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After the 70-year long interregnum of atheism under Soviet rule - at least officially - Kyrgyzstan has emerged from the post-Soviet meltdown as a secular, but predominantly Muslim, country in a region where Islam has held great sway for almost a millennium.

The relaxed version of Islam observed by most Kyrgyz, however, is in sharp contrast to that practised in more conservative parts of the region and is best understood as a syncretic combination of Islam and earlier shamanistic practices. There is a saying that when the region was conquered by Muslim invaders the Kyrgyz took just enough Islam with them to suit their nomadic lifestyle, and there is some value in this as, on the whole, Islam forms a cultural background rather than a strict framework for religious devotion.

Islam first appeared in Central Asia in the seventh century but was not declared the official religion of what is modern-day Kyrgyzstan until the tenth century, under the auspices of the Karakhanid empire. It was the Silk Route merchants who were really responsible for spreading a veneer of Islam amongst the mountain nomad.

The Kyrgyz never converted wholesale to Islam. Certainly they did not adhere to the 'five pillars' of Islam: Biblical names were invoked alongside Allah's in shamanistic practices; they prayed when the mullah visited, but not in mosques; they had no need for almsgiving, as the unfortunate were already catered for within their own society; and there was no fasting during Ramadan, nor pilgrimage to Mecca.

A number of Muslim practices, such as circumcision and commemorating the first anniversary of a person's death, were grafted on to existing shamanistic rituals, though the associated festivities remained Kyrgyz in style. Weddings and funerals came to be conducted by a mullah if one was present; otherwise they went ahead just the same.

Technically, most Kyrgyz are Sunnis of the Flanafi school, but in practice they tend to mix and match their religion with animistic elements of pre-Islamic shamanism, along with other cultural practices that reflect Buddhist and even Zoroastrian influence. Most Kyrgyz today, if asked, would say they were Muslims but few regularly attend Friday prayers at the mosque and many see no conflict in visiting a shaman healer or drinking vodka. In general terms, Kyrgyz tend not to attend mosque or pray unless led by a mullah. Ramadan also has little impact.

Compared with much of the region, Islam came quite late to the Kyrgyz. Islam was first introduced to Kyrgyz tribes between the 9th and 12th centuries but it was not until the 17th century that it really took hold, when they were driven from the Tien Shan into the firmly Islamic Fergana Valley by invading Oyrat tribes of the Zhungarian Khanate. Later, when their territory came under the control of the Kokand Khanate in the 18th century, the Kyrgyz slowly converted to, or rather adgpted, Islam, and by the end of the 19th century Islam was widely recognised as their chosen faith, even if on a rather superficial level. This was much more successful in the south of the country, due to its proximity to the devout Uzbeks of the Fergana valley; greater industrialisation and Russianisation in the north combined to reinforce their more secular outlook. This factor exacerbates the serious north-south divide in the country today.

In contrast to the nomadic Kyrgyz's light-hearted interpretation of Islam, Kyrgyzstan's long-settled Uzbek community tend to be stricter practitioners. They converted as early as the 8th century, when Arab armies invaded the region and defeated the Chinese at the Battle of Talas. Uzbeks are far more likely to attend mosque than their Kyrgyz counterparts and Ramadan is observed more consistently in predominantly Uzbek parts of the south, with cafes failing to open during daylight hours, and sometimes closing down for business completely, during the month of Ramadan.

After 1917, Islam grew in popularity in Kyrgyzstan, amid the horror of violent change and, no doubt, due partly to the newly adopted settled lifestyle. Shrines were visited by more pilgrims than ever before and hundreds of people attended Friday prayers at mosques. Stalin's 'Movement of the Godless', which was particularly intense in the 1930s, effectively pushed Islam underground, where it was kept alive by the Sufis, Islam's mystical ascetics. To boost morale during World War II, rules on religion were relaxed; judging by the intensification of atheist propoganda in the 1950s this led to an Islamic resurgence. In 1951, the Tien Shan Komsomol (communist party youth) held nearly 3,000 anti-religious lectures in Kyrgyzstan and southern Kazakhstan and in Kazakhstan a special leaflet was produced entitled, 'What an Atheist Should Know About the Koran'. As is common with peoples under seige, their worship and beliefs turned inwards, invisible to the prying eyes of the KGB.

In the Gorbachev era of glasnost in the late 1980s, Islam resurfaced even before the Central Asian countries had shuffled off their Soviet mantle, today Islam is far less visible in the north than in the south of Kyrgyzstan but it is making a silent comeback there as well, especially on the streets of suburban Bishkek and nearby villages.

Today, Kyrgyzstan is a secular state and the government preaches a policy of tolerance for all religious beliefs. Since the 11 September 2001 attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York, there has been increased scrutiny of Islamic groups in Kyrgyzstan, especially the Khiz ut Tahrir. While the organisation's aim is to establish an Islamic state in the Kyrgyz and Uzbek Fergana valley, it espouses non-violent means, but is considered vulnerable to infiltration by more radical elements. Nevertheless, Islamic fundamentalism is extremely unlikely to gain a firm foothold in Kyrgyzstan.

Today Islam is jostling for position with Christian groups such as Baptists, Seventh Day Adventists and Jehovah's Witnesses, all vying for converts amongst a people in spiritual disarray. However, most Kyrgyz people consider themselves Muslim and respect the mores of the religion, even if many don't practise it. Ask virtually any Kyrgyz man or woman if they are Muslim and they will say 'of course'. Ask them if they go to the mosque or observe Ramadan, however, and most will say 'no'.

It is a popular misconception that the mosques which have sprung up all around Kyrgyzstan since independence were funded by Turkey or Saudi Arabia. Although some, such as the main mosques in Bishkek and Osh, were funded in this way, most were built by the Kyrgyz themselves, often by the system of ashar, a social institution whereby villagers donate money or voluntary labour for public works.

Perhaps Islam's most important role in modern-day Kyrgyzstan is as a source of cultural and ideological identity in the vacuum left by the discrediting of communism. Given the rise of social ills and the increasing desperation and exploitation of the vulnerable sectors of society, many argue that religion provides a necessary moral base.