“Everyone has the right to choose their religion and we need to respect the opinion of others”: Mutakalim bringing people together for religious diversity in Kyrgyzstan

Religion has become a hot topic in Kyrgyzstan. People have different visions of the country’s future and the role religion plays in Kyrgyzstani identity. Some see Islam – practised by around 90 per cent of the population – as central, while others wish for a more secular society. This has led to tensions between secular and religious groups, state institutions and between people of different faiths who make up a small minority.

“We are the only women-led organisation in Central Asia that protects the rights of religious women. We’ve been working on religious tolerance for over 20 years,” said Amina Usenalieva, Deputy Chair of the Board of the Public Union Mutakalim.

Members of Mutakalim participating in a tree planting project with other religious leaders to strengthen interfaith dialogue in Bishkek.

Founded during the 1990s by a group of women, the organisation set out to work with influential religious figures, communities and government structures to address tensions. “Religious communities can sometimes be closed off, so we act as a bridge between secular and religious communities,” she said.

“It’s important to work with religious institutions to ensure the rights of women,” Amina continued. “Unfortunately, domestic violence is widespread. We want women to take a more active role in religious life. We work with religious bodies to promote gender equality, family planning and education. There is often pushback from men who don’t believe women should participate. But when we talk through the issues in more depth and go beyond some of the charged emotions around the term ‘gender’, they often see the benefits.”

Using online platforms to bring people together for religious tolerance

As part of a US Embassy-funded project, Saferworld awarded Mutakalim 98,000 KES (US 1,200) for an initiative to improve awareness of religious diversity and build tolerance among people in their communities.

“We focused on religious tolerance through three activities – all of which were online on our Facebook and Instagram,” said Amina. “We held live streams through social media for 30 days. Every day we had a different event relating to peacebuilding or religious tolerance with 30 guest speakers, including mediators, teachers, athletes and representatives of different organisations.”

Mutakalim held two Zoom conferences for imams in the north and south of Kyrgyzstan. “In these spaces, we focused on peacebuilding and the importance of tolerance from the perspective of Islam. The imams cited examples from the Qur’an, and later the other imams in attendance shared this information with their congregations at the mosques. Some government representatives also spoke about the types of laws that regulate the religious sphere, as well as rights according to the constitution – especially that all religions are equal.” Participants also held a separate conference with representatives of the State Commission for Religious Affairs, the Spiritual Administration of Muslims of Kyrgyzstan, religious leaders and imams to talk about their work, and the importance of promoting tolerance and building peace in society. A total of 80 people took part in the events, including 30 men and 50 women.

“We also held a training course for women religious leaders, including directors and teachers of madrassahs [Islamic formal schools],” she said. “One of the teachers who participated in the training had a large following both on social media and in real life, and as a result of what she learnt, she started to incorporate peacebuilding and religious tolerance into her lectures.”

“I used to have a negative perception of a Kyrgyzstani who converted to other religions,” said Boujar Kurbanayeva, a participant in the online conference. “I have a Baptist neighbour who I disliked and tried to avoid. After participating in the discussion, I learnt that everyone has the right to choose their religion and that we need to respect the opinions of others. I thought long and hard about it. I was especially struck by the fact that the Qur’an says that there is no coercion in religion, so everyone has the right to choose their path. It may be a small thing as a first step, but since then I began to have more positive interactions with my neighbour.”

Amina said she learnt a lot from the experience too. “It was the first time I ran an initiative like this from start to finish – I spoke to a lot of interesting people, and learnt more about the Qu’ran,” she said. “I want to do something similar in the future, with a wider scope – for example with representatives of other religions, and making some visits to mosques, synagogues and churches.”