Since its independence in 1991 following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Kyrgyzstan has witnessed a revival of religious groups and denominations. This has unfortunately been accompanied by increased polarisation and politicisation of religious issues and a rise in radical and extremist movements.
Since 2017, together with our national partner the Fund for Development of Spiritual Culture ‘Iyman’, we have been supporting an initiative to open public debate on the role of religion and democracy in the country.
Our aim is to promote greater tolerance and social cohesion by ensuring more people can constructively and peacefully challenge and resist extreme religious and secular narratives and policies that fuel suspicion, mistrust and conflict.
A key element of this was the creation of the Advisory Working Group on Religion and Democracy as well as the Dialogue Platform on Religion and Democracy, which comprise of representatives of all the major faith groups, academia, youth groups, civil society, journalists, security and law enforcement and government.
The two groups serve as a bridge between religious and secular parts of society, providing a space to raise and discuss important issues affecting peace and stability in the country, and to find common ground between the various religious faiths.
“It gives an opportunity to hear first-hand the opinions of representatives of different faiths; the opportunity to explain, to be heard, understand and accept,” said one working group member. “And all these opportunities allow for ongoing communication.”
Through this engagement, the groups could directly interact with government officials, including from the State Commission on Religious Affairs and other relevant agencies and ministries. Members also collectively drafted recommendations and influenced decisions on government policies around religion and democracy, such as the programme on countering terrorism and preventing violent extremism, and the law on religious organisations and freedom of religion.
To complement this work, we provided training to imams in critical skills for reaching out to their own and neighbouring communities, including in conflictsensitivity, tolerance, gender and human rights and civic education. By the end of the project, we had held 18 trainings for 1,500 imams. Of those interviewed following the training, more than 70% said they still use the training materials in their daily work and the trainers have observed an increase in demand for training among imams.
“We have a better understanding of tolerance for peaceful coexistence with representatives of other faiths and ethnic groups,” said one of the imams.
Another key target group identified for training were young people. Poor inclusion of young people in decision-making in society as well as a lack of employment opportunities leaves them feeling marginalised and ignored, making them more susceptible to criminal groups and radical religious movements.
To help address this, we created nine Youth Discussion Clubs in universities and regional youth centres across the country and trained 16 ‘youth peer mentors’ in skills such as facilitation, leadership, civic activism and conflict management. The peer mentors then used this training to organise 90 discussion sessions (10 per club) on issues ranging from early marriage to domestic violence to radicalisation. The sessions were attended by around 3,000 people, including students, scholars, civil society members, religious leaders and government officials alike.
“I and other discussion club participants have become more tolerant,” said one young person. “I can resolve conflicts through dialogue, as we practised such exercises.”
We also trained 28 junior researchers in critical thinking and research practices, which they used to carry out research and produce policy briefs on a range of important issues around religion and democracy that fed into the discussions and advocacy of the working group and dialogue platform.
Since the project began, government officials in Kyrgyzstan have begun releasing more public statements on the importance of tolerance, most notably by the Head of the State Commission on Religious Affairs, who praised “principles of tolerance, good neighbourliness and peacefulness”.
This project was funded by the European Union and ran from February 2017 to March 2020.