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Kazakhstan Targets Beards, Pants In Fight Against 'Destructive Religious Movements'

Muslims pray at a mosque in Almaty. The bill also gives police more rein to monitor people suspected of religious extremism, issue warnings, and to compile a list of such suspects.

In its effort to give police more power to fight "destructive religious movements," Kazakhstan has set its sights on beards and short pants.

Ultraconservative Muslims who do not fit with the Central Asian country's officially approved form of Islam often display their religious stance through the wearing of heavy beards and ankle-length trousers.

The authorities, in turn, often pass broad judgement on those with such beards and attire, labeling them as adherents to what they consider a dangerous "Salafist" strain of Sunni Islam.

A bill that passed in its first reading in parliament on January 31 seeks to support police efforts to prevent "crimes linked to religious activities" by amending the law on religion. The bill calls for tightening rules under which citizens can study at religious schools abroad, sets preconditions for minors to attend mosques and church services, and bars the "public display of the attributes and outward signs" of "destructive religious movements."

The bill, based on the definition given by the Religious Affairs Ministry, describes "destructive" movements as those that promote religious views and teachings that threaten people's rights and freedoms.

Such movements, according to the bill, are aimed at weakening and even destroying society's moral foundations and its spiritual and cultural values.

Religious Affairs Minister Nurlan Yermekbaev says the authorities will compile and issue a list of groups they deem "destructive." "Pseudo-Salafists," he told reporters in Astana this week, will be among them.

Certain types of long beards would be banned and their wearers subjected to a fine, according to the new bill.

Yermekbaev said the permitted length of beards would be announced by the authorities in due time.

However, the minister emphasized that not everyone with a long beard should fear being stopped on the street and fined.

Officials would determine if the person had links to extremist movements, the minister said. "The most important is what the person [with the banned beard] says and promotes," he said.

Yermekbaev added that no action will be taken against those who bear "only one banned attribute, but is not religious at all." Religious figures, such as imams and priests, would be exempt from the ban.

If the bill becomes law, as it is nearly certain to do, Kazakhstan would also ban clothing that obscures a person's face, a move that appears aimed at the niqab face veil.

Offenders would face a fine of 120,000 tenges, approximately $370.

Fears Of Radicalization

In April, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev called for a legal ban on Islamic garments that cover women head to toe, and ankle-length pants for men.

Nazarbaev expressed concerns that the number of young Kazakhs wearing such attire was "on the rise" and blamed the trend on young people's "ignorance."

The bill also gives police more rein to monitor people suspected of religious extremism, issue warnings, and to compile a list of such suspects.

With few exceptions, only graduates of Kazakh religious schools would be allowed to study at foreign religious schools.

The bill also stipulates that minors under the age of 16 would be allowed to attend mosque prayers or church services only if accompanied by a parent or a close relative -- and only if both parents agree.

Kazakhstan has already banned the Islamic head scarf, or hijab, in schools, despite criticism by some parents.

Officials in the former Soviet, resource-rich Central Asian country frequently warn about the threat posed by religious extremist groups. The government blames "radical religious movements" for deadly attacks in Aqtobe in June 2016.

Kazakh authorities estimate that several hundred Kazakh nationals, including some young families, joined the extremist group Islamic State fighting in Iraq and Syria.

Written by Farangis Najibullah based on reporting by RFE/RL's Kazakh Service correspondent Svetlana Glushkova
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    Farangis Najibullah

    Farangis Najibullah is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL who has reported on a wide range of topics from Central Asia, including the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the region. She has extensively covered efforts by Central Asian states to repatriate and reintegrate their citizens who joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.