THE ISLAMIC FACTOR AND KAZAKHSTAN’S NATIONAL SECURITY
Damir Gabbasov, Expert, Political Research Agency (Almaty, Kazakhstan)
The Islamic factor is a current topic of discussion not only in the republic’s government agencies, but also in the open press. The people of Kazakhstan have literally been bombarded with it from the newspapers and television screens, as it makes itself known through the blood, grief, and fear of hundreds of thousands of people. The reality of the external threats that have arisen—the events in Afghanistan, the refugee problem, the politization of religious organizations, drugs and arms smuggling, and the emergence of extremist movements—is accompanied by a deterioration in the standard of living of most residents of Central Asia, and is turning the region into a zone of instability. This is far from an exhaustive list of the reasons for the greater attention being focused on the Islamic factor.
Western advisors and diplomats of various ranks concerned by the threat from the south have begun visiting the country. Of course, they are interested in how stable the situation is in the Caspian Region and how reliably their economic interests are being protected. Antiterrorist training of the CIS countries and the member states of the Collective Security Treaty are being conducted more actively than before.
The problem of the Islamic factor is in no way equivocal, since it is not only characterized by external geopolitical features, but also by internal traits, which Kazakhstan must resolve in the interests of its national security.
The Islamic Factor in the Republic: What Lies Behind It?
The Islamic factor implies two processes which run in different directions. First, Islam’s penetration into the political sector of social life, which is often called Islamization; and second, the government’s policy in the country itself toward the Muslim religion. In turn, Islamization is characterized by at least two simultaneous trends: reviving the Muslim religion and using the Islamic “sheath” as an ideology which various extremist, terrorist, and separatist forces have donned in the struggle for power. So, on the one hand, this factor must be viewed as the revival of religious tradition in Kazakhstan, and, on the other, as the potential danger of extremist Islam penetrating into political life. And its followers are bent on overthrowing the secular regime and creating an Islamic state. It goes without saying that Islamic extremism threatens Kazakhstan’s national security.
The collapse in the Soviet Union stimulated a revival in the Muslim religion in the post-Soviet republics of Central Asia, brought their secular regimes closer to the Islamic world and, consequently, helped its general trends to spread in the region. It should be noted that the 70 years the former Soviet republics of Central Asia and Kazakhstan spent isolated from the international Muslim community left their imprint on public life. The Soviet political system had an extremely harsh impact on the public institutions and processes in the region. When the U.S.S.R. collapsed and the atheistic world outlook disappeared, religion began to fill the ideological niche left open.
Nevertheless, Islamization did not arrive in Kazakhstan with nowhere to go, since the Kazakhs identified themselves to one extent or another with the Muslim world, which was encouraged by the country’s leadership for strictly moral reasons: to preserve traditions, ensure the dignified upbringing of young people, and condemn man’s base origins. Moreover, stakes are placed on the consolidating role of Islam, which was supposed replace the Code of the Builders of Communism. But time and the changes going on in the world have made their adjustments to this process.
The balance has not been restored in the interrelationship between the secular elite and the population with its growing religious self-awareness. In other words, the government structures proved unprepared for the new situation. It is important to note that the absence of a sufficient number of religious authorities who were closely related with the local elite at the time the Soviet Union collapsed dramatically raised the role of the so-called “people’s mullahs,” who were spontaneously promoted by society, and also increased the influence of the external factor, in this case, on the training of religious personnel. The growing influence of the Islamic factor in Central Asia could be extremely detrimental to the stability and power of the political elite which formed in the region after the collapse in the Soviet Union. There is the danger that it will lose its initiative and then control over public opinion in the country. Therefore, it had no other choice but to try and take command of the situation in the spirit of the Soviet tradition. And the situation in Kazakhstan is a graphic example of this. In June 2000, a secular person and diplomatic employee, Mr. Derbisaliev, was appointed as the Muslim leader in the republic.
According to experts, two key factors were not kept in mind in this question which make it possible to single our country out against the general background of the region.
First, Kazakhstan has objective distinctions which are historically caused by the difference in cultures. On the one hand, this applies to the settled culture of Central Asia, and on the other, to the nomadic culture of the Kazakh ethnos. It is important to note that the matter does not even concern cultural tradition as such, but rather the principles of social organization. Closed social systems predominate in Central Asia, for example, the Uzbek mahallia, whereas in Kazakhstan open social systems are in prevalence. The difference lies in the fact that the first are more stable, including with respect to religious and social traditions, whereas the second are as open as possible to external influence and correspondingly unstable in the traditional sense. The simplest example is that Kazakh society was largely Russified, which was promoted by the mass resettlement of Russians during the years of industrialization in the republic, the assimilation of virgin and long-fallow land, and other measures carried out by the Soviet government. Kazakhstan’s geopolitical position also had an enormous impact on its secular development, thanks to which there was a synthesis of European and Eastern cultures.
The second fact relates directly to the first: the toughest version of market relations is developing quite intensively in Kazakhstan. As a result of this, individualistic values are rather widespread. For example, traditionally large Kazakh families with their abundance of children and relatives are gradually being replaced by families with no more than three children and no members of the older generation, that is, the bearers of religious traditions. This is particularly characteristic of city residents engaged in their own business and more subject to modernization. Rejection of the strict communal form of organization and perceptibility to external influence are in this case caused by the formation of capitalist relations and give rise to a low level of religiosity among the urban Kazakh population.
A different picture is taking shape in rural areas where the population is isolated from the business life of the cities, and is open and perceptible to external influence, in particular to political Islam in its radical and extremist form, the ideas of which are brought in by foreign missionaries from the south. The southern regions of Kazakhstan are particularly vulnerable in this respect. They are geographically close to regions where Islam has a strong foothold, and what is more exodus of the Russian-speaking population is observed in these regions, which has changed the demographic situation in favor of an increase in representatives of the indigenous ethnic groups. These factors are augmenting the influence of the Islamic religion on the mentioned territories. There were reports in the mass media about people being detained in the South Kazakhstan Region with leaflets which called for an overthrow of the secular political regimes and the establishment of Islamic rule. The nucleus of the extremist movements in the south of the republic is made up of the socially unstable strata of the population, including young people, craving for justice. This fertile soil is fraught with the danger of political Islam spreading to other regions of Kazakhstan.
Analysts believe that this could occur with the corresponding social prerequisites. These include an abrupt deterioration in the social status of most of the population, and the current political and socioeconomic problems. In addition, ideal conditions for political Islam are emerging due to the government’s inability to consolidate society, and the level of the nation’s expectations and quality of its actual standard of living significantly differ. Against this background, Islam, in full keeping with its spiritual tradition, is offering an alternative, harsher, but rapid way out of the current situation.
Such proposals can only be counteracted by measures understood by the ordinary people, that is, the quick and efficient resolution of socioeconomic tasks. Most importantly, the material status of citizens must be significantly improved in the near future, the gap in income reduced between the rich and poor, the level of the population’s spirituality and morality raised, a national idea created, society consolidated, and corruption intercepted. These measures will help to reduce the social base on which Islamic extremist organizations could emerge. However, an attempt to harshly repress Islamic extremists could prompt some of the Islamic population to take radical action and resort to extremism and terrorism, as happened in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.
Islam in Kazakhstan has already become reinforced as a symbol and attribute of the Kazakh ethnos. This is an extremely natural process of a return to traditional roots after losing the dominating ideological component of the former Soviet era. At present, an increase has been noted in the number of religious organizations in Kazakhstan, whereby, Islamic associations predominate. For example, as of 1 January, 2001, 500 religious organizations were registered in the South Kazakhstan Region, whereby 459 of them were Islamic, 16 Russian Orthodox, 12 Baptist, 1 Roman Catholic, and 12 Protestant. In addition, according to unofficial data, there are several dozen Wahhabis in this region. There is also information about the existence of a group belonging to the international Hizb ut-Tahrir organization which was banned in Uzbekistan for extremism. According to mass media reports, various missionaries have stepped up their activity. They are opening their own institutes and other learning institutions. From time to time, educational centers are discovered which are aimed at changing the principles of political structure in the Central Asian states.
Despite the increase in the number of religious organizations, many people have a very unclear idea of the dogmatic principles of faith, and are subject to any interpretations of its meaning and functional manifestation. Therefore, it is easy to convince them that life’s current difficulties are due to the fact that “incorrect” Islam is being practiced in the country, and the struggle to correct it is a beneficial and necessary cause. The government’s policy aimed at creating a market economy has required changes in sociopolitical policy. The reforms have been aggravated by the lack of government protection from the unpredictable risks of the market economy and rejection of the basic social security system. This is particular important under conditions where most of the young people and women in rural areas have essentially been left to the mercy of fate. According to the data of the Statistics Agency, in 2001, the number of registered unemployed alone in rural areas reached 373,800 people (41.2% of their total number in the country). There are 125,400 women in the country who do not have jobs, and more than 30% of them are in the rural areas. Among young people between the age of 15 and 24, the number of unemployed is 64,000, whereby every fifth does not have a job after graduating from university.1 They are not in demand on the market as specialists, which is a dangerous factor. In contrast to undereducated rural residents, educated young people were not only looking for pure religion in Islam, but after the relevant brain washing could turn to it in search of material and political gain. This is confirmed by the fact that among the exponents of Wahhabism, there are people who have quite a high level of education. Unemployed women, due to their social status, are also a fertile soil for instilling the ideas of Islamic extremists. If we keep in mind that on the whole women are bringing up the next generation, there is the real possibility of it becoming inculcated with radical Islamic ideas. The pitiful material status of people in itself is very convincing evidence that “something is not right” in the government’s activity. Religious exponents are taking advantage of the local population’s discontent with their socioeconomic situation and the bureaucratic pressure of officials to convince people of the need for social reform. For example, in the doctrine of “pure Islam,” preached by the Wahhabis, the idea is insistently emphasized of direct approximation to God without the intercession of numerous prophets and saints, which is consistent with the mood of the impoverished masses caught in the clutches of bureaucratic red tape. Moreover, the scales are tipping in favor of the preacher, if he promises and at least partially demonstrates imminent economic prosperity. An example of this is the materially and technically well-equipped Islamic schools and learning centers which have opened in cities for children and young people from socially deprived families.
The local mullahs could neutralize the remedies proposed for achieving a dignified and well-ordered life. But they do not take part in theological disputes, and there are almost no discussions on the topic of Muslim theology in the mass media. Frequently the mullahs are not competent enough in theological dogma and cannot give an appropriate interpretation of the speeches of the foreign missionaries who have devoted years to studying the holy books. It is also important that among the “new preachers” are former and current teachers at secular secondary schools, as well as other people with higher education. What is more, as noted above, unemployment among university graduates could prompt them to join the followers and preachers of political Islam. There is another explanation for the success of such preachers. They do not appeal to the individual, but to a community of associates united by a common goal. The community is the foundation of all ethnic ideologies, preachers do not destroy the customary way their followers understand the world, but use images and models of behavior they are familiar with. If we keep in mind that there is a yawning gap between the government and the ordinary people, and that the institutions of a civil society and individual self-awareness are underdeveloped, it turns out that the brotherhood offered in the name of Islam is a way of social life that is in high demand.
Thus, we cannot help but note that all the prerequisites are present for the rapid spread of the Islamic factor in the south of the republic, and not as a cultural tradition. Economic and demographic problems can be added to the listed factors. This particularly applies to the shortage of irrigation water, disputes over which have not abated among the post-Soviet republics of Central Asia. According to all the world centers, the amount of water in the region as a whole (atmospheric and glacier) is decreasing. In addition, during the last decade, the size of the population has dramatically increased in Uzbekistan, and the increase in agricultural production can only be ensured by irrigation farming. The shortage of water resources could lead to the appearance of yet another disaster zone, and this will also promote instability and terrorism. The dense Uzbek population in the border regions of Kazakhstan and the large number of Kazakhs on the corresponding territory of Uzbekistan are creating a highly explosive situation. Migration as a process is also very important, as well as the conflict potential harbored by refugees. Taking into account the specifics of the region, these are all rather serious issues capable of leading to religious clashes.
In the context of the threat of extremism in Central Asia, the topic of religion in Southern Kazakhstan is acquiring the features of an important social problem in a multi-ethnic region where religion is one of the markers of ethnic boundaries, and any social movement involving confessional attributes immediately arouses an immense public furor. People usually begin to identify themselves with one side or the other, and then it is extremely easy to direct all their discontent with their situation against the followers of the other faith.
The development of such a situation is impermissible in the interests of Kazakhstan’s national security, the country must strive for stabilization, otherwise the government’s authority will decline and this will throw the population into the embrace of the Islamic extremists.
It can be said that city dwellers are still only a passive audience for the Islamic missionaries. The momentum of the secular way of life is too great. Today, the real danger comes from the social living conditions of city dwellers. The young people working on the urban food and other markets, who have usually come from the rural regions, and the unemployed in the older age groups are extremely perceptible to talk about how people will soon come to rid society of the incorrect government. But in so doing there is no clear idea of who these people might be.
Along with the internal factors of the Islamic influence which harbor a threat to Kazakhstan’s security, its external manifestations are also noticeable. They are primarily related to the new geopolitical situation in the region where Islam, including its radical form, has quite a strong foothold. The matter concerns the Ferghana Valley, where 10.4 million people currently live (more than 20% of the entire Central Asian population). Almost half of the citizens of Kyrgyzstan live here (26% of them are ethnic Uzbeks), 27% of Uzbekistan citizens, and almost one third of all Tajikistan residents (31% of whom are ethnic Uzbeks). Thus, approximately 8.3 million Uzbeks currently live in the valley (about 80% of its population).
During the last decade, the situation in the valley has become aggravated and new threats to the region’s stability are emerging. This particularly applies to the repressive policy of the Uzbekistan leadership with respect to religion and the opposition, which is ready to use forceful methods to fight official Tashkent. The ideas of political Islam on establishing an Islamic state in the valley promulgated by the Uzbek Islamic radicals are finding tacit support among those dissatisfied with the country’s official regime. The situation is also aggravated by problems caused by borders which were created artificially and are not the borders of ethnic settlement, as well as unresolved land and water policy issues.
A certain role is played by the geographic isolation of the Ferghana Region of Uzbekistan from the republican centers. Its remoteness from the major trade, business, industrial, cultural, and scientific institutions is arousing a feeling of discrimination among the population and alienation from the changes going on. A noticeable deterioration in the infrastructure and the erection of artificial trade barriers between the republics are intensifying the overall economic slump in the valley, thus increasing the inequality of its socioeconomic development and the gap between the center and this region. Drug trafficking and illicit arms circulation are posing a particular threat here, the revenue from which goes to promulgating the ideas of the extremists. In this respect, the Islamic factor in the valley can be viewed not as a cultural revival, but as the population’s reaction to the critical economic situation and the infringement of its social and political rights.
Taking advantage of the complicated situation in Central Asia, several Islamic states are trying to introduce politicized Islam into the region. For example, according to the Kyrgyz special services, Islamic missionaries were being trained in Pakistan under the patronage of religious learning institutions which were not controlled by the state, who were then to be sent illegally to Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and the south of Kyrgyzstan to organize active propaganda of reactionary Islam and Wahhabism. Such actions are an attempt by the Islamic states to create social ground for expanding their influence and political-economic presence in the region.
The Islamic world is far from monotonous, it contains a variety of different groups who are also trying to penetrate into the region. They may be using other methods and means, but they are also far from peaceful. The events that occurred in the fall of 1999 and the spring of 2000 when armed groups of Tajik and Afghan extremists penetrated into Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan not only evoked a crisis situation in the south of this country (Uzbekistan), but also posed an enormous threat to the security of the entire region. Today the region of the Tajik-Kyrgyz border is still a major base for armed terrorists in the CIS. The imminent goal of bandit formations is to organize drug smuggling along the Afghanistan-Central Asia-Russia-Western Europe route, as well as to create an Islamic state in the Ferghana Valley. Although the activity of extremists has diminished as a result of the antiterrorist campaigns conducted, their activity could easily be revived again.
America’s presence in this region has also introduced geopolitical adjustments. During the antiterrorist campaign in Afghanistan, the Taliban and other terrorist organizations were scattered, but it is not clear what happened to them after this. Most of them probably settled unobtrusively among peaceful citizens, while others slipped into the border regions of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. In so doing, it is not clear whether the intentions of Islamic extremists to review the borders of the Central Asian countries have changed with the Taliban’s departure from the political arena. It is only obvious that the terrorist organizations’ main enemy is the United States and its allies. If fighting begins again in Afghanistan, there will be the danger of Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan becoming involved in this conflict since they have American military bases on their territory. In this respect, the question arises of whether Washington can keep the situation under control. For if the antiterrorist campaign fails, America will only be deprived of the opportunity of carrying out its geopolitical intentions, whereas Central Asia will become a hotbed of instability. And all of this will take place in the direct vicinity of Kazakhstan’s borders.
It should be noted that the situation is being aggravated by the presence of hotbeds of conflict involving an Islamic factor, not only beyond the region, but also within it. In the west, this threat comes from the Northern Caucasus, and in the south, from territories where conflicts periodically erupt (Kurdistan, Afghanistan, Kashmir). It also comes from the unresolved Indian-Pakistani and Indian-Chinese contradictions, and potentially conflict-ripe Xinjiang and the Ferghana Valley.
In this way, Kazakhstan’s security is largely threatened by the external aspect of the Islamic factor. This is explained by the proximity of our republic to unstable regions where political (extremist) Islam has a strong foothold, which is putting pressure on its borders from the south. Taking into account the severe socioeconomic status of most of the Central Asian population, the conclusion can be drawn that the radical ideas of political Islam will find the fertile soil they need.
The Place of the Islamic Factor in the Republic’s National Security Strategy
The Islamic factor has become one of the priority areas in the republic’s national security strategy, which ensures the state’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. For this purpose, a new military doctrine has been adopted, the conception and program documents for military development have been drawn up, and the necessary resources accumulated for counteracting the most menacing challenges in the current situation: religious terrorism, extremism, and the spread of drugs. In this respect, combat readiness has been raised in the southern strategic direction and border control has been reinforced, that is, additional subdivisions of the Border Service have been deployed, and 25 more customs points have been built. In addition, work has been stepped up to prevent and intercept the spread of radical religious ideas in the country through religious organizations and associations. The prosecutor general’s office has checked into the legality of the activity of religious associations in the Zhambyl, Kzyl-Orda, and South Kazakhstan regions. Religious associations have been closed which promulgated ideas of religious radicalism and posed a threat to the country’s sociopolitical stability, and the procedure for entry, exit and residence of foreign citizens in the republic has been regulated.
Today, it is also very important to organize an efficient system of regional security. The realities of the external threats are telling the Central Asian countries in no uncertain words that it is best to combat such phenomena as religious extremism and terrorism collectively, and that efforts should be united whenever possible in the interest of their national security. For this purpose, an Antiterrorist Center of the CIS countries has been created which includes a Headquarters for Coordinating Military Cooperation, a Council of Interior Ministers, and a Council of Defense Ministers of the Commonwealth. The Collective Security Treaty is being updated, which should become an effective mechanism of multilateral cooperation in this sphere.
Efforts are continuing to use the potential of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). In the opinion of experts, its main tasks for the near future are the following: information exchange between the power structures on urgent questions relating to combating terrorism, separatism, extremism, and the illicit circulation of drugs, forming a joint data bank, developing joint operative measures, and rendering military-technical assistance.
In addition, in the fight against terrorism, extremism, and the spread of drugs, Kazakhstan must strengthen cooperation at the global level under the auspices of the U.N., the OSCE, and the international antiterrorist coalition.
But, as practice shows, it is not enough to lock up the state borders and participate in various international organizations and coalitions. The possibilities for spreading political Islam in the country itself must be eradicated and society’s socioeconomic problems solved. The main tasks in this sphere are to reduce the number of poor and unemployed; ensure university graduates the opportunity of using their acquired knowledge in the real sector of the economy; narrow the gap in personal incomes; intercept corruption; raise the population’s level of spirituality and morality; financial support by the government of measures to provide education for children in impoverished families; explanatory work based on religious enlightenment through the mass media, as well at open discussions of important topics on religious upbringing; further democratization of the republic’s political system; and development of the institutions of civil society.
The ways proposed to resolve the problems relating to Islamic extremism are recognized by all the analysts and political scientists engaged in this question. Ignoring their opinion will mean giving free reign to the process of Islamization unfolding in Kazakhstan. If an eye is not kept on this urgent problem and the necessary preventive measures are not taken to resolve it, a situation could arise which is detrimental to society’s security and stability of the state.
1 The statistical data are presented according to: Statistics: Kazakhstan 1999-2001, Republic of Kazakhstan Statistics Agency, Almaty, 2001.