Saturday, December 17, 2022

Kazakh Officials No More Successful than Russian Ones in Defining ‘Traditional Islam’ Despite that Being the Only Kind They Like, Experts Say

Paul Goble

            Staunton, Dec. 15 – Participants in a recent meeting of experts on the evolving relationship between Islam and secularism in Kazakhstan were unanimous in saying that most of the problems Astana faces in the religious realm arise from its failure to define what “traditional Islam” is despite that variety being the only kind they like and support.

            As a result, they say, there is a very low level of religious literacy among the population and among officials while there is at the same time an increasing number of conflicts between the faithful and the government over how each should relate to the other ( and

            According to the experts who took part in the meeting, the Kazakhstan government acts on the basis of the conviction that any “’non-traditional’” Islam is by definition extremist, even though evidence for that is non-existent. And as a result, the state’s actions are producing exactly the opposite of what they intend, leading those who disagree toward radicalism.

            What the Kazakhstan government should be doing, the experts argue, is addressing the country’s social and economic problems rather than wasting its time on “fighting windmills” in this area, given that the better off a society is, the less often its members will turn to religion for solace.

            Government policy up to now makes no sense. On the one hand, the state promotes the public face of Islam – there are now 27,000 mosques in the country, more than one for every 100 residents. But on the other, officials often view Islam and religion in general in Soviet terms as a dangerous “opium of the people” that is practiced only by the illiterate and backward.

            That contradiction has opened the way for religious bloggers to gain influence compared to imams in the official establishment who only parrot the government’s line. That line isn’t working, and the bloggers are quick to point out both this shortcoming and the contradictions underlying it.

            At the same time, the experts said, Islam is not nearly the problem in Kazakhstan it is in other Central Asian countries. While more than 90 percent of Kazakhstan resident consider themselves believers, only about 10 percent are active in religious life. But that doesn’t mean that the authorities can continue to behave as they are doing now.

            If that happens, the situation could change rapidly and then the state could be seriously threatened.

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