Governments in Central Asia are not strangers to using religion for their own political gains. This behavior is particularly apparent during Ramadan, when Muslims fast from dusk till dawn. The Central Asian authorities have instrumentalized iftar, a ceremony of breaking the daily fast during that period. In 2023, presidents of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan hosted iftars. It allows political leaders to garner support by engaging with the public and positioning themselves as representatives of Muslim communities, who constitute the religious majority in these countries.
People in Central Asia have come a long way in their understanding and practice of religion since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. The Soviet authorities curtailed religious freedoms and viewed religion as a remnant of the past and a sign of backwardness subject to eradication. However, even the Soviet Union used religion for political means. In 1943, it established the Spiritual Administration of Muslims of Central Asia to mobilize the local population for World War II by appealing to religious duties to protect their homeland.
As Central Asian states became independent, their religious policies took divergent paths. The local context was crucial in this regard. The legacy of the civil war in Tajikistan, where religion was used for mobilization, and the operation of the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan as an opposition left little room for religious freedoms there. A similar situation unfolded in neighboring Uzbekistan, where the authorities grappled with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, a homegrown terrorist organization through the 1990s. Kyrgyzstan, on the contrary, did not face such problems and allowed a much broader exercise of religious freedoms as part of its larger democratic reforms. Thus, public display and practice of religion became an important criteria for assessing the political situation, democracy and human rights in the region. In this context, the presidential iftars reflect diverging religious policies in each country.
Participating in iftar and mending relations in Karakalpakstan
Uzbekistan’s president Shavkat Mirziyoyev’s participation in the iftar on March 30 was filled with symbolic meaning. First, it took place in Nukus, the capital city of the autonomous region of Karakalpakstan, which was engulfed in violent protests last summer. On July 1, Karakalpaks, an ethnic minority in Uzbekistan, took to the streets after proposed amendments to the constitution removed the clause on their right to self-determination by holding a referendum and seceding from the mainland. The protests lasted three days and left 21 people dead, including four military personnel. The constitutional referendum was postponed after the protests. The new draft of the constitution kept Karakalpakstan's right to secede, and the constitutional referendum will take place on April 30, 2023.
Second, the iftar took place at the home of a local teacher, Kuanishbay Seitnazarov, who invited Mirziyoyev to break his fast with his family. The fact that he is Karakalpak filled the iftar with another degree of symbolic meaning. This was the ultimate portrayal of mending relations after the violent protests last summer.
Here is the YouTube video of Mirziyoyev taking part in iftar with a local family in Nukus.
Third, Mirziyoyev’s participation in the iftar is symbolic of the reforms implemented under his rule. The president of Uzbekistan taking part in a televised religious ritual was hard to imagine under the previous president Islam Karimov, under whose rule all public displays of religiosity were banned. For example, the government prohibited wearing any items of clothing that would signify religious affiliation at government organizations and places of learning. Mirziyoyev has introduced political and social reforms — albeit lmited — in the sphere of religious freedoms that position him as starkly different from the previous regime.
Iftar in the “New Kazakhstan”
In 2023, Kazakhstan’s president Kassym-Jomart Tokayev carried on with the tradition he started last year and hosted “auzashar” (the Kazakh word for iftar) at Akorda, presidential palace in the capital Astana. The event was as formal as one could be, with very few signs of a religious ritual. Tokayev spent the large part of his speech on the political reforms carried out in the last year. He summarized them with the following words: “In general, a lot of work has been done in a short time. The beginning of the construction of a just Kazakhstan marked a new era in the development of our country. Kazakhstan is the only state in its geopolitical region that is carrying out such large-scale reforms.”
After “Qandy Qantar” (Bloody January), the largest and deadliest protests in Kazakhstan's history in January 2022, Tokayev has promoted the vague concept of a “New Kazakhstan” and promised to implement sweeping reforms. “A lot of work” in “short time” from his speech refers mostly to three elections conducted in nine months between July 2022 and March 2022. The government has conducted a constitutional referendum and snap presidential and parliamentary elections to reload political institutions. The tradition of hosting iftar at Akorda also started after the protests last year, mostly likely in an attempt to engage with the public.
The iftar was attended by state officials, scientists, doctors, teachers, representatives of ethno-cultural associations, heads of diplomatic missions, cultural figures, and employees of rescue services. Tokayev reminded everyone present at the ceremony that “maintaining peace and unity in Kazakhstan” is one of the main tasks”, and the authorities “must direct all our efforts to it.” One could argue that the iftar Tokayev hosted is a textbook example of the Soviet-era apparatchik state officials’ adoption of religion into their political toolbox. If the press-release on the presidential website did not specify the event as an iftar, one could easily mistake it for any other secular dinner hosted by the president.
Breaking a fast and praying in Bishkek’s central mosque
The presidential ooz achar (the Kyrgyz word for iftar) hosted by Kyrgyzstan’s president Sadyr Japarov looked the most organic and least staged in comparison to iftars hosted in neighboring Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. It took place on April 7 at the Imam Sarakhsi Central Mosque in Bishkek. The event resembled any other iftar hosted at mosques. The only thing that stood out was the attendance of the president, who did not say much and limited his speech to “May all good intentions and the best thoughts of the people of Kyrgyzstan come true!” and several other similar sentences.
Japarov showed up at the mosque in casual attire and in company of the presidential affairs manager Kanybek Tumanbayev. During the iftar he sat next to Zamir Rakiyev, the Mufti, or head of the Spiritual Administration of Muslims of Kyrgyzstan. All the attendants of the presidential iftar were ordinary people who came to the mosque to pray. After breaking his fast, the president joined the taraweeh prayer, a special type of prayer performed during Ramadan. This behavior certainly helped him to position himself as a man of the people.
Presidential iftars in Central Asia are rarely about the religious ceremony itself. They are used to score political points and engage with the public. At the same time, they provide a glimpse at how these countries are run and the latest political and social developments there. Where they are held, who attends them, and what words are spoken at these events can help better understand Central Asia and its people.