Staunton, January 29 – Kazakhstan is becoming not just more Kazakh but more Muslim, Nurtay Mustafayev says, a radical shift from Soviet times when close to 100 percent of them declared they were atheists and a development that will certainly change both domestic political arrangements and Kazakhstan’s relationship with Central Asia and the Muslim world.
Perhaps most dramatically, Islam has become an important component for Kazakh identity just as Orthodoxy has for the country’s ethnic Russians, the historian continues. At present, 98.3 percent of Kazakhs say they are Muslims while 91.6 percent of ethnic Russians there say they are Christians (qmonitor.kz/society/710).
It is likely, Mustafayev continues, that “the majority of ‘believers’ in Kazakhstan in fact are so only nominally.” They identify with whatever the religion of their national group is. But experts say that the share of real believers is now in the range of 20 to 25 percent, that is, “from one fifth to one quarter of the population.”
“The overwhelming majority of real and nominal believers” among the Kazakhs, he continues, consist of “Sunni Muslims of the Khanafi rite.” And their numbers are increasing despite the suggestions of some that the turn to religion has faded and that people in the republic are increasingly returning to atheism.
One indication of that is the growing number of mosques. If in 2017, there were 3600 religious facilities for all faiths, last year, that number had risen to 3796. Of these, the number of mosques had grown from 2550 to 2664, while the number of Orthodox churches had risen only by six, from 294 to 300.
“Formally,” Mustafayev says, “Kazakhstan will remain a secular state, but at the same time one that assumes an ever greater Muslim face.” How far things go depend on the success of the regime’s social and political projects. If they are crowned with success, this process will be slower; if they fail, many Muslim Kazakhs will be ready to turn to more radical measures.
“Today, there are only four theocratic states – the Vatican, Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan,” he continues, “but in fact there are many more such countries” and still more where the Muslim beliefs of the population and the rulers affect laws and policies. Kazakhstan is unlikely to adopt shariat law, but it is likely to take ideas from it.
How many and how much this will affect the domestic situation and foreign relations of the country depends less on Muslims and more on the state as an effective delivery system of progress. If the state fails, many Muslim Kazakhs may be ready to turn away from democracy and secularism; but if it succeeds, few of them will have any interest in doing so.