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Kyrgyz Religious Hatred Trial Throws Spotlight On Ancient Creed

Kyrgyz Tengriist activist Kubanychbek Tezekbaev
Kyrgyz Tengriist activist Kubanychbek Tezekbaev
A prominent activist in a spiritual movement that predates Islam has gone on trial in Kyrgyzstan charged with inciting religious and ethnic hatred.

The charges were brought against Kubanychbek Tezekbaev by the National Security Committee in December after Kyrgyzstan's state Religious Committee concluded that some remarks he made to Kyrgyz media were aimed at stirring up religious and ethnic enmity.

In a radio interview on June 16, 2011, Tezekbaev said many mullahs in Kyrgyzstan were "former alcoholics and murderers" who try to conceal their inappropriate past.

If found guilty, Tezekbaev faces up to five years in prison. A verdict is expected on February 1.

Tezekbaev, who is perhaps best known as the founder of a private school teaching a Kyrgyz national martial art, doesn't deny making the statement.

But he denies trying to stir up religious hatred and says he is being targeted for his Tengriistic beliefs.

WATCH: Kyrgyz Tengriists practice their spiritual rituals.
'Shaman' Activist Goes On Trial
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The trial has thrown a spotlight on Tengriism, an ancient shamanistic religion that was widespread among Turkic nations, including the Kyrgyz, before the arrival of Islam.

It is a creed that has experienced something of a revival in Kyrgyzstan in recent years.

Tengriism stresses the importance of living in harmony with nature. It is broadly tolerated in the predominantly Muslim country, but is frowned upon by some Islamic clerics who have criticized the movement, although thus far they have refrained from calling for curbs on its followers.

An Outspoken Critic Of Islam

Tezekbaev says it is "completely possible" to be a Muslim and a follower of Tengriism at the same time, adding that "this is what many people in Kyrgyzstan are."

Tezekbaev has a reputation as an outspoken critic of what he sees as the growing influence of Islam in his country, especially among young people, calling it a danger to the future of the nation.

Tezekbaev, who calls himself a "half-Muslim," has spoken out against the hijab, the Islamic head scarf worn by some Kyrgyz women. He has also urged young men not to grow a long beard as a sign of Islamic piety.

"I am an Uzulman [or a half-Muslim]," he says. "I don’t fully follow Islam, I just partially follow some Muslim rituals. I am a pure Kyrgyz."

Dastan Sarygulov, a former lawmaker and government official who calls himself the movement's ideological leader in Kyrgyzstan, claims some 60 percent of Kyrgyzstan's rural population follows Tengriism or has at least preserved some related traditions and values.

Others put the number of active followers at around 5,000 people, including many intellectuals.

'It's Not A Religion'

Sarygulov, who has set up the Tengir Ordo (Tengri Center) civic group, claims his movement promotes Tengriist values as a way of living and looking at the world, not as a religion.

"Tengriism, first of all, is not a religion," he says. "Secondly it's a world view, which -- thirdly -- has become a lifestyle. Followers of Tengriism don't have a holy religious book but they follow all the spiritual and moral commandments accumulated in major religions."

The Muftiyat, Kyrgyzstan's highest Islamic body, has not publicly commented on efforts to revive Tengriism.

But some clerics have accused followers of Tengriism of seeking to promote a polytheistic religion that opposes Islamic teachings.

"You cannot be both Muslim and Tengriist at the same time," says Samsydin Abdykalyk, a cleric who translated the Koran into Kyrgyz. "Tengriism was our old religion."

"Those who now consider themselves followers [of Tengriism] have a distorted idea of real Tengriistic ideas," Abdykalyk says.

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