing the hijab in school.

“We have 76 students. At public schools, girls are not allowed to wear hijabs. Some girls come here cheerfully saying that they have quit their schools,” Maksudova said.

“It is a violation of the law for schoolboys to go to mosques during class time and for girls to wear hijabs at school. Education [in Kyrgyzstan] is secular, therefore teachers and school administrations who let schoolchildren go to Friday prayers, violate the law,” Uzakov said.

According to Uzakov, in the wake of the Nookat disturbances the authorities began an awareness campaign for Islamic groups and parents, informing them that enrolling children in madrasas may violate the law.

Unlike public schools, madrasas are well supplied with religious books. Islamic books are cheaper than public school textbooks at markets in the Osh area.

Madrasa students study Islam using books published in Saudi Arabia and approved by the muftiat, the principal body of the Muslim Spiritual Board.

Aside from the hijab ban, many parents and students say they are dissatisfied with the educational level of public schools.

“Why should I go to public school where they don’t give me a good education or skills I could use to find a good job?” Aibek, a 19-year-old madrasa graduate from Osh, told TOL. “At the madrasa, they taught us to be good men, not to smoke, not to drink alcohol or use drugs. They also told us that it is important to follow our traditions and respect older people.”

Aibek said he was angry that the local authorities were checking only those children who attend madrasas. “Why they don’t check the children who work in the markets and streets instead of studying at school?”

Officially registered madrasas are not the only institutions that deliver Islamic educational services to the public. Many women and girls are instructed by otinchas, female missionaries who go from door to door giving lessons in Arabic and the basics of Islam.

Maksudova believes this practice has its place in the educational system, saying “Any person has the right to religious education, has the right to teach or to be taught.”

State officials, however, strongly oppose such informal teaching.

“The activities of the otincha are illegal,” Uzakov said.

Human-rights lawyer Makhmudov said present legislation does not explicitly prohibit this kind of informal education, but still favored some type of regulation.

“I believe such women who wish to deliver religious instruction should work under license,” he said.


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