By Yanti Hölzchen and Gulniza Taalaibekova
The current version of this blogpost relates to events up to June 2020. Since July 2020, cases of Covid-19 have skyrocketed in Kyrgyzstan, including the breakdown of the local healthcare system and lacking access to medication. People’s everyday lives in the Corona pandemic are in constant, dramatic flux, and everyone we as authors are in contact with in Kyrgyzstan, is either affected by the virus her/himself, or knows of family members, friends and neighbors who are affected. Receiving news of the infection or even death of a close person is part of the current daily agenda.
We are incapable of capturing all these changes – both in terms of keeping this article up to date, as well as emotionally. What follows, thus, is limited to reports we have been following in the time between March and June 2020.
We will fight the coronavirus together!
It is time not to be divided, but to unite,
it is time not to blame, but to support.
This call for unity was published by the Kyrgyzstani Islamic online journal Umma on March 18th 2020, exactly one day after all mosques in the Central Asian Republic of Kyrgyzstan were closed for the public, and five days after pilgrims completing the umrah to Mecca returned, allegedly causing the outbreak of the first cases of Covid-19 in the country.
When the Corona pandemic gained momentum in early 2020, Kyrgyzstan was among the first countries worldwide to shut down international air traffic, to close their borders for foreign nationals, and to go into a governmentally initiated state of emergency. With its proximity to and intense economic exchange relations with China – considering here the central role of Dordoi market in the capital Bishkek as economic hub within the whole Central Asian region – it would have been no surprise if first cases had emerged from this economic sector. However, umrah pilgrims returning from Saudi Arabia were the first officially registered cases of Covid-19. This came as a surprise for many, as an intensifying religiously motivated mobility remains rather invisible to the public.
The initial surprise quickly morphed into accusations, as the government soon detected that instead of quarantining themselves returnee pilgrims had organized celebrations (hajj toi) commonly held after returning from Mecca (cf. Bechtold 2017), with up to hundreds of people in their hometowns and villages participating. In a dire attempt to contain the outbreak entire neighborhoods and villages were forced into quarantine – videos on social media showing how people in trucks were spraying disinfectants in the streets of the affected areas and sowing fear in people who watched these. These events paralleled with Covid-19 infections traced back to members of the Tablighi Jama’at (TJ) movement who had participated in major congregations held in the movement’s religious centers in India, Pakistan, and Malaysia in February and early March, and among which some members were said to have refused quarantine, too.
These exemplary cases stimulated anger and accusations against practicing Muslims throughout the country, thereby fueling a general and at times heated debate about the role of Islam and accepted practices and interpretations of Islam in Kyrgyzstan. In this post-Soviet state, where the majority of the population identifies as Sunni Muslims of the Hanafi branch, Soviet atheist measures during the 20th century contributed to the demise of formal religious knowledge and the emergence of religious identity as an ethno-nationalist category of ethnic belonging rather than a category of religious belief and practice (McBrien 2017), still persistent today. Thus, while ethnic Kyrgyz consider themselves Muslims, for a majority this does not entail knowledge of or adherence to Islamic practice as prescribed by Quranic and Prophetic teachings. Proliferation and presence of Islam in public space, however, have significantly increased since the turn of the millennium, advanced by the activities of transnational movements such as the TJ, Muslim funds from Arab countries and Turkey, as well as various national and international organizations and initiatives, receiving scholarly attention only in recent years (cf. Ismailbekova and Nasritdinov 2012; Toktogulova 2014; Schwab 2016; Hölzchen 2018; Taalaibekova, in preparation). Their activities have been stimulating commonly voiced suspicions about intrusions of “foreign Islam” destroying Kyrgyz traditions and traditional social values (Hölzchen 2018; Nasritdinov 2020).
Against this background, Kyrgyz Islamic authorities (i.e. the Religious Administration of Muslims of Kyrgyzstan) and local Islamic organizations and initiatives emerged as facilitators of unity not only in the face of a global pandemic, but also in an effort to provide orientation and a sense of community for followers, and to counter an even deeper divide within society over the role of religion in a post-socialist, secular state. In this position, they faced the challenge of providing information and orientation to practicing Muslims who were unsure about correct religious practices in these precarious times, while at the same time walking a fine line of seeking public acceptance and fending off accusations that made Muslims scapegoats of the pandemic. It is these organizations’ role and their tightrope walk that we highlight in the following, shedding light on the crucial importance of their expanding online presence and use of online medial forms.
Seeking orientation in a disrupted daily life
For Kyrgyzstani Muslims actively practicing their faith, the closure of mosques presented a major obstacle. Muslim men, in particular, were disappointed that prayer congregations at mosques were prohibited. For many it was confusing and contradictory that this basic obligation in Islam was now to be suspended and left them facing questions of what consequences this might entail for their faith and spiritual well-being. Another highly discussed topic, in private conversations as well as on social media, revolved around the use of alcohol or alcohol-based medication for disinfection.
A further major disruption was the overlap of the fasting month Ramadan with the period of severe lockdown from late April until late May 2020. Ramadan is not only the time of spiritual contemplation and religious discipline, but also a time of community and joyful conviviality. Ramadan concludes with the celebration of eid al-fitr (Kyrg.: orozo ait), with thousands of men gathering in Bishkek’s central square and the surrounding streets for joint prayer, and subsequent celebrations take place with families, friends and neighbors in private homes and public restaurants. All this was restricted in spring 2020, and Muslims had to reduce the breaking of the fast to household members and could not organize joint meals with others, often conversing with them on the phone and lamenting the social distance. At a more basic level, many felt disoriented about how to conduct prayers specific to Ramadan (such as the tarawih prayers). Generally, these are held in congregation at mosques and many Kyrgyzstani Muslims have to rely on the imam’s instructions and the bodily movements of men standing close by for correct enactment. Many also felt clueless over questions of how to make their annual donations (zakat), which was not possible at mosques, and how – or rather whether at all – a Corona-infected person could fast or at least compensate later on.
“So, surely with hardship comes ease” – providing guidance during the pandemic
The Religious Administration of Muslims of Kyrgyzstan – also known as muftiyat – along with various Islamic organizations took up an important role both for providing guidance to followers as well as organizing and coordinating charitable activities. In doing so, the muftiyat and religious organizations made use of their webpages, social media outlets, and national TV and radio stations for providing (religiously grounded) information on how to deal with the lockdown and restrictions in everyday life. They capitalized on the lockdown situation to actively spread religious knowledge, encouraging followers to make use of their spare time. Lastly, they engaged in and promoted charitable and solidary activities, on the one hand morally enacting their faith while on the other hand counteracting the accusations towards Muslims for spreading the virus.
The muftiyat was the leading authoritative institution sought for advice on religious questions. Working closely with the government, from the outset, the muftiyat supported the governmental lockdown measures. It enforced the closure of mosques at an early stage, and during Ramadan discouraged fellow Muslims from organizing large events and forbade imams to attend communal meals and tarawih prayers in private spaces.
“So, surely with hardship comes ease” – with this Quranic verse 94:5 the muftiyat consoled Muslims throughout the country to accept the pandemic as a test from Allah and to remain patient, even in the face of continuing restrictions. As usually encouraged, and thus taken-for-granted religious activities were suspended in accordance with safety measures during the pandemic, the muftiyat justified these measures with authoritative religious sources. Besides questions of fasting as an infected person or ritually washing a deceased Covid-19 victim, the regulation of keeping 1,5 meters distance between mosque attendees after mosques opened for the public in early June stirred heated discussions. This regulation further exacerbated people’s confusion about proper religious practices since prior to the pandemic, people were instructed to stand in a straight line leaving no space between each other in prayer (see Image 1). When the safety regulation was enforced with the opening of mosques on June 8 (see Image 2), rumors started spreading that conducting the ritual prayer with such a distance between attendees is a religious innovation (bid‘ah) and thus considered infelicitous. To counter such rumors, on June 12 the chairman of the muftiyat’s Council of Ulama published an online article on the muftiyat‘s website. Referring to various hadiths and books on Islamic jurisprudence, he claimed that the requirements to keep the line in prayer straight and tight constituted the beauty of the prayer but were not its conditions. Rather, he added, the sharia allows to deviate from religious prescriptions under strenuous conditions, concluding that the requirement to stop the pandemic’s spread was graver than keeping a tight line in prayer. Thus, he presented the 1,5-meter distance regulation as anything but infelicitous, and on the contrary as theologically grounded rightful conduct. He further assured followers that this regulation would be discarded once the pandemic ceased.
Other questions, in turn, were solved by very pragmatic solutions. For instance, the conundrum of how to provide the obligatory alms (zakat) at the end of Ramadan when prohibited to leave one’s home was resolved by introducing online donations.
While the muftiyat gave leading and theologically legitimated advice, Islamic organizations such as Mutakalim or its affiliated Islamic online journal Umma organized online quizzes, online meetings and discussions. These online meetings were not only conducive to a sense of community in times of social isolation; they also allowed employees and volunteers of Mutakalim and Umma to quickly and directly respond to questions regarding proper Islamic conduct in the face of hygiene restrictions. For instance, one question discussed regarded the common greeting forms of shaking hands (male) or giving a kiss (female). Umma justified keeping physical distance by clarifying that greetings in Islam rely not on bodily gestures or contact, but rather on the words and their intention: assalamualaikum – warahmatullahi – wabarakatuh. They further assured that pronouncing any of these promised ten merits (Kyrg.: soop; Arab.: thawab), i.e. thirty merit points in total, thus giving further, religiously legitimated incentive to adhere to the safety regulations.
The activities of Umma and Mutakalim stand out from the activities of the muftiyat when considering their respective audience: for one, Mutakalim specifically caters to the interests of female Muslims, whereas the muftiyat and Umma provide information to Muslims regardless of sex. Additionally, while the muftiyat’s activities generally address a Kyrgyz-speaking audience – for instance, all homepage posts as well as publications are published in Kyrgyz language – Umma and Mutakalim direct their activities mainly at Russian-speaking Kyrgyzstanis, with Russian widely considered the language of the Kyrgyzstani (business) elite. This proved to be instrumental especially during the pandemic, as Umma journal channeled the muftiyat’s directives and information in Kyrgyz language to Umma’s Russian-speaking followers.
“Don’t waste your time, read!”—deepening of faith through religious study
While the internet and online usage has generally increased massively in Kyrgyzstan within the last decade through stable internet connections and the proliferation of mobile phones, the use of online and social media for the purpose of religious study has gained significant popularity, too. The lockdown situation only stimulated this trend even more, with people seeking online advice and exchange with peers via websites, social media and WhatsApp-channels. The increasing demand came as an advantage for religious organizations that generally capitalize on providing information and advice online, and which attract a great number of followers via the Internet, such as Mutakalim and Umma. Concurrently, the situation presented an opportunity for calling followers to deepen their religious knowledge and faith through engaging with religious sources, topics and information available online.
“Don’t waste your time, read!”, thus, was a sentence that Mutakalim and Umma posted across their online channels (websites, Instagram/Facebook accounts, WhatsApp groups) within days after the nationwide lockdown was implemented. They proceeded to introduce weekly online meetings and talks with prominent religious figures throughout the country, while Umma journal published online video and audio resources for learning Arabic, and during Ramadan produced videos demonstrating the correct performance of the tarawih prayers to be followed independently at home.
Solidarity via charity – gaining acceptance
The pandemic presented itself not only as a chance to attend to existing and gain new followers, engaging in charitable deeds in the state’s dire situation during the pandemic were moral and humanitarian acts engrained in Islamic ethics. The muftiyat and other religious organizations, however, also actively promoted and foregrounded their charitable deeds to the public to counter accusations, which aggravated with the surfacing and increase of Covid-19 cases following the return of umrah-pilgrims.
In a state where the government failed to provide even basic provisioning of foods, medicine and medical equipment, and people throughout the country self-organized in grassroots and solidary acts, the muftiyat’s and other religious organizations charity was of mere necessity and crucial to the survival of many. The lockdown caused prices for basic food items such as flour or oil to soar, leaving a great part of Kyrgyzstan’s population in fear of hunger. Not only did the muftiyat deliver trucks with flour sacks and sunflower oil canisters to needy families throughout Kyrgyzstan, the head mufti and adjunct prominent individuals appealed to vendors not to raise food prices, again legitimizing this theologically by warning that profiting from people who face difficulties is sinful and forbidden in Islam.
When towards the end of March rumors about lacking medical equipment and protective clothing for medical staff for treating Covid-19 patients turned out to be true, Umma journal’s staff organized a crowd-funding campaign and collected 1,102,500 Som (equivalent of roughly 14,000 US$). This enabled them to buy 1,225 pieces of medical protective gear, which they delivered to medical facilities. During Ramadan, they organized another crowd-funding campaign collecting 1,120,954 Som from which they organized 1,110 bags of food allocated to those in need.
While all these deeds are ethical in essence, in the specific case of Kyrgyzstan, these charitable acts implemented by the muftiyat, Mutakalim, Umma and other religious organizations simultaneously were part of a strategy to respond to the accusations towards Muslims. Umma’s publication of a list further corroborates this: first published in early April, this list summarized the activities of various Islamic organizations donating a total of thirty million Som for supporting people in need during the lockdown to buy food, and also contributed money to government bodies for battling the pandemic.
One further strategy of Umma was to share how Muslims worldwide engage in solidary efforts and measures to contain the pandemic, with the aim of promoting a positive image of Muslims in the country. Umma, for instance, published a news article on its website reporting how Muslim youth in Wiesbaden, Germany, were countering negative and stereotyped views of Islam and Muslims by organizing a campaign to shop groceries for members of high-risk groups and delivering these to their homes. While this campaign, in fact, also included non-Muslim youth, the story was deliberately framed to emphasize the campaign as motivated by Muslim youth only.
Striking a balance: seeking acceptance in times of the pandemic
When the state of emergency and nationwide lockdown lifted at the beginning of June 2020, Kyrgyzstan’s government honored charity efforts as outlined above by handing out certificates to the donating parties. This kind of state recognition, on the one hand, affirms the efforts of religious organizations for balancing approval from both followers as well as non-religious parties. At the same time, such recognition remains under public scrutiny, as critical voices see such acknowledgement as endangerment to Kyrgyzstan’s constitutional status as secular nation, clearly separating state politics and religion.
The pandemic in spring and early summer 2020 made this divide all the more apparent, even deepening it with the alleged spread of the virus via returning Muslim pilgrims and travelling Tablighi Jama’at practitioners. The latter furthermore exacerbated critique of transnational religious mobility and intrusion of “foreign” forms of Islam, with radicalization and extremism being on the daily agenda in politics and public media. At the same time, this exceptional situation of general uncertainty, breakdown, fear and threat to existence, presented itself as an opportunity for religious organizations and public figures to consolidate their (charitable) activities and position within society, promoting unity not only among Muslim followers, but also unity in times of heightened social insecurity.
The pandemic, thus, brought to the fore even more the increasing public role of religious organizations and individuals, yet to be investigated in more detail in scholarly work, and generally the ongoing debate about religion’s – and specifically Islam’s – characteristics and role in Kyrgyzstan’s society today. Within this setting, the pandemic further stimulated the use and significance of online media, both for providing parties as well as for users. This, in turn, contributes to religious proliferation through highly medialized and commercialized forms for disseminating religious knowledge, also attracting increasing numbers of more secularly oriented people in the country (Taalaibekova, in preparation). The pandemic thus presents itself as an amplifier that makes economic, political, social and religious tensions, opportunities and generally moments of transformation in the country more palpable and visible.
This text was first published on the Religious Matters Blog.
 This actually was questioned at a later stage with information surfacing that Covid-19 might have already claimed its first victims in January or February 2020.
 The TJ movement originated in present-day India in the 1920s, attracting estimates of up to 80 million followers worldwide at present. The movement is known for its travelling activities conducting dawah, “calling” fellow Muslims to follow religious observance as prescribed in the Quran and to model their lives directly on the ways of the prophet Muhammad (Reetz 2010).
 Being founded in 1999, Mutakalim belongs to Kyrgyzstan’s most prominent and early established Islamic organizations, its activities addressing specifically Muslim women and their rights. Umma was launched in 2014 and aims at promoting a positive image of Muslims in Kyrgyzstan’s virtual space. Both these organizations are exemplary for the country’s thriving religious scene since the early 2000s.
 Umma attracts a large female audience, and also has a female chief editor. What the exact male and female proportions are, however, is unclear to the authors.
 Such critique goes hand in hand with some politicians investing in mosque construction, with former president Almazbek Atambaev being the most prominent case as he financed the construction of a big mosque in Bishkek inaugurated in 2019.
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