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Kyrgyzstan: Dispute Between Muftis Puts Focus On Selection Process

A new mufti, or supreme Islamic cleric, was selected in Kyrgyzstan earlier this month. The previous mufti claims he is a victim of government interference and is resisting efforts to oust him. RFE/RL looks at the struggle and at the process by which the leader of the Muslim community in Kyrgyzstan is chosen.

Prague, 28 August 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Kyrgyzstan has a new mufti. He is 29-year-old Murtaly Aji Jumanov. He was selected as the spiritual leader of the country's Muslim community by a council of Islamic clerics earlier this month.

Murtaly Aji's appointment is being disputed, however, by his predecessor, Kimsanbai Aji Abdrakmanov. The story of the battle between Kyrgyzstan's former and current supreme clerics provides a glimpse into the mufti selection process and at the role the Kyrgyz government's Commission on Religious Affairs may have played in the process.

The Kyrgyz mufti is supposed to be chosen by the 25-member Muftiat, a supreme religious council headed by the mufti himself. According to guidelines set down by Kyrgyzstan's Muftiat at its last congress in 1996, the group is obliged to meet if at least one-third of its members vote to assemble. To approve decisions, at least two-thirds of the members must be present, with a simple-majority vote sufficient to pass proposals.

According to Muftiat rules, members can be changed or dismissed only when the full congress meets. No more than one-third of its members can be changed at any one congress.

On 10 August, 17 former and current Muftiat members assembled in Bishkek, along with the chairman of the Kyrgyz government's Commission on Religious Affairs, Omurzak Mamayusupov, and several commission members. Kimsanbai Aji said he had also assembled a number of Muftiat members with him in the town of Grigorevka (Khojoyar) that same day.

In Bishkek, the 17 voted unanimously to dismiss Kimsanbai Aji for violating Muftiat rules. When Kimsanbai Aji heard the news in Grigorevka, a quarrel broke out. Kimsanbai Aji rejected the decision.

In an interview with RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service, Kimsanbai Aji explained why. "The meeting was illegal. Not all the participants were from the Muftiat, and some who were members were not present. Many were gone for various reasons. Now, according to the decision of those who gathered, a new mufti has been named. He [Muratly Aji] is 29 years old. He cannot read Arabic but can read the Koran. He works from texts in Turkic languages. And they elected him mufti? The main reason is people from the government were involved," Kimsanbai Aji said.

Kimsanbai Aji claims he is a victim of a decision made by the Commission on Religious Affairs. He said Mamayusupov wanted him removed for his opposition to an idea to legalize Hezb ut-Tahrir, an Islamic party that seeks the overthrow of the government through nonviolent means.

Hezb ut-Tahrir is banned throughout Central Asia. Mamayusupov is in favor of legalizing the group. Some analysts suggest that legalizing Hezb ut-Tahrir could bring the group into mainstream politics and keep its members from becoming armed extremists.

Mamayusupov denies having a role in the decision to dismiss Kimsanbai Aji. "According to the constitution, we do not have the right to interfere with religious affairs, to even comment on them. When [the Muftiat] invites us, we go. They gave us a written invitation, and they said they invited the former mufti. We went [to the Muftiat meeting], but we did not participate. We simply sat there and listened. There was a heated conversation about many problems we did not know about previously," Mamayusupov said.

Murtaly Aji, the country's new mufti, has a similar interpretation about the division of religion and government in Kyrgyzstan. "Article 8 of the constitution says religion is separate from the state. Our government has no right to interfere in our affairs, and we do not have any right to interfere in the affairs of government," Murtaly Aji said.

The Commission on Religious Affairs is tasked by the government with ensuring extremist groups do not find shelter in Kyrgyzstan under the guise of legitimate religious groups. But Kimsanbai Aji alleges a more direct connection between the decisions of the Muftiat and the commission. "Yes, the proof is that the Muftiat [during the meeting where he was dismissed] was guarded by police officers. Mamayusupov himself went to the meeting, not his subordinates. That shows something," Kimsanbai Aji said.

Officially, Kimsanbai Aji lost his position as mufti because he had illegally dismissed members of the Muftiat before assembling the council. Some of those he dismissed were in Bishkek on 10 August and voted to remove him. It is unclear on what authority the 17 members of the Muftiat removed Kimsanbai Aji, since no formal congress had been convened.

Kimsanbai Aji said this is further proof of government involvement in his removal.

Interfax also quoted Deputy Mufti Dilmurat Orozov as saying on 15 August, the day Murtaly Aji's new position was officially confirmed, that Kimsanbai Aji had failed to honor Shariat laws. Orozov said Kimsanbai Aji had appointed a woman as his deputy who did not have a proper Muslim religious education. "During their trips across the country," Orozov is quoted as saying, "he shared a room in hotels with her. Such conduct may be regarded as immoral."

Kimsanbai Aji has not given up. Last week, a group of his supporters gathered in a mosque in the village of Keng-Bulung in Chu Province, demanding that he be re-established as mufti.

(Bubakan Dosaliyeva and Naryn Idinov of RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service contributed to this report.)