BISHKEK -- A tempest is brewing in Kyrgyzstan over a video that appears to show the country's highest religious authority engaged in a naked romp with a young woman.
Everyone is in agreement that the man in the video is Grand Mufti Rakhmatulla-Hajji Egemberdiev -- even the mufti himself.
What's not so clear is the identity of the woman receiving his affections.
Critics have characterized her as an unnamed "sex bomb" who tempted the Islamic spiritual leader into an extramarital affair.
But Egemberdiev says he is "clean before God" and that the woman is in fact his wife of four years.
That explanation has not been enough to pacify a small crowd of protesters who gathered outside Egemberdiev's Bishkek office on January 6, calling him an adulterer and demanding his resignation.
Bakyt Nurdinov, a member of the Congress of Muslims, a Bishkek-based nongovernmental group that promotes the rights of the Islamic community, says the video has proved deeply unsettling.
"There's a very heated discussion about all this," Nurdinov says. "Muslim spiritual leaders are in shock. The situation is difficult; they don't know what to say. It's the first time such a thing has happened. It's very upsetting that we've lived to see something like this."
The video, which appeared on Kyrgyz websites on New Year's Eve, appeared to have been shot with a hidden camera.
Although the clip has since vanished from the Internet, at least one grainy, black-and-white image remains, showing only a naked man with a marked resemblance to Egemberdiev and a womanly hand clutching at his back.
Sex tapes are nothing new in Kyrgyzstan. A similar video showing Omurbek Tekebaev, head of the Fatherland (Ata-Meken) political party, first emerged in 2008 and resurfaced just ahead of key parliamentary elections in 2010.
But one involving the country's ostensible spiritual guide has proved unsettling in Kyrgyzstan, which has gone through five muftis in just four years.
Whiff Of Bribery?
Egemberdiev, who has served just over a year in the post, was elected despite being under investigation for failing to pay taxes on money earned through organized trips to the hajj, the annual Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca.
The hajj, which is obligatory for all able-bodied Muslims at least once in their lifetime, is seen as a ripe bribe-taking opportunity for Kyrgyzstan's Spiritual Board of Muslims, or Muftiate, which since 2011 has assumed responsible for doling out much-coveted trips according to the hajj's quota system.
Egemberdiev, who is under investigation together with a former mufti, Chubak-Hajji Jalilov, says the allegations against him are baseless and were raised to prevent his election as grand mufti.
He suggests the video is more of the same, saying he was "interested to find out" who was so interested in his private life. He has repeatedly accused government officials and intelligence workers of meddling in his personal business.
Orozbek Moldaliev, a presidential representative to the Kyrgyz parliament, denies any orchestrated pressure campaign, accusing the country's muftis of using their posts as a money-making opportunity rather than a moral one.
"An entire generation of [mullahs] has grown up with one and the same level of [religious] education, and they all want to become muftis," Moldaliev says. "And the hajj is the reason behind that goal. There's the potential there to receive hidden profits of $4 million-$6 million."
There is also chagrin over the fact that the woman, if she is in fact Egemberdiev's spouse, may be the mufti's second wife.
In admitting his role in the video, Egemberdiev said the woman was his "wife through Nikah," an Islamic marriage ceremony that many men use to take additional wives in countries like Kyrgyzstan where polygamy is illegal. (Local Kyrgyz media report that Egemberdiev has a first, legal, wife, although her identity is not known.)
A new video has been released showing an older Kyrgyz couple purporting to be the woman's parents. They confirm that she is Egemberdiev's wife of four years and express distress with the sex tape. Their video shows a photograph of them with their daughter, who appears in modest, dark clothing, with her head covered.
The scandal appears to underscore the deep divide between Kyrgyzstan's secular government and the Muftiate, which is state-run but seen as seeking greater autonomy as it looks to gain greater control over local imams.
None of the country's recent grand muftis, who are elected by the Muftiate from a pool of candidates, has served out an entire five-year term. Jalilov resigned amid a corruption scandal; a previous mufti, Muaratali Jumanov, died in 2010, two months after being kidnapped and brutally beaten.
In the meantime, the Muftiate has also struggled to improve the education standards among the country's Muslim leaders, in an attempt to prevent a rise in extremism and improve religious understanding.
Lawmaker Kanybek Osmonaliev, who formerly served as director of the State Committee for Religious Affairs, says Kyrgyzstan is still struggling to find a true spiritual leader more than 20 years since the collapse of communism and the sanctioned return of religion.
"They're only muftis in name. In 20 years, we haven't been able to generate a single genuine spiritual leader," Osmonaliev says. "Eighty-three percent of our population is Muslim. But the fact that we're talking about dubious deals with hajj funding or various Arab funds speaks to the fact that Soviet atheism continues to dominate the minds of our public."
Written by Daisy Sindelar, based on reporting by Kyrgyz Service correspondent Elenora Beishenbek in Bishkek