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Is Kazakhstan Under Threat Of Radical Islamization?

Is Kazakhstan in danger of being destabilized by radical Islamist sects, or are such fears overblown?
Is Kazakhstan in danger of being destabilized by radical Islamist sects, or are such fears overblown?
Islam in on the rise in Kazakhstan and it could potentially cause problems for the country's stability, according to the Kazakh media.

The country's officials, including President Nursultan Nazarbaev, are telling Kazakhs to differentiate between local Islamic traditions and more conservative forms of Islam coming from abroad.

"With all due respect to all interpretations of Islam, our way is different," the president said earlier this month.

In Kazakhstan -- arguably the most secular country in Central Asia -- debates and explicit warnings about the threat Islamization poses to society are rare.

"Kazakhstan is experiencing an Islamization boom," declared the online publication Karavan.

"Kazakh Traditions Vs. Islamization?" asks MKK, "Moskovsky komsomolets'" Kazakhstan edition.

The articles argue that many different Islamic teachings and traditions are penetrating Kazakh society. They are changing the way people live their everyday lives, treat their family members, and choose their clothing.

Most of these traditions do not correspond with Kazakh society's mentality, culture, and customs, MKK says.

Karavan quotes Mukhammed Khusein Alsabekov, a deputy mufti of Kazakhstan, as saying some ultraconservative teachings of Islam, such as Wahhabism, are coming from abroad and spreading among the young via the Internet, CDs, and religious literature.

After centuries of being a part of the Tsarist Russian empire and the Soviet Union, Islamic traditions grew weaker in Kazakhstan.

As Kazakh society searches for it religious identity, representatives of different schools of Islam try to take advantage of many Kazakhs' lack of religious knowledge to preach their own ideas, warns scholar Ashirbek Muminov.

Muminov, the head of Kazakhstan's Oriental Studies Institute, says religious missionaries from Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Egypt, and Syria get generous funding from their countries to promote their agendas.

"Young people have begun to set up groupings based on ideologies, such as Salafism, Wahhabism. I think these...pose threats to the stability and unity of Kazakh society," Muminov told Karavan.

Real Threat, Or Fear-Mongering?

The country's officials seem to be acknowledging such threats, and acting on that.

A group of religious officials and imams was recently sent to the western Atyrau province to meet with students there and discuss "traditional religion" and national security issues.

"We came here to promote traditional Islamic values, and our aim is to counter the activities of other contradictory teachings," Culture Ministry representative Asylkhan Nurmagambetov told RFE/RL's Kazakh Service.

With the special instruction of the presidential administration, the group of religious leaders will travel to all other Kazakh provinces to meet with young people, Nurmagambetov said.

Some experts argue that the threat of Islamic radicalism is exaggerated in Kazakhstan and that officials are simply playing an "Islamic extremism card" to boost Nazarbaev's image before his expected upcoming reelection.

After all, other Central Asian leaders routinely warn against extremism and the penetration of foreign Islamic culture.

However, Almaty-based expert Aidos Sarym says that the Kazakh campaign against Islamization is indeed very timely, as young people are being exposed to all kinds of foreign Islamic teachings and traditions.

"Most of those attending mosque prayers are young people; and up to 20 to 30 percent of university students follow different religious groupings," Sarym says.

Sarym suggests the government, along with religious leaders, should work out and promote a "liberal, tolerant form of Islam, taking into consideration elements of local traditions and history.

"But it has to be handled with extreme caution, without demonizing conservative Muslims, as religion has always been a highly sensitive issue," he adds.

-- Farangis Najibullah