Valentina Kurganskaia, Ph.D. (Philos.), assistant professor, Director, Center of Humanitarian Studies (Almaty, Kazakhstan)

Freedom of Religion in the Context of New Legislative Initiatives

The events of 11 September, 2001 added more political overtones to the problem of freedom of religion especially important in a poly-confessional society, Kazakhstan being one of them. According to international standards, freedom of religion is an inalienable human right. Man should be left free to interpret the key postulates of his religion without any interference from the state. Digressions from traditional interpretations of the religious canons should not be persecuted: anyone is free to think as one wants. Officials should not interfere in the process. Still, there are people, including prominent theologians (Saparaly Beibit-kazhi, Deputy Rector of the Institute of Islamic Studies being one of them), who believe that the international standards in the field of the freedom of conscience cannot be applied to our very specific country.

To preserve the confessional balance the secular state should abandon any support of any one religion; it should remain neutral to any religion even if it is not common to the given region. However, certain prominent theologians (for instance, the Chief Mufti of the Muslims of Kazakhstan, Chairman of the Spiritual Administration of the Muslims of Kazakhstan, A. Derbisaliev) believe that while respecting all confessions and denominations the state should support the traditional religions that affect the nations mentality to the greatest degree. Some members of the academic community agree with this: thus, political scientist E. Nazarbaev suggests that the principle widely accepted in Europe should be applied, as a law, in Kazakhstan. The religions should receive differentiated statuses depending on their contributions to national culture. This step, however, should not violate the principle of legal equality of all religions, confessions, and religious teachings.1 In fact, the state helps the traditional confessions and extends material support to them. At one of the meetings with the akims (heads of regions) President N. Nazarbaev pointed out that the regional budget had paid $1 million to restore a church in Atyrau.2 This caused negative responses from members of other confessions and bred mistrust toward official structures. The leader of the local Protestants V. Liashevskiy spoke of this on many occasions.

The state should not use religion to reach its own purely pragmatic aims. The slogan of the day Religion is the cornerstone of social consolidation, widely accepted by the religious leaders, is profoundly erroneous. As a global phenomenon religion is too great to serve political interests of the day. In fact, attempts of the official structures to use it for their own aims testify to their ideological weakness. On the other hand, the attempts of Islam and Russian Christian Orthodoxy to rely on the state mean that they want to apply force to triumph over their rivals. This is what G. Luparev, Doctor of Law, thinks about religious aspects of legislation.3

The state (which consists of various classes, groups, and individuals who follow different religions) cannot be a factor of spiritual unification of society. Religious consciousness cannot determine societys spiritual life: in a secular state spiritual values cannot be imposed by force. In a contemporary society (as distinct from archaic society) spiritual consolidation rests on legal awareness of its members. The content of faith cannot be generalized as an obligatory requirement and institutionalized as a state ideology, V. Dunaev, Ph. D. (Philos.), writes. And adds: It is the legal form of organization of social life based on the discursive consensus that is a practical proof of humanism.4 Sects have the right to exist and fulfill peoples spiritual requirements: no one can identify the only correct idea of the world among the multitude of different conceptionstherefore none of the confessions has the right to monopolize spiritual life. Freedom of religion means toleration and respect for individual choice. Sectarianism is nothing more than disagreement with the postulates of traditional religions.

The freedom to follow any religion does not mean that as a believer man is free to blame his religion for his wrongdoing. In the same way, a religious group cannot transgress laws, resort to violence or plot against the state system. The republics law enforcement bodies rely on laws when fighting those who violate them. At the same time, they should be aware of the religion-related laws to avoid mistakes. Earlier, the country had no legal provisions related to obligatory registration of the religious associations: their activity could only be banned by a court decision while their leaders were answerable only to the courts of justice. The draft Law on Amendments and Additions to Certain Legal Acts of the Republic of Kazakhstan Related to Religion, which appeared early in 2001, says in Art 4 that missionary activity can be carried out only when the organization has registered with an authorized state body. Such activity without registration is banned (the draft law stipulates punishment including imprisonment for 12 months). Art 9 says that a religious association can be set up by not less than 50 adult citizens. One is tempted to ask: How can a missionary attract 50 adults without agitation? Naturally enough, missionaries will disseminate their ideas secretly.

The draft contains many contradictions, some of them deserving special investigation. First, Art 7 (Part 4) of the amendments suggests that the foreign religious centers should coordinate the candidates for heads of their religious associations with the corresponding state structures. One asks: What criteria will the bureaucrats apply when agreeing or disagreeing with the religious centers? Shall they follow their personal likings and dislikings? Art 9 of the draft law says that to be registered the association should submit information on the fundamentals of its teaching and the related practices, including the past story of the religion and the association. From this it follows that if a religious association has no past, that is, it is just being formed, then no new religion can appear in Kazakhstan in principle as having no legal foundations. If any new religion does appear (because nobody can limit the scope of spiritual development), it will have to operate clandestinely. The same article says that Islamic organizations can be registered only if recommended by the Spiritual Administration of the Muslims of Kazakhstan (SAMK). Naturally, the SAMK will do its best to remove all possible rivals from the religious scene and monopolize the religious truths.

There are many more questions to the draft that go beyond the scope of the article. I shall say here that, while limiting freedom of religion, the draft cannot reach the aim it has posed itself: to protect the citizens from extremist religious trends. History has shown that bans increase peoples interest in banned subjects and attract more attention to them. I do not mean that extremism should be allowed and completely agree with those experts who say that freedom of conscience should not be confused with the Criminal Code.

In January 2002, the parliament conducted hearings on the amendments to the draft Law on Amendments and Additions to Some of the Legal Acts of the Republic of Kazakhstan on the Freedom of Religion and Religious Organizations. Those present at the hearings approved some of the amendments: candidates of heads of foreign religious centers should be approved by corresponding state structures of the Republic of Kazakhstan; a religious association can be set up on an initiative of not less than 50 adults, Islamic organizations can be registered on condition of their approval by the SAMK, etc. I should say that this will make it harder to identify socially dangerous sects: they will employ even more sophisticated methods.

Specific Features of the Societys Spiritual Life

The last decade has displayed certain new trends in the republics spiritual life: the number of the believers and religious associations increased dramatically, new denominations appeared, relations between the confessions became more complicated, the spheres and social functions of the traditional religious institutions became wider, people became more responsive to religions, the network of religious education is developing. Contradictions among religious leaders born by their personal ambitions, contradictions between clans, and voluntary isolation of the religious communities from the official clergy add problems to the already difficult situation. For example, certain researchers are convinced that the SAMK Chairman A. Derbisaliev intends to plant the classical variant of Islam typical of the Arab states that contradicts the local Kazakhstani version.5

Religious upsurge in the Central Asian republics can be easily detected in Kazakhstan, too. There are over 1,200 religious associations grouped around over 40 confessions and denominations that exist side by side with Islam and the Christian confessions. There is an opinion that there are about 6,000 religious communities functioning in the republic.

There is a conviction that the upsurge was created by aggressive anti-religious politics of Soviet power, growing unemployment and declining living standards of the majority, social stratification by incomes, absence of common ideology, arbitrary rule of corrupted bureaucrats who violate the citizens rights and freedoms. At the same time, the idea of Islamic unity and resurrection of confessional values and dogmas is one of the slogans of numerous opposition movements that have declared social justice as their political aim. In some of the Central Asian countries, in an absence of serious political secular opposition to the official authorities, the slogan of the Islamic purity is nearly the only possibility of opposition.

Shirin Akiner, a well-known expert in Islam, believes that opposition and digressions from traditional religions appear together with corruption and inefficient administration. Today, there are at least ten oppositional radical movements in Central Asia, many of them of local origin (Nur, Adolat Uiushmasi, Uzun Sokol, Islami Lashkarlari, and others).

Varied religious situation makes the spiritual life of the country much more complicated; it is fraught with numerous complications: population is ideologically divided, there are attempts at unifying the ideological context; those who support traditions and those who want changes are caught in a bitter struggle; fanaticism and extremism are gaining momentum. At the same time there is tolerance and the desire to cooperate.6

In 2000, the security services of Kyrgyzstan detained more than 200 emissaries of the Islamic Party of Allah. They were accused of anti-government propaganda. About 40 people were accused of stirring up ethnic strife.7 It was established that about 20 religious associations, supported by extremist organizations, were active in Uzbekistans part of the Ferghana Valley.8 Power structures regularly confiscate huge amounts of printed matter and videos calling to overthrow legitimate power in the Central Asian states,9 and a great number of extremist religious leaflets.10 According to the press, there is a wide network of extremist agents in the region that is acting secretly: it is built of cells, five to six people each, the members are known to each other by aliases.11

The radicals are actively disseminating their ideology among the population; in particular, those who live in the border areas of the South Kazakhstan Region frequently encountered extremist religious missionaries. According to the common people, the authorities were never in a hurry to cut short such extremist propaganda. Everybody knows that a Muslim community of Shimkent split under the influence of foreign missionaries while the local authorities were passively watching the process.12 Khafaja from Egypt and Obaidat from Jordan, both members of the Muslim Brothers, used lack of agreement in the spiritual administration to disseminate extremist ideas in the Kattani mosque. Their efforts were paid for by the Charity Fund of Qatar banned in Daghestan. The Shimkent court of justice found them guilty of stirring up ethnic and religious enmity. Later they were amnestied. These facts say that the authorities themselves have not yet found efficient instruments to oppose such missionaries who feel free on the Kazakhstani territory while the republics borders are too easy to cross.

There are researchers (Ali Hojja being one of them) who point out that the extremist missionaries employ all sorts of methods to spread their ideas and that their organizational activity can take on varied forms (tourism, religious education, business contacts, Islamic camps for children and young people, selection of the most gullible for training in the camps for Muslim terrorists).

There is one specific feature of religious activity today: ethnic and religious affiliations are closely connected with one another.13 Studies of the religious situation in the republic have shown that common people normally identify ethnic and religious affiliations.14 The religious leaders themselves are aware of this. V. Liashevskiy, who heads the Protestant associations, says that in Kazakhstan ethnic and religious affiliations are blended together to the extent that when an Uzbek or a Kazakh becomes a Christian this is regarded as a betrayal of ethnic culture and traditions. There were even suggestions to register religious affiliation in passports to prevent Kazakhs from turning away from their traditional religion.15 Heads of the traditional confessions (Islam and Christianity) agree that religion is ethnically determined. The Archbishop of Astana and Almaty Aleksii believes that a confession is a sort of a code or a gene, a certain tradition, and that the Divine principle frequently discloses itself within certain ethnic forms.16

This delimitation prevents followers of one faith from acquiring the correct ideas of other religions: the members of the Orthodox Church are convinced that Christianity exerts more benevolent influence on ethnic relations than Islam, while the Muslims believe that Islam is the most peaceful of all religions. According to one of the polled (he was an Azeri male, 45-year-old who actively contributed to the work of a national-cultural center), the ethnic and the confessional are linked together because people of the same ethnic affiliation normally belong to the same cultural tradition and understand each other well. There is certain truth in this. From this it follows that any religious complications will be immediately transferred to the ethnic sphere. Meanwhile, all people are born free: they cannot choose their ethnic affiliation but they can choose their religion.

Sociological Approach to Religious Radicalism

During the last decade the radical Islamic trends have been preaching pan-Islamism and the idea of a single Islamic state under a pretext of preserving the purity of Islam. Experts sitting at numerous conferences and round tables spent much time discussing the latent danger of such ideas.

In the West the analysts agree that Central Asia is in a critical situation. So far the trends are getting insignificant support and the threat of an armed uprising of radical Islamists is distant. At the same time, the social base of such ideas is widening. The local governments should change their religious policies, to attract more people, they should drop persecution of those who think differently and should apply correct yardsticks when determining the degree of radicalism of any of the religious movements.

In Kazakhstan the official leaders are openly concerned with the problem. On 22 August, 2000, when receiving the Silver Badge of Honor of the WCT, President Nazarbaev admitted that there was a threat of extremism in Kazakhstan.17 In the wake of the events of 11 September the government firmly supported the anti-Taliban coalition and its anti-terrorist operation. The authorities do not deny that there is a social basis for religious extremism in the republic. A member of the official structures of the South Kazakhstan Region (male Russian, 50, highly placed official from the power structures) admitted in a talk with a pollster of the Center of Humanitarian Studies that Wahhabi groups were acting under the guise of humanitarian Mideastern firms. Officials say that the muftiat is too passive, that there is no control over the madrasahs, that there is a steady flow of religious literature that bypasses control at the borders and is never seen by experts.18 The events in the city of Turkestan confirm the above: on the eve of celebrations of the 1500th Turkestan jubilee there were discovered leaflets that called on to set up a united Islamic state in Central Asia. Those who disseminated the leaflets were brought to court and sentenced to imprisonment, but leaflets continue to appear.

The military are convinced that religious extremists present a real and serious threat to Kazakhstan. They believe that the conflict should be resolved by political means,19 yet the armed forces should be prepared to act in case of unfavorable developments. Therefore, the military insist that the army should be promptly modernized and improved, that the troops should be trained to fight in the mountains, and that the border should be guarded along its entire stretch.

There is no agreement among theologians: talking to people from the Center of Humanitarian Studies, Rector of the Institute of Islamic Studies Murad-kazhi said that in Kazakhstan Wahhabism as one of the radical Islamic movements cannot strike root because the Kazakhs had never been religious fanatics. Ali Hojja, however, argues that Wahhabism has arrived in Kazakhstan and has stricken root there: It was for a long time that we could not grasp the meaning of the new threat and believed that the fears were mostly invented. Meanwhile, the youth in the extremist sects is taught intolerance and children are prepared to betray their parents.20

The analysts cannot agree among themselves either. Some believe that there is no threat of religious extremism in Kazakhstan, first, because the local people do not support radical slogans. They also say, second, that traditional Islam is not rooted among the Kazakhs either and that it is limited to rituals rather than being a philosophy. Third, Islamic extremism is considered to be social rather than religious protest; fourth, Islamic radicalism is a form of a political struggle waged by groups seeking power. Some of the experts are inclined to think that the government invented the threat of Islamic extremism to justify its struggle against opponents.

While the experts argue, the Wahhabis, at least some of them, openly say that Islamic states and Islamization of the entire population of Central Asia are their final aims. This was what we heard from one of the polled in Almaty (a Wahhabi from Morocco, 28, post-graduate student). They describe the advantages of the faith in Allah, insist that their interpretation of Islam is the only correct one and that in several years they will have numerous followers in Kazakhstan. In one of the villages in the South Kazakhstan Region the imam of the local mosque (an Uzbek, 65) admitted to a pollster from the Center of Humanitarian Studies that he was a reformist Wahhabi. He said that this trend sees its task in teaching the principles of Islam to people. When preaching in the mosque the imam points to such negative social phenomena as bribery, corruption, and unemployment and accuses the official clergy of inadequate knowledge of the Koran and betrayal of the Sharia. Another Wahhabi in Shimkent (a Kazakh, 45, unemployed) confirmed that there were attempts to involve the youth into the Wahhabi movement. He was convinced that in Central Asia the Wahhabis should make the entire population Muslims. He was very critical of the social and economic policy pursued by the president, the government and other authorities.

The sociological polls conducted in the southern regions in 1998 by the Brif agency and in 2000 by the Center of Humanitarian Studies gave an idea of what people think. In Almaty in the earlier poll 40.2 percent answered the question Do you consider yourself a believer? in the affirmative. In a later poll the figure was 76.7 percent. The figures for Shimkent were, correspondingly, 51.1 and 86.9 percent. Naturally enough, different people mean different things when talking about themselves as believers. Quite often those who observe folk traditions and customs are regarded as believers. At the same time, there is an obvious upsurge of an interest in religion.

In 2000 the Center of Humanitarian Studies asked people about their attitude to the threat of spreading religious extremism in the republic and to expert assessment of this threat. The majority of those living in the south, especially in Shimkent, think negatively of the Wahhabis.

The answers of those polled to the questions about the influence of Wahhabism in their cities (towns, villages) testify that Wahhabism has penetrated deep enough. The experts (academics and activists of public organizations) were also negative. The religious figures gave amazing answers: 52.6 percent of the polled were undecided how to treat Wahhabism; 5.3 percent, positive, and mere 26.3 percent condemned it as religious fanaticism. From this it follows that the opinion of the official Islamic leaders who condemn Wahhabism is not obligatory for the imams and other Islamic leaders; the Islamic clergy prefers to be cautious in relations with it.

Chart 1

Are Wahhabis Influential in Your City (Village)?

From this it follows that their influence is insignificant.

Experts cannot agree on this: there is an approximately equal number of academics and activists of public organizations who think that the influence is insignificant and those who deny this; at the same time, 26.3 percent of religious figures insist that Wahhabis have real influence; 47.4 percent say that it is insignificant and only 15.8 percent are convinced that the Wahhabis have no influence at all. We should treat what the clergy says seriously.

Chart 2 demonstrates what people say about the threat of religious fanaticism.

Chart 2

Is There a Threat of Religious Fanaticism in Kazakhstan? Public Opinion

In Almaty people are more skeptical about a possible threat, yet they believe that it is serious enough. People in the countryside are more concerned, and this is quite logical: about half of the respondents live in the areas bordering on Uzbekistan. They feel that religious extremism has approached their homes.

The experts agreed about a probability of religious fanaticism and extremism in the republic; the differences between the answers given by academic, secular and religious leaders were minimal. Chart 3 gives a complete picture.

Chart 3

Is There a Threat of Religious Fanaticism in Kazakhstan? Expert Opinion

The answers show that so far the respondents are not very much concerned with the threat. Many of them seem not to detect a difference between the traditional and radical Islam: the borderline is too fine and theoretical differences are, at first glance, negligible. Islamist literature that reaches the republic from abroad rarely calls for a fight against the infidels. Still, many of the publications, aware of the most sensitive points, use them. For example, the calendar printed by the Turtsia (Turkey) newspaper in 2000 distributed in Almaty said that jihad (in its three types: armed struggle, dissemination of religious knowledge, and prayers) was obligatory for all Muslims. Even the words that the armed jihad is a duty of a state cannot change the general trend. The authors do not conceal their hatred of the Armenians. They call Armenians involved in conflicts with Azerbaijanis during the years of Soviet power bandits who cooperated with the Soviet Army that spread fear and death everywhere. Such publications are found in many public places, including the central mosque of Almaty, and can be read by all.

In 2001 the Center of Humanitarian Studies continued its polls. It turned out that more than half of the polled experts (50.6 percent) and population (52.3 percent) say that the role of religion in public life was average. So far, only a quarter of the experts (25.3 percent) and 31.2 percent of the population agree that religious rules and traditions can potentially become efficient regulators of social life in places where they are living. At the same time, 49.8 percent of the experts and 47.0 percent of the population expect that these factors will later gain importance. Typically enough, the same share of experts (49.8 percent) points to Wahhabisms negative impact on ethnic relations; 6.8 percent ascribe this influence to Islam, 5.5 percent, to Christianity.


We should look at our opposition to religious extremism as a strategic priority and develop a long-term regional policy. Economic and social progress is the most efficient instrument of such opposition that can cut short the attempts to destabilize the situation in Central Asia. Political scientist D. Satpaev says: On the whole, it is not important for these people (population of Southern Kazakhstan. V.K.) with whom they have to deal: the Taliban, Hizb ut-Tahrir or the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. They want justice that the official authorities cannot give them and that, they hope, will be brought by the warriors of Islam.21 Social life should become more democratic, there should be reforms as promptly as possible, a wide group of property owners as a guarantor of stability should be formed. The country needs laws on local self-administration and on state administration, and a progressive Tax Code to meet the interests of the people.

In the short-term perspective the country needs a set of political, religious, administrative, legal and other no less urgent measures to stop religious extremism. Theologian Ali Hojja is quite right when he says that skillful counter-propaganda is the most important thing.

The academic community is facing an immense task of organizing regular monitoring of religious life in the country; an ethno-religious map of the republic is needed; the attitude of varied ethnic, professional, confessional, regional, socio-demographic and other population groups to religious and political extremism should be established. We also need a set of measures and practical recommendations on how to prevent and settle religious and ethnic conflicts; what is also needed is a system of criteria to assess religious ideologies from the point of view of international democratic legal norms and national security. We should conduct an independent assessment of all laws, decrees, decisions and other normative acts related to the functioning of religious communities and confessions, as well as comparative analysis of religious and political extremism in Kazakhstan and other Central Asian countries. An effective system of religious enlightenment is urgently needed: religions, history of religions, and religious art, Christian and Islamic philosophy and the traditional beliefs of the ethnic groups living in Kazakhstan should be studied at schools, grammar schools, lyceums, higher educational establishments, etc. Round tables, lectures, radio and TV programs can also help educate the nation. Here I have in mind not so much religious or anti-religious propaganda and a new form of atheismI am talking about the widest possible access to the knowledge of religious spiritual culture.

1 See: E.Zh. Nazarbaev, Osnovnye tendentsii razvitia mezhkonfessionalnykh otnoshenii v sovremennom Kazakhstane, Analitik, Analytical Review, No. 6, 2001, p. 37.

2 See: N. Nazarbaev, Nam ne khvataet nastupatelnosti pri reshenii kliuchevykh zadach, Kazakhstanskaia pravda, 14 April, 2001.

3 See: G. Luparev, Lgoty Bogu ne podmoga, Kazakhstanskaia pravda, 4 April, 2001.

4 V.Iu. Dunaev, Dukhovnye osnovy sotsialnoi integratsii i religii, Religiozniy ekstremizm: istoki, realnost i sotsialno-pravovye preventsii. Sbornik materialov nauchno-prakticheskoi konferentsii 26-27 aprelia 2001 goda. Part 1, RIO Akademii KNB Press, Almaty, 2001, p. 135.

5 See: A. Artemiev, E. Chakenov, O sushchnosti poniatii fundamentalizm, religiozniy ekstremizm i politicheskii islam: obshchee i osobennoe, Religiozniy ekstremizm: istoki, realnost i sotsialno-pravovye preventsii, p. 74.

6 See: A.I. Artemiev, Analiz tendentsii i perspektiv razvitia religiovedenia, Almaty, 1997.

7 See: D. Glumskov, Pravookhranitelnye organy Kyrgyzstana otmechaiut vozrosshuiu aktivnost ekstremistskikh religioznykh techenii na severe strany, Panorama, 2 January, 2001.

8 See: Ia. Razumov, Erlan Karin, API: Konflikt na tadzhiksko-uzbekskoi granitse privedet k usileniiu geostrategicheskikh pozitsii Rossii, Panorama, 11 August, 2000.

9 See: Jiabo Wang, Kto budet obespechivat bezopasnost v Tsentralnoi Azii? Kontinent, No. 10 (23), 17-30 May, 2000.

10 See: Ia. Razumov, op. cit.

11 See: Terroristy ili zhe bortsy za svobodu? (Obzor krupnoformatnykh gazet), Megapolis, 8 August, 2001.

12 See: Karavan, 5 May, 2000.

13 See: O. Abdykarimov, Stabilnost i bezopasnostosnova nashego budushchego, Kazakhstanskaia pravda, 15 January, 2000.

14 Ia.F. Trofimov, Religia v Kazakhstane, Almaty, 1996, p. 115.

15 See: Zhas Alash, 21 July, 2001.

16 See: E. Dotsuk, My eshche ne ochen verim v to, chto my verim, Izvestia, 13 April, 2001.

17 See: N. Drozd, Prezident vpervye nedvusmyslenno zaiavil, cho opasnost rasprostranenia ektremizma i terrorizma ugrozhaet i Kazakhstanu, Panorama, 25 August, 2000.

18 See: O. Khe, Religiozniy ekstremizm i terrorizm bespokoiat kazakhstanskuiu tamozhniu, Panorama, 14 July, 2000.

19 See: Ugrozhaiut li Kazakhstanu politicheskie religioznye ekstremisty ot islama? Interview V. Voevody s d-rom voennykh i politicheskikh nauk A. Bakaevym, Nachnem s ponedelnika, 1 September, 2000.

20 Ali Hojja, Rakovaia opukhol na tele islama, Novoe pokolenie, 15 October, 1999.

21 D. Satpaev, Metastazy miagkogo podbriushia, Vremia, 26 July, 2001.

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