In an era where a selfie is worth a thousand likes, Kazakhstan's Islamic leaders are scrambling to make sure the new generation gets the word of God.
Mullahs and imams can no longer ignore the powerful influence of social media, and are getting up to speed on Facebook and Russian-language equivalents MoiMir and vKontakte in order to connect with young people.
Ruslan Bolatuly, a high-ranking official in the northern Qostanay Province, says special workshops were held there this month to train religious leaders to become web-savvy.
He says social media can be used as a "preventative measure" to counter the spread of religious extremism. "In the past, representatives of banned [religious] groups would have to meet people face to face to recruit new members," Bolatuly says. "Now they are using the Internet."
Bolatuly says the authorities began to push Islamic leaders to embrace social media after a recent YouTube video purporting to show dozens of Kazakh "jihadists" in Syria received wide exposure.
In Kazakhstan, mosques are state-controlled and imams are appointed by the state-backed Spiritual Directorate of Kazakh Muslims. There are more than 2,500 officially registered mosques in the country, and nearly all of them have their own websites, but the authorities decided more could be done.
Bridging The Generation Gap
Darkhan Syzdykov, deputy imam of Qostanay's Maral Eshan mosque, supports the effort. Syzdykov, who took part in the local workshop along with 56 other religious leaders, believes that without the Internet and social media, mullahs would lose touch with their most important target audience.
"Nowadays, young people spent most of their time surfing on the Internet. Nobody wants to bother to listen to mosque sermons," Syzdykov says. "Young people prefer to get answers to their questions [about religion] without leaving their homes. That's why imams should be proactive on social networks."
Syzdykov has clear ideas about how the Internet should be used to reach out to the youth. The mullah plans to start writing blogs and posting video tutorials online.
Sabyrzhan Esmurzin, a mosque imam from Qostanay's Zhitikarinky district, has attracted thousands of followers on MoiMir and Odnoklassniki.ru. The 32-year-old imam uses his accounts on the Russian-language social-networking sites to promote and explain religious values, as well as to respond to his followers' questions.
Like any social-media user, Esmurzin has posted numerous photographs, including personal ones depicting the mullah enjoying time with his wife and child.
Not all Kazakh mullahs, however, are rushing to make friends online. "Older imams have no interest in the Internet," says Ulykbek Aliakparuly, a mullah from the South Kazakhstan Province's main mosque. "The age factor is important," he adds, noting that most imams are part of the older generation.
"Young people don't want to become a mosque imam because this is a job without a salary," Aliakparuly says. "Therefore, most imams in villages as well as cities are over the age of 40. They show no interest in the Internet or computers."
Aliakparuly says all chief imams in South Kazakhstan Province's 14 districts underwent training courses to learn how to use the Internet, post to mosque websites, and open accounts on social networks. He says all religious leaders in Kazakhstan should learn how to effectively use the Internet to promote peaceful religious values.
According to official statistics, about 20 percent of Kazakhstan's population of 17 million were using social-media websites in early 2012. More than 30 percent of Kazakh social-media users last year had accounts on MoiMir, while about 14 percent were active on VKontakte and 3.5 percent on Facebook.
Written by Farangis Najibullah, based on reporting by RFE/RL's Kazakh Service correspondent Maqpal Mukankyzy