Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Shift to Kazakh in Kazakhstan Mosques Driving Russian-Speaking Kazakhs into Hands of Islamists, Expert Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, June 26 – If the shift from Tatar to Russian in the mosques of the Russian Federation is driving some Muslims into the hands of extremist groups, the situation in Kazakhstan is just the reverse. There, an expert says, the shift from Russian to Kazakh in religious services is causing Russian-speaking believers to turn to the Islamists.

            In an interview given to Kazakhstan’s “Vremya” newspaper, Marat Smagulov, a Muslim theologian in that country, says that the official push for the use of Kazakh in the mosques is not only leading Kazakhs who speak Russian to turn to radicals but also having a similar impact on believers among ethnic minorities (

            Smagulov says that Islamist extremism appeared in Kazakhstan in the 1990s for many of the same reasons it appeared elsewhere in the former Soviet Union: the influx of radical missionaries, the poor preparation of domestic mullahs and imams, and the decision of the republic’s Muslim Spiritual Directorate (MSD) to avoid choosing charismatic Muslims to head local congregations.

            But now, he argues, the Kazakstan authorities have exacerbated these problems by insisting that mosques function in Kazakh rather than Russian.  As soon as that happened, he notes, “there occurred a colossal outflow of Russian-language young people into Salafism and other [extremist] trends.”

            Then, he continues, in an attempt to win them back, Kazakh-speaking mullahs and imams “simply translated Salafi ideas into Kazakh” rather than speaking out against them.

            “How can one push the  mosque into the framework of the Kazakh language in a country where peacefully co-exist representatives of more than 130 nations” and where many Kazakhs speak Russian better than the national language?  “Even if only two percent of those praying do not understand the imam, he must devote attention to them.”

            In addition to Russian-speaking Kazakhs, “young Muslims of other nations who do not understand homilies in Kazakh have begun to open their own mosques,” dividing the population along ethnic lines where such divisions did not previously exist.  Among the groups that have done so are the Turks, the Dungans, the Kurds, and the Uyghurs.

            Smagulov then asks rhetorically, “how can imams who do not know Russian conduct disputes with the representatives of other religions and Salafites?” And he pointedly notes that he isn’t talking about mullahs in Astana and Almaaty who need to freely speak Arabic in order to deal with diplomatic representatives from Muslim countries.

            This language shift is not the only thing that is creating problems with Islamist radicalism in Kazakhstan, the Muslim theologian says.  Another is that there are many officials who support “moderate Salafism” although “they do not advertise that fact.” They clearly recognize that even Kazakhs who speak Kazakh often understand homilies in Russian “easier and more quickly.”

            Smagulov notes that the government is spending “enormous sums” to fight religious extremism and terrorism but that there appear to be some working in hierarchy of the Kazakhstan government who have decided that “the government should lose this struggle.”  Asked who those people might be, the Muslim theologian says he “doesn’t know” and hopes he is “mistaken.”

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