Kyrgyz theology college takes stand against radicalism and terrorism

By Asker Sultanov

Students and parents July 8 attend a presentation at Ishenaly Arabayev Kyrgyz State University College of Theology. [Asker Sultanov]

Students and parents July 8 attend a presentation at Ishenaly Arabayev Kyrgyz State University College of Theology. [Asker Sultanov]

BISHKEK -- A new theological college in Bishkek is realising the government's hopes of teaching moderate Islam to Kyrgyz youth eager to learn about their faith.

The Theological College at Ishenaly Arabayev Kyrgyz State University hosted a presentation July 8. Dignitaries including Orozbek Moldaliyev, director of the State Commission for Religious Affairs (GKDR), and Maksat haji Toktomushev, the supreme mufti of Kyrgyzstan, spoke at the event.

The four-year school, which admits children who have finished nine years of general schooling either in public school or in a seminary, completed its first academic year in 2015-2016.

"What happened in Istanbul [the June 28 airport massacre] and other cities shows that there is no hope that terrorism will disappear by itself," Toktokmushev said. "We need to fight it through ideology and quality religious education."

The GKDR "selected highly qualified teachers for this college", Toktomushev said. "A knowledgeable person will never become an extremist."

"The presence of more than 500 Kyrgyz militants in Syria ... is of grave concern," Moldaliyev said. "We need to be involved very closely in religious education."

"Kyrgyzstan has many seminaries, but we need to improve their quality of teaching," he continued.

The fledgling theological college can give "secular and religious knowledge" to youth, Moldaliyev said.

"Only through ... a strong religious education can we fight radicalism," Deputy Education and Science Minister Toktobubu Ashimbayeva said in her speech. "This school year, starting in ninth grade, we are introducing religious studies to the [public school] curriculum."

Selected schools will experiment with the new subject this year, she said.

Hoping to create an informed elite

Meanwhile, the Theology College is carrying the hopes of officials who seek to create a religiously literate elite.

Creation of the college was part of the government's action plan on religion for 2014-2010, GKDR employee Akmaral Gaibayeva told Caravanserai.

"The college furnishes a general education, along with studying the foundations of traditional Islam," she said.

The school will be the basis for "a system of quality secular and religious education", she added.

Twenty-seven youths aged 15-17 (8 girls and 19 boys) attended the college in its first year, she said.

The school admitted 50 more children for the next school year. The deadline for applications was July 20.

"All of the youths study together," Gaibayeva said.

"It's good to have a college that teaches both religious and secular knowledge," Toktomushev the mufti said in his speech. "Young people will emerge who can guide themselves superbly in secular life and have a deep knowledge of religion."

Useful diplomas

Youth who graduate from the Theology College "will receive a diploma ... that will enable them to continue their studies at any other university in Kyrgyzstan", Ermek Bekturov, director of the college, told Caravanserai. "The diploma ... also enables them to find a position as a cleric."

"This ... is the only school in Kyrgyzstan that provides a general secular education but includes religious subjects and enables students to receive a nationally accredited diploma," Gaibayeva said

"We are giving [the students] an education that will help them navigate Islam," Nazgul Abdrayeva, the curator (academic advisor) at the college, told Caravanserai. "We opened the college expressly to keep young people from falling for radicalism's ideas."

Eager students

The pioneering students at the college hope to help society once they graduate.

"I want to teach religious knowledge to children," Kumushai Jusupova, a student at the college, told Caravanserai. "Opening the college can be very helpful in fighting extremist movements."

"I want to become a linguist later on, but for now I am here ... to learn more about Islam," another student, Altynai Baitikova, told Caravanserai. "Sometimes, we have lectures and seminars about extremism, which are very important."

"After I graduate, I want to go to another university and then work for the government," Nurgazy, a student who declined to give his last name, told Caravanserai. "The problem of extremism is very grave. Serious preventive measures need to be taken."

The combination of secular and religious education at the college appealed to another student, Bekbol Surapov.

"I want to have a thorough knowledge of Islam .. but I want to work in a secular field," Surapov said. "Islam is a religion of peace ... that is mainly what distinguishes it from extremism."

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I subscribe to your doubts and fear about the fuss over religious education! I don't think our education experts will reject the training program. But there is another path instead of religious education - instilling the philosophy of the principles and legacy left by Manas, and rigorously studying and instilling his true Kyrgyz philosophy in daily life, and not just quoting his epic! The ministry of education, in a secular society, should care about true Kyrgyz values, and not teach a foreign religion that was born in the sands of faraway Arabia and imposed! Those who recite the epic of Manas, and scholars who study Manas, should take on this noble cause instead of cramming young peoples' brains with religious dogmas that make them slaves of religion!