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What does the future hold for Islam in Kazakhstan?
Only a small number of Muslims practice, but as religion grows so, too, do instances of radicalism
By Maral Tazhibaeva
ASTANA. Kazakhstan -- Although 77 percent of Kazakhs are Muslim by descent, only a small fraction practice the religion.
But, as the number of faithful Muslims rises each year, manifestations of religious radicalism are more frequent, creating a quandary for the religion and its followers.
“There is no other way than the Muslim faith for Kazakhstan and Kazakhs, a real and correct Islam, while extremism results from a lack of knowledge used for political ends”, Bilal, a student with the Nur-Mubarak Theological University, Kazakhstan‘s only school for training imams, told Central Asia Online.
Its rector, Dr. Khijazi declined requests for an interview. The other schools which used to operate have since been closed.
In order to teach the people that "radical Islam" is not right, religious leaders issue fatwas, or orders, blaming terrorists for misleading people and for the going against the rules of Islam.
They also ask believers during Friday prayers to follow the teachings of being peaceful.
A religious upturn began after the country gained independence in 1991 and it has reached all classes.
Aslbek – whose father, Aslan Musin, heads the Kazakh president’s administration – leads a modernist Muslim sect of Quranites criticized by official clerics. President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s nephew Kayrat Satybaldy heads Ak Orda, another, more conservative and orthodox religious group.
All imams (about 2,700) need permission from the SDMK to work for the Muftiate. This is intended to prevent extremists from taking control of mosques. The Muftiate teach imams to be tolerant and loyal.
The Muftiate’s ideology is based on the Hanafi School of Sunni Islam. Hanafis follow Imam Abu Hanifa, one of the four Imams of Islam.
“The SDMK officially represents the interests of Kazakhstan’s Muslims but is not a state agency”, said Erkebulan Karakulov, head of the Muftiate’s Department of Religious Analysis and Examination. “The Muftiate’s responsibilities include issuing official fatwa for the republic’s Muslims and ensuring their unity”.
Nevertheless, the SDMK operates in line with government policies.
As for the small proportion of practicing Muslims, Muhammed Hussein Khadzhi Alsabekov, deputy head of the SDMK, said many “just have not had an opportunity to learn their religion and study”.
He said the Muftiate’s task is to give people “food for thought” rather than achieve higher numbers.
Proof that the number of Muslim worshippers has risen of late is seen by a steep rise in the number of mosques – up from 63 during the Soviet era to 2,700.
Kazakhstan’s authorities are trying to harmonize inter-ethnic and inter-religious relations, for instance, by holding annual conventions of traditional religions in Astana, or by adopting the National Unity Doctrine.
Rustam Alpysbayev, a Kazakh journalist and researcher of Islam, says that the country “in fact, has no secular specialists on Islam. There are only representatives of the SDMK or theologists who testify at trials of suspected extremists, but it is impossible to meet them to discuss the religious situation. I do not know who conveys the religious picture to the country’s leadership”.
Serik, 20, interviewed outside the Central Mosque in Almaty said, “On the surface it seems that Kazakhstan seeks to please everyone – Catholic churches and Judaic synagogues were built but then later stood empty. However, it has been a strange conversation with local Muslims – those who are reluctant to visit official mosques, those who have long beards or wear hijabs are considered extremists. They are placed under unofficial surveillance, being followed and are pressured”.
Neither officials, representatives of the SDMK, nor scholars can say how many “disloyal” Muslim communities are in the country. The Quranites claim to have about 100,000 followers.
The Muftiate issued a fatwa against this religious group, accusing it of digression from Islam. The chief imam of the Central Mosque, Kulmuhammad Makhanbet, described their preaching on his website as an attempt “to destroy religion by replacing concepts and through circum-intellectual jugglery.”
Courts in Kazakhstan have outlawed 13 terrorist organizations and one considered extremist. Eleven of those allegedly involved in terrorist activity used Muslim religious slogans.
When asked how widespread radical views in Kazakhstan were, Karakulov said, “There are groups and sects of that sort in the western part of the country. They consider all who do not read Namaz and who have not joined them as Kafirs. This is wrong according to our religion. I have never met those who took arms for jihad. I hope and believe there are no people like that in Kazakhstan”.
This year, a Kazakh court imposed a ban on the distribution of more than 200 titles of books, booklets, audio and leaflets deemed extremist.
“On the surface, one can say we do not have religious extremism, but in fact we have turbulent neighbours: Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan (and we) are quite close to Afghanistan”, said Nagima Baitenova, the head of the Philosophy and Religious Studies Department at Kazakhstan’s al-Farabi Nagim Baitenov National University.
“There is also the internal factor and threat which comes mainly from activities of banned Islamist and extremist sects like Hizb ut-Tahrir and the Wahhabis. Kazakhstan has latent extremism that destroys society from within. The country is targeted by latent religious expansion”, he said.