Friday, April 20, 2018

Will Kazakhstan Ultimately Become an Islamic State?

Paul Goble

            Staunton, April 20 – In Soviet times, Moscow officials always spoke of “Central Asia and Kazakhstan,” setting off the latter from the former not only because until the mid-1980s, ethnic Russians represented a plurality of the population and ethnic Kazakhs were significantly less Islamic than were the nations of Central Asia proper.

            But now the Russians have lost their plurality, and Kazakhs have been speculating about the possibility that they may be an even more ethnically homogeneous country than many others. (See, and

            Now, in the wake of a poll which found that 79.6 percent of Kazakh youth are religious (Muslim) and ten percent of them are actively so, some in that country are asking what may be an even more fateful question: will Kazakhstan remain a secular state or will it become Islamic when this generation displaces holdovers from Soviet times?

            According to Central Asian Monitor analyst Saule Isabayeva, “almost all our experts, who are older, are inclined to the view that the secular character of the state will be preserved,” but “few of them deny the possibility of a second scenario” given young people’s interest in Islam “and not only classical” (

            At present, she says, evidence of the Islamization of Kazakhstan is relatively scarce, but there are signs that it may grow, given calls to make Fridays a non-working day and suggestions that the government should allow the opening of private schools with Islamic instruction rather than secular.
            Only a few years ago, such proposals “would have seemed absurd and unacceptable,” Isabayeva continues. But now there is a sense that “sooner or later the authorities will be forced to look for some kind of compromise despite their current principled position on these questions.”

            She asked three Kazakhs for their views on whether Kazakhstan could become an Islamic state and what that would mean if it happened.

            Serzhan Amanov, a biologist, responded that young Kazakhs are turning to religion largely because of “the degradation of ideology in Kazakhstan which is leading to a decline of moral values in society and to the conclusion that religious values are a salvation.” That so many young people have made that choice reflects “the sharp decline” in the level of education.

            What we are seeing, he said, are “the first symptoms of a religious state which in our case will be a Muslim state.” And Kazakhs should realize what that will mean: they don’t need to imagine anything, they simply need to look at Kazakhstan’s neighbors, Iran or Afghanistan, to see what that would mean.

            Madina Nurgaliyeva, a political scientist, offered a somewhat different view. She says that her research shows that there is no close link “between religiosity and faith” especially among the young. Instead, young people look at religion almost as a fashion, and that in turn is leading to “the banalization of religion” and “the loss of its sacred content.”

            “The absolute majority of ‘believers,’” she said, “are from religious families where both parents or at least one of them, most often the mother, are believers.” But there is a portion of young Kazakhs who have gone one step further: as Muslims, “they do not want to have any relations with non-believers and want to see Kazakhstan be a country” where religion dominates.

            Given such attitudes, the state will need to make some compromises; but the real challenge is not to fight off the rise of an Islamist state but rather to come up with “the choice of a more acceptable model of a secular state,” one in which religion will matter more for individuals but not dominate the country as a whole.

            And Kanat Nurov, head of the Aspandau Educational Foundation, observed that “the further Islamization of Kazakhstan’s society” is happening and Islamism is not a challenge to the secular nature of the state.  It isn’t a case of something 20 or 30 years in the future but rather an issue right now.

            With the rise of Islamic youth, Kazakhstan will become more Islamic. “In the best case, it will become like the Turkish or Uzbek state,” secular at one level but with Islam playing a far greater role than now.   It is hardly likely that it will become a theocratic state like Iran although that cannot be excluded entirely.

            Should that happen, he suggested, the ethnic face and identity of Kazakhs would be radically changed or even lost.  A movement toward pure Islam would lead to the discarding of many of the uniquely Kazakh aspects of Kazakh identity, and that would be a tragedy for those like himself who are proud of being Kazakh, Nurov continued.

            If Kazakhstan became an Islamic or Islamist state, the scholar said, there would be some pluses: less alcoholism and drug abuse, for example. There also wouldn’t be any problem with the birthrate.  “But there would be less personal freedom,” and the country would close itself off from the broader world. 

            Having fought off Russification and other forms of assimilation in the past, he said, “we could ourselves with the help of Islam eliminate our national identity and lose our former self-identification.”  

            Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, he noted, “was forced to give the Turks what was in essence a new and quite abstract ‘Tyurks,’ because the Seljuks (Oghuz) had begun to call themselves simply Muslims.”  Something similar could happen to the Kazakhs. To fight that, Kazakhstan must promote its current model of Islam lest the Kazakhs themselves suffer.

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