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Following Terror Attacks, Kazakhstan Hurriedly Tightens Religious Law


Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev waves next to Absattar Derbisali, the supreme mufti of Kazakhstan, as he visits the Central Mosque in Almaty in November 2010.
Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev waves next to Absattar Derbisali, the supreme mufti of Kazakhstan, as he visits the Central Mosque in Almaty in November 2010.

After a series of speeches and warnings over the spread of extremist religious ideas in his country, Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbaev is expected to sign a new bill on religion into law.

The bill, approved this month*, severely tightens registration procedures for religious institutions while banning unsanctioned religious activity.

The construction of new places of worship must be approved by local authorities and the religious education of youth will also be under their control. In addition, the new law imposes a ban on praying in the workplace.

Officially titled "The Law on Religious Activity and Religious Associations," the new bill has sparked heated debate in Kazakh society.

"Will I be violating the law and effectively become a criminal if I pray in my office?" says Bekbolat Tleukhan, a lawmaker and practicing Muslim.

Speaking to Astana's Channel 7 television, the lawmaker says banning prayer at work violates the country's constitution, which guarantees freedom of religion.

According to official figures, at least 64 percent of Kazakh citizens are Muslims, the majority of whom follow the Sunni Hanafi sect. Many Sunni Muslims pray five times a day, and at least two of the prayers coincide with standard office hours.

"The draft law forces people to choose between their faith and jobs, and it's not fair," says Maksat Nurypbaev, the head of Kazakhstan Zhastary, a nongovernmental organization.

The bill requires mosques and all other religious institutions to file complicated paperwork to become registered, including obtaining permission from both local and central governments.

Rights defenders have branded the bill discriminatory and restrictive.

Supporters of the bill, however, are adamant the law does not limit religious freedom and say it addresses threats posed by extremist groups.

"Kazakhs have never backed religious fanatics. Growing a beard or wearing a hijab have never been part of the mentality of a person living in the steppe," says lawmaker Erzat Alzakov. "It is all new to us. The most worrying is that there are many young people among religious fanatics."

Alzakov blames society for not closely controlling the content of teaching materials in the country's numerous religious schools and classes, many of which offer free religious education.

"Free lunches don't exist," he says. "Only problems are given for free, and we just got them."

Setting House in Order

Nazarbaev has this year repeatedly warned against the spread of radical ideas "foreign to Kazakhs" and of the need to "protect the nation from religious extremism."

He recently criticized a new trend among some wealthy Kazakhs, who have taken to building mosques as a charity gesture. Speaking during a parliament session earlier this month, the president called for the activities of all unregistered mosques to be looked into.

"We need to put our house in order," Nazarbaev told parliament.

In the capital, Astana, alone, at least 30,000 men attend mosque prayers every day.

Kazakhstan has seen several terrorist attacks blamed on religious extremists this year, including its first suicide attack. Hence, the bill is seen by many as the government's reaction to what officials call the growing threat of extremism in Kazakhstan, arguably the most stable country in Central Asia.

Kazakhstan has witnessed an increased interest in Islam in recent years. The number of mosques is on the rise and so is the number of people who attend prayers there. In the capital, Astana, alone, at least 30,000 men attend mosque prayers every day, according to religious officials. Between 60 and 70 percent of them are reportedly government officials. Astana has a population of more than 700,000.

The hijab -- or the Islamic head scarf -- has become popular with many young women in both cities and villages. Increasing number of parents want their children to obtain some degree of religious education with local mullahs or imams, if not in madrasahs.

The media has dubbed it the second wave of the rise of Islam in the country. The so-called first wave came in the early 1990s with the nation's newly found freedom of religion after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The Most Conservative Region?

Kazakhstan's oil-rich western provinces have come under government scrutiny in recent months, as the region is increasingly being described as the one of the most religiously conservatives parts of the country.

Kazakhstan's first known suicide bombing took place in the northwestern town of Aqtobe on May 17. Officials claimed the bomber, a 25-year-old university graduate, was a member of an underground extremist group.

Many arrests and security operations have followed in the region since May. Court officials in western Atyrau say at least 22 suspects are currently being held on terrorism charges. They have admitted to receiving funding from Afghanistan and Pakistan, officials say.

Schools, universities, and mosques in the region have come under strict control. Gulfiya Besengalieva, a student at the Atyrau medical college, complains about a recent ban on hijabs in Atyrau schools.

"The college administration forces us to remove our hijabs before entering the gate of the school," Besengalieva says. "My mother came to talk to the principal of the college about it, but the principal told us this is a part of school regulations."

Kanat Juman, head of Nation's Unity, a nongovernmental group, is concerned that the new law could place more restrictions on practicing Muslims, causing more anger and discontent.

"We told parliamentarians that this bill should not become law," Juman says. "It was prepared without consulting anyone, without listening to the opinions of religious groups and institutions that deal with religious issues and people every day."

The bill was passed by the lower house on September 21 and by the Senate on September 29.

If signed into law, it will replace Kazakhstan's current Law on Freedom of Religious Confession and Religious Associations, signed in 1992.

* CLARIFICATION: This story has been amended to make clear that the passage on September 21 was in the lower house of parliament. Passage in the upper house came on September 29.

RFE/RL's Kazakh Service contributed to this report
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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.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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