Unlike its neighbours the Republic of Kazakhstan has long been considered to be politically stable. Violence in the North Caucus, as well as the Central Asian states of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, has not spilled over into Kazakhstani territory. However, the inter-ethnic linkages that unite the region have contributed to the growing concern of the rise of religious fundamentalism.
As a whole, the Central Asian states are not constitutionally Islamic even though the majority of the population considering themselves nominally Muslim. Kazakhstan, in particular, has always has a clear differentiation between the state and religion.
Turkmenistan’s borders with Afghanistan and Iran, as well as the proximity to the North Caucus, have been a source of anxiety. Government officials frequently expressed their fears regarding the potential spread of extremism in the south of the country, characterising the fight against this “religious extremism” as a top priority of the internal intelligence service.
A recent report, Central Asia 2020: View From Inside, has suggested that an Islamic Caliphate may emerge in Central Asia. According to the experts, growing ranks of supporters of Islamic fundamentalism in the region can lead to formation of a political organization that will be in opposition to the ruling powers, with Islamists coming to power through mass protest and revolutions. The medium to long term probability of such an occurrence is at a whopping 30%.
To tackle such a threat parliament has attempted to curb religious freedoms. In late 2011 a controversial religious law was signed by the president, inadvertently contributing to the first terrorist attacks in the nation’s history. The Salafist-inspired Jund al-Khalifah (Army of the Calipahte) claimed responsibility for the violence, which has largely been ignored by the mainstream media outlets. There is a similarity of the methods and tactics of the Jund al-Khalifah in Kazakhstan to those used by Islamist militants in Dagestan, who target the police force and government structures. Since then, a handful of other cells in Kazakhstan, as well as the neighbouring regions, have taken the reigns elevating the rising extremist threat.
The controversial legislation has been speedily pushed along putting a ban on prayer in state organisations – everything from the presidential office to universities and military barracks. The government has previously attempted to install legislative religious restriction, but the new restrictions are certainly the most austere.
It has been a year since the adoption of the legislation. Within this year religious denominations and faith-based civic association were faced with the daunting task of having to re-register under stringent new criteria or face being “liquidated by the courts” (a proposal that has previously been rejected on constitutional grounds). In a stark contrast to Nazarbayev’s previous assertions that Kazakhstan is a haven for religious toleration the number of officially recognised faiths has been slashed by 60% leaving the minority groups squeezed out. The “non-traditional” faiths, the smaller denomination of Christianity, Ahmadi Muslims and Hare Krishans amongst others, are feeling the pressure as churches and independent mosques are being targeted in raids.
Officials maintain that these measures are necessary to tackle radicalisation, yet they serve as a reminder of the increasing governmental controls over society (not to mention the severe infringement on personal freedoms).
I have always been under the impression that radicals like to maintain a certain level of privacy when it comes to their dealings, which is why I fail to see how the registration process will deter these groups. If anything, it will force them even further underground making it more difficult to uncover potential threats and amplifying the risk to national security. The systematic persecution on the grounds of religion can prove to be counterproductive insofar as it will entrench distrust in the government, embed tensions that already exist in the multi-ethnic society, and impede on what is, above all, a personal choice of faith. As history has proven the state cannot engineer or design a religious environment, nor should it.