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Kazakstan - Religion

Kazakhstan is a modern, secular state promoting ethnic and religious diversity and tolerance. VOA's Valer Gergely reports from Kazakhstan that Islam, Russian and Ukrainian Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Jewish and other religions peacefully coexist in the republic. Due in part to the country’s nomadic and Soviet past, many residents describe themselves as nonbelievers. The government maintains statistics on the number of registered congregations and organizations but not on the size of each group. The most recent reliable statistics on religious affiliation are based on the 1999 census.

Approximately 65 percent of the population professes to be Muslim. Ethnic Kazakhs, who constitute an estimated 60 percent of the population, and ethnic Uzbeks, Uighurs, and Tatars, who collectively make up less than 10 percent, are historically mostly Sunni Muslims of the Hanafi school. Other Islamic groups that account for less than 1 percent of the population include Shafi’i Sunni (traditionally associated with Chechens), Shia, Sufi, and Ahmadi. The highest concentration of self-identified practicing Muslims is in the southern region bordering Uzbekistan. Approximately one-third of the population, consisting of sizeable numbers of ethnic Russians and smaller populations of ethnic Ukrainians and ethnic Belarusians, are mostly Russian Orthodox by tradition.

By tradition the Kazaks are Sunni Muslims of the Hanafi school, and the Russians are Russian Orthodox. In 1994, some 47 percent of the population was Muslim, 44 percent was Russian Orthodox, and 2 percent was Protestant, mainly Baptist. Some Jews, Catholics, and Pentacostalists also live in Kazakstan; a Roman Catholic diocese was established in 1991. As elsewhere in the newly independent Central Asian states, the subject of Islam's role in everyday life, and especially in politics, is a delicate one in Kazakstan.

In Kazakhstan, Islam was adopted gradually, with complete conversion in the 19th century. In the early period of the Soviet Union, the government provided some stability for the existence of Islam. Later, however, it considered it conservative and reactionary. As part of the Central Asian population and the Turkic world, Kazaks are conscious of the role Islam plays in their identity, and there is strong public pressure to increase the role that faith plays in society. At the same time, the roots of Islam in many segments of Kazak society are not as deep as they are in neighboring countries. Many of the Kazak nomads, for instance, did not become Muslims until the eighteenth or even the nineteenth century, and urban Russified Kazaks, who by some counts constitute as much as 40 percent of the indigenous population, profess discomfort with some aspects of the religion even as they recognize it as part of their national heritage.

Soviet authorities attempted to encourage a controlled form of Islam as a unifying force in the Central Asian societies while at the same time stifling the expression of religious beliefs. Since independence, religious activity has increased significantly. Construction of mosques and religious schools has accelerated in the 1990s, with financial help from Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Egypt. Already in 1991, some 170 mosques were operating, more than half of them newly built; at that time, an estimated 230 Muslim communities were active in Kazakstan.

In 1990 Nazarbayev, then party first secretary, created a state basis for Islam by removing Kazakstan from the authority of the Muslim Board of Central Asia, the Soviet-approved and politically oriented religious administration for all of Central Asia. Instead, Nazarbayev created a separate muftiate, or religious authority, for Kazak Muslims. However, Nazarbayev's choice of Ratbek hadji Nysanbayev to be the first Kazak mufti proved an unpopular one. Accusing him of financial irregularities, religious mispractice, and collaboration with the Soviet and Kazakstani state security apparatus, a group of believers from the nationalist Alash political party attempted unsuccessfully to replace the mufti in December 1991.

With an eye toward the Islamic governments of nearby Iran and Afghanistan, the writers of the 1993 constitution specifically forbade religious political parties. The 1995 constitution forbids organizations that seek to stimulate racial, political, or religious discord, and imposes strict governmental control on foreign religious organizations. As did its predecessor, the 1995 constitution stipulates that Kazakstan is a secular state; thus, Kazakstan is the only Central Asian state whose constitution does not assign a special status to Islam. This position was based on the Nazarbayev government's foreign policy as much as on domestic considerations.

Aware of the potential for investment from the Muslim countries of the Middle East, Nazarbayev visited Iran, Turkey, and Saudia Arabia; at the same time, however, he preferred to cast Kazakstan as a bridge between the Muslim East and the Christian West. For example, he initially accepted only observer status in the Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO), all of whose member nations are predominantly Muslim. The president's first trip to the Muslim holy city of Mecca, which did not occur until 1994, was part of an itinerary that also included a visit to Pope John Paul II in the Vatican.

By the mid-1990s, Nazarbayev had begun occasionally to refer to Allah in his speeches, but he had not permitted any of the Islamic festivals to become public holidays, as they had elsewhere in Central Asia. However, certain pre-Islamic holidays such as the spring festival Navruz and the summer festival Kymyzuryndyk were reintroduced in 1995.

Kazakhstan has a longstanding tradition of religious tolerance and inter-faith dialogue. This was a feature of both its 2010 Chairmanship of the OSCE and the “Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions”, held in Astana every three years. In general, members of traditional religions have been well treated, but adherents of non-traditional religions or movements have encountered difficulties.

In October 2011, President Nazarbayev signed a new law on religious activities and religious organisations which has been criticised by civil society as restricting the freedom of religion. The law is similar to a 2009 law which was dropped on the eve of the OSCE Chairmanship after stiff international criticism from ODIHR and others. The new law takes few of the ODIHR recommendations from 2009 on board. The authorities have stated this is an overdue update to the 1992 law on religion, allowing proper regulation of the increased number of religious groups in the country (4,500 estimated) while protecting Kazakhstani citizens from extremist ideology.

The law introduces a requirement for every religious group (church, temple, mosque, etc) to re-register with the state authorities under a complex three tier system. Groups with 5,000 registered believers or more may register nationally; those with 500 or more may register only at the regional level; and those with 50 or more may register only at the local level. There is now no legal basis for any religious group with fewer than 50 worshippers. Any religious activity outside the area of registration is now illegal, initially as an administrative charge but then as a criminal offence. The re-registration process must be completed within one year from 12 October 2011. In addition, religious texts used in Kazakhstan must be vetted and approved by a panel of religious experts assembled by the agency of religious affairs. No further details are yet available on how these panels are to be set up.

The government enforced existing restrictions on unregistered groups and minority religious groups. Local officials attempted to limit, often through raids and brief detention of members, the practice of religion by some minority groups, such as evangelical Christians, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Scientologists, and Muslims not affiliated with the Spiritual Association of Muslims of Kazakhstan (SAMK), a national organization with extremely close ties to the government and headed by the chief mufti in Almaty.

The SAMK exercised significant influence over the practice of Islam, including the construction of mosques and the administration of examinations and background checks for aspiring imams. The SAMK was the primary coordinator of Hajj travel and authorized travel agencies to provide Hajj travel services to citizens. Religious observers reported that the SAMK occasionally pressured nonaligned imams and congregations to join the SAMK to ensure liturgical orthodoxy. Notwithstanding SAMK influence and pressure, there were some registered Muslim communities unaffiliated with the SAMK.

Kazakhstan is Central Asia's largest and most successful economy and had until 2011 had been fairly untouched by Islamist violence witnessed elsewhere in the region. But the mainly Muslim nation of 17 million saw an increase recently in small-scale bombings and shootouts blamed on Islamist extremists. Authorities foiled a group of religious extremists plotting terrorist acts across the Central Asian country. In addition, in August 2011 Kazakhstan blocked access to a number of foreign Internet sites, alleging that they contributed to terrorism and religious extremism. The country passed a new law in November 2011 banning religious gatherings in state institutions in an effort to stamp out religious extremism. Critics say the measure will only increase the militancy of such groups.

Like the U.S., the Government of Kazakhstan is extremely concerned about the activities of Hizb'ut Tahrir (HT) in Central Asia. In large part because the Government of Kazakhstan could not ban HT under existing Kazakhstani counterterrorism legislation, President Nazarbayev signed legislation in February 2005 banning "extremist" organizations (ref B). The new legislation provided a very imprecise definition of extremism, including "fomenting social unrest." Although the Government of Kazakhstan has stated that the legislation will be used only against groups such as HT, there was widespread concern in the human rights community that it could be used to limit basic freedoms. Such concerns appear justified, as opposition political party activists reported that local authorities seized complete print runs of independent newspapers and party literature on several occasions on the pretext that it had be to reviewed for extremist content.

Kazakhstani authorities frequently arrest HT activists and those found distributing HT literature. Human rights groups that focus on religious freedom issues and prison conditions, such as the Almaty Helsinki Committee and Prison Reform International, believe that by jailing young people who are hired to distribute HT pamphlets, the Government of Kazakhstan contributes to their radicalization. In an effort to impede HT's recruiting efforts in prisons, which are reportedly relatively successful, the Government of Kazakhstan has begun to segregate HT members from the general prison population. It is currently grappling with the fact that such segregation hinders efforts to rehabilitate HT members.

The Government-affiliated "Spiritual Administration of Muslims of Kazakhstan," the official hierarchy of the Islamic faith in Kazakhstan, minimizes the threat posed by HT and similar groups. They do not appear to have a proactive approach to countering HT's propaganda. the Deputy Mufti explained that "only Allah can bring them to the mosque; if they come, we will teach them."



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