Tengrism on Trial

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by Nathan Hamm on 2/1/2012 · 2 comments

RFE/RL carries an interesting story about Kubanychbek Tezekbaev, an advocate of Tengrism who is on trial for inciting religious and ethnic hatred for saying in an interview last June that many mullahs in Kyrgyzstan are “former alcoholics and murderers” who are trying to paper over their pasts. Tezekbaev, who could be sentenced to five years in prison if found guilty, says he is being punished for his beliefs.

Tengrism has played an interesting, if obscure, role in the competition to define national identities, religion, and ideologies of Turkic peoples throughout the former Soviet Union. (For more on this, see Laruelle’s 2007 Central Asian Survey article, from which most of the following information is derived, or her shorter 2006 article on Tengrism.) Dastan Sarygulov claims to lead Kyrgyzstan’s Tengrist movement. A former Soviet official, post-independence governor of Talas, and head of Kyrgyzaltyn (where he is alleged to have illegally trafficked state gold reserves), managed to maneuver himself to the position of Secretary of State under Bakiev in 2005. In this position, he led a commission to establish a national ideology that, ultimately, only resulted in debate over Tengrism and concern that it would receive the blessings of the state. Kyrgyzstan’s Muslim Spiritual Board complained specifically that promotion of Tengrism “rehabilitates” anti-Muslim sentiment.

Tezekbaev says in the RFE/RL article that Tengrism is not incompatible with Islam and that many in Kyrgyzstan are followers of both Tengrism and Islam. Religious syncretism can be found all over the world, and Central Asia is abundant with examples of Islam incorporating pre-Islamic beliefs and practices. Nevertheless, the cleric quoted in the story as saying one can either be Muslim or not Muslim lays out a fairly mainstream position. Tengrists like Sarygulov try to dodge this by saying the Tengrism is not a religion, but a perspective on the world and a lifestyle. At the same time, Kyrgyzstan’s Tengrists cast Islam as a religion foreign to the Kyrgyz, and Sarygulov has in the past proposed “cleansing” the country of foreign influences.

As this Diesel thread shows, Tengrism remains very controversial. Even if it is not a religion, it challenges the centrality of Islam to Kyrgyz identity and fundamentally questions what it means to be Kyrgyz. As a movement though, it is small, and presents no real challenge to Islam among the Kyrgyz. And really, Tezekbaev’s comment was fairly tame comment to be facing a five year sentence. Official sensitivity to the statements of minority ethnic and religious groups obviously runs high in Kyrgyzstan though, and this is important to keep in mind when judging the ways in which post-Bakiev Kyrgyzstan has and has not liberalized.

UPDATE: There’s a bit more background about this dispute in this Russian language article at Azattyk. Tezekbaev says that he is being punished by the Islamic establishment for loving Manas too damned much (more or less). To charges that Tai-Tebish encourages idolatry and that Manas is not part of Islam, he says that the spirit of Manas is in the Kyrgyz, and that those who do not know him are not true Kyrgyz. [Edited to correct earlier, poor translation.] Parliamentary Deputy Tursunbek Bakir Uluu offers up the counterpoint that Manas absolutely was a “clean” Muslim. Which means that if this debate is all about the man whose name will eventually become the only word used in the Kyrgyz language (at some point after all the streets and towns are renamed for him), this whole thing is high-stakes nuts. And of course, Alibi has to go an confirm that by calling Tezekbaev a “patriotic Kyrgyz horseman.”

Please Kyrgyzstan, take it from an American. Going overboard on nationalist myth-making and patriotic symbolism walks a fine line between ridiculous and awesome.


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– author of 2991 posts on Registan.net.

Nathan is the founder and Principal Analyst for Registan, which he launched in 2003. He was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Uzbekistan 2000-2001 and received his MA in Central Asian Studies from the University of Washington in 2007. Since 2007, he has worked full-time as an analyst, consulting with private and government clients on Central Asian affairs, specializing in how socio-cultural and political factors shape risks and opportunities and how organizations can adjust their strategic and operational plans to account for these variables. More information on Registan's services can be found here, and Nathan can be contacted via Twitter or email.

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{ 2 comments }

Andrew Moriarty February 2, 2012 at 11:11 am

Write at the start of the Poem, Manas’ ancestors were alleged to have “They had exchanged greetings with twenty Sufi masters,
Learned writing from a caliph,
And they thus were called great “sahibs.”

Granted, it seems a bit silly too argue the religious identity of a fictional character.

Nathan Hamm February 2, 2012 at 11:35 am

Yep. But more importantly, I think my borderline functional illiteracy in Russian caused me to misunderstand what was being said about Manas. What he was saying in response to mullahs’ accusations that Tai-Tebish encourages idolatry and that Manas is not part of Islam is that even if Manas is not part of Islam, he is part of being Kyrgyz. Bakir Uluu is just jumping into the Tengrism-Islam debate by saying “Manas was Muslim.”

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