Kazakhstan: “Two-faced religion and regulations”: Official discourse on Islam in Kazakhstani 2011-2014. By Anna Savchenko.

Anna Savchenko, MA OSCE Academy, Kyrgyzstan.

Religion is a constituent part of everyday life in Central Asian counties, and it influences state vision of security. Kazakhstan is the biggest country in Central Asia, bordering Russia, China, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. The country’s population is predominantly Muslim. Kazakhstan has faced “relatively lower levels of radical Islamic movements, compared to other Central Asian republics.”[i] However, this changed when representatives of the “Soldiers of the Caliphate” group[ii] had organized terrorist acts in 2011 and repeated them in 2012. Terrorists exploded bombs nearby or inside the governmental buildings in Aktobe, Astana, Taraz, Atyrau; seventy people (terrorists, military forces and civilians) had been found dead.[iii] To face these threats of terrorism, Kazakhstan’s authorities conducted anti-terror operations and introduced new legislation in religious sphere.

Importantly, these developments have affected the way officials discuss Islam in Kazakhstan. From then on, they presented two images of Islam: “hostile” – coming from abroad and threatening the stability; and “Kazakhstani,” which incorporates traditions of Kazakh people and follows state regulations. The distinction between the two becomes clear through the content analysis of the official discourse on religious situation in 2011-2014. The speeches and interviews of the high officials of the Religious Affairs Agency are published in the state magazine Gosudarstvo i religiya (State and Religion).[iv] The two images of “hostile” and “Kazakhstani” Islam are used to substantiate the introduction of the legal acts on religious activity and associations in Kazakhstan, which are criticized for being limiting:[v] all religious associations are now obliged to register.

Discursively, “Kazakhstani” Islam is presented as special, moderate, and traditional. It has many distinctions from Islam spread in the Middle East. Officials use two examples: Kazakhstani Islam is not politicized, it does not repress women’s rights and promotes peace and stability. Since 2012, the discourse has been presenting a clear statement that the only possible Islam in Kazakhstan is Sunni Hanafi School (representatives of this group believe in the Prophet’s enlightened soul, and in four imams’ schools of thought), which is “traditional” for Kazakhstani population. Salafi Islam (representatives do not believe in saints, follow solely the Quran and the hadith of the Prophet narrated by his followers) and “other pseudo religious movements” are on the opposite side.[vi] The official discourse contrasts traditions, history, stability and tolerance (which are common for “Kazakhstani” Islam) with non-traditional, alien, aggressive ideology of other new-coming religions, acting against habitual secure order in the state.

Officials interpret the necessity to re-establish state-religion relations through this dichotomy in the discourse. For instance, the terrorist acts of 2011-2012 in Atyrau, Aktobe, Taraz, Kulsary, where terrorists have asked for more religious freedom and less restrictions, are blamed on too liberal state-religion affairs framed by the 1992 Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations, which stipulates that people have freedom to believe and to practice their beliefs. The law conditioned that only ten believers (not 50, as it is from 2011) need to be present registration religious association[vii], and that the organizations may receive donations without restrictions.[viii] The 1992 Law was assessed as an obstacle to controlling new alien religious movements financed from outside of the country. Moreover, these movements interfere into religious renaissance of traditional religions in Kazakhstan and bring unlawful features into the renaissance, threatening spiritual bonds of the Kazakhstani nation.

Officials often refer to the 1992 Law as liberal and too soft to oppose the ideological influence of different radical religious groups. Once, the 1992 Law was characterized as “entirely based on the main principles of Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” with its idea that everybody has a right to believe.[ix] However, as Burkhanov notes “when believers get together, then it is a different case” – it is not just a group practicing their right to believe, but an organized group, which must be registered as a legal entity.[x] This is an example of deconstructing notions, when officials connect universal rights like freedom of belief and freedom of assembly with the establishment of the legal entities; and conclude that it is an attempt to threaten state order.

Officials also describe the 1992 Law as lacking strict rules. Allegedly, it caused flourishing of “destructive religious movements,” which have entered Kazakhstan, organized financial pyramids and harmed health and cohesion of society. Moreover, the appearance of new (alien, destructive, anomalous, aggressive) religious movements decreases the role of traditional for Kazakhstan religions (Sunni Hanafi Islam and Orthodox Christianity). The discourse of 2013 and 2014 underlines the idea that lack of a strict law on religion is the cause of radicalization of some religious elements and movements in the society, which leads to their activity against constitutional order.

Officials claim that the introduction of the new 2011 Law on Religious Activity and Religious Associations is the solution to the issue of religious radicalization in Kazakhstan. The discourse on the new law is based on expressions like “inter-religious consent,” “protection of inter-confessional stability,” and “opposition to negative religious manifestations.” Despite the fact that the 2011 law is also defined, for instance, by Sarpekov as “undoubtedly liberal”[xi] (in this case – giving enough freedom to believe), officials state that it addresses the gaps existing in the 1992 Law, has ability to solve problems in the religious sphere, and gives a possibility to lead reasonable propaganda of security, cultural values and “traditional” Islamic values.

The main message of 2013 discourse on the 2011 Law is to present it as a safeguard of the society from extremist ideology. The key word in this case is prevention. The 2011 Law is displayed as an instrument to prevent promotion of alien ideology and effectively systematize and stabilize the relations between the state and religion. The 2011 Law is also commonly characterized as zaslon – a filter or a barrier protecting spiritual life of the society, stopping extremist literature and radical ideology from penetrating Kazakhstan. Moreover, officials propose imams[xii] to combine promotion of traditional religions with “propaganda of society’s unity, diligence, responsibility, active civic position and patriotism.”[xiii] It is unusual for secular officials to ask religious leaders to involve this kind of discourse into religious propaganda and sermons.

In general, official discourse is formed around juxtaposition of traditions and culture of Kazakh society and “traditional” Islam with “hostile” new-coming Islam. Additionally, in 2011 it is a contradiction between “ideology of opposition” and “peace culture”. The negative features of minority religious groups are displayed as a potential threat for the society in 2012 discourse. These groups contribute to the disorder in the religious sphere, whereas traditional religions are more numerous, systematic and transparent. Moreover, during 2014, official discourse forms dichotomy of radical advocates and preachers or non-traditional confessions and representatives of traditional religions, with focus on Islam and the Spiritual Administration of Muslims in Kazakhstan.[xiv]

Analysis of the official discourse on religion with focus on Islam shows the tendency to create two opposing images of Islam in Kazakhstan. It disregards alternative possible causes of the emergence and existence of radical Islam movements and their actions. The Kazakhstani officials use these images to substantiate changes in the legal sphere and politics. Finally, the existence of this discourse and the legislation, which brings it, can be transferred to other Central Asian countries, where official vision of religion as an issue of security can worsen.

[i]Omelicheva, Mariya Y. “Islam in Kazakhstan: a survey of contemporary trends and sources of securitization.” Central Asian Survey 30, no. 2 (2011): 244.

[ii]Shibutov, Marat and Vyacheslav Abramov. “Terrorism in Kazakhstan – 2011-2012 (Report from the panel discussion “Security 2013: trends, risks and scenarios”).” Accessed September 22, 2015. <http://counter-terror.kz/ru/article/view?id=118&gt;

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] The issues of this magazine are available online on the <www.din.gov.kz>.

[v]Duvanov, Sergey, Ivar Dale, and Victoria Tyuleneva. Report 2013. Kazakhstan: Cunning Democracy. Oslo: Norwegian Helsinki Committee and Freedom House, 2013. Accessed May 19, 2015. <https://freedomhouse.org/sites/default/files/Kazakhstan%20Report%20-%2010-16-13.pdf>

[vi]Gosudarsvo i religiya (State and Religion) 1 (24), (2013): 143. Accessed May 13, 2015. <http://www.din.gov.kz/kaz/press-sluzhba/memleket_zhane_dyn/>

[vii] The Republic of Kazakhstan’s Law № 483-IV on “Religious Activity and Religious Associations,” October 11, 2011. Accessed September 24, 2015 <http://online.zakon.kz/Document/?doc_id=31067690&doc_id2=31067690#sub_id=1002111120&sub_id2=120000&sel_link=1002111120>

[viii] The Republic of Kazakhstan’s Law N 1128-XII on “Freedom of Belief and Religious Associations,” January 15, 1992. Accessed September 24, 2015 <http://ru.government.kz/docs/z920004000_20110705.htm>

[ix]Gosudarsvo i religiya (State and Religion) 1-2 (16-17), (2011): 108-109. Accessed May 13, 2015. <http://www.din.gov.kz/kaz/press-sluzhba/memleket_zhane_dyn/>

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Ibid, 101.

[xii]Imam is a head of a mosque, usually, he conducts preying

[xiii]Gosudarstvo i religiya (State and Religion) 1 (28), (2014): 70. Accessed May 13, 2015. http://www.din.gov.kz/kaz/press-sluzhba/memleket_zhane_dyn/&gt;

[xiv]SAMK has been formed in 2009 to be a nexus between state institutions and religious associations. Discursively, the state authorities delegate SAMK an important role in the stability and cohesion building among population.

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