Thursday, 12 April 2018 16:14

Religion and the Secular State in Kazakhstan

Kazakhstan Next-25-years


2018-04-Kazakhstan-SecularismSilk Road Paper
Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program
April 2018


Click Here for Full Text PDF


Executive Summary

At independence, Kazakhstan shared with the successor states to the Soviet Union the challenge of replacing Soviet atheism with new state approaches to religion. Like the rest of Central Asia and Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan adopted a secular form of government. This makes the region stand out in the Muslim world, and is a source of pride for regional governments. Secular government should be a point of agreement between the region’s states and Europe and the United States. But instead, it has become a source of controversy, as Western states and organizations frequently criticize state policies in the religious sphere.

The term “secularism” is a broad brush, which includes a wide variety of approaches, including the American, French and Turkish models. When Americans speak of secularism, however, they almost exclusively take the U.S. model as a reference point. This study instead uses a continuum defining five distinct models of interaction between the state and religion. On one end is “Fusion”, a merger of political and spiritual realms. The next step is “Dominant Religion”, in which religious minorities are tolerated, but the state endorses one particular religion. In the middle of the continuum is the “State Neutrality” model exemplified by the United States; it is followed by what we call the “Skeptical/Insulating” model, as in France, which seeks to regulate and control religious influence on the state and society. Finally, the last model is the “Hostile” model, to which Soviet atheism can be counted.

Kazakhstan shares many commonalities with its neighbors, but also important distinctions. It is considerably more diverse in ethnic and confessional terms. Also, Kazakhstan’s Muslims were largely nomadic, and historically embraced a form of Islam with stronger mystical and syncretistic aspects. Until independence, Kazakhs never had their own Islamic authorities: the Ulama was either in Kazan or in Tashkent.

Soviet rule had immense implications on religious life. But Soviet rule was not just the attempted destruction of religion: Soviet leaders also purposefully encouraged alien Salafi-inclined religious ideas as competition to traditional religious beliefs. When Kazakhstan experienced a revival of interest in religion at independence, the population could not just return to pre-Communist traditions. Instead, Kazakhstan’s Muslim and Christians were both exposed to an onslaught of novel, foreign religious influences competing for influence – something government officials viewed with increasing concern.

A myriad of Islamic movements from Turkey, the North Caucasus, the Persian Gulf and South Asia competed for influence. Christian missionaries from Europe, North America and South Korea joined the fray, and targeted both the Russian Orthodox community and urbanized ethnic Kazakhs for conversion. While some groups were benign, there were also Salafi-Jihadi groups seeking to establish themselves in the country. Yet unlike its neighbors, Kazakhstan did not experience a serious challenge from religious extremism at independence – but since 2005, extremist violence has been on the rise. Kazakhstan ‘s extremism problem is connected to influences from the North Caucasus, the Afghanistan-Pakistan area, and the Syria-Iraq war zone.

Twenty-five years after independence, survey research shows that religion has returned to a prominent place in society. But in international comparison, it is clear that Kazakhstan’s believers stand out by opposing political manifestations of religion. Kazakhstan’s Muslims show exceptionally low support for Sharia law, at 10 percent; even among those supporting Sharia, only four percent support the death penalty for apostasy, and only a third support corporal punishment. Half of Kazakhs believe different religions lead to heaven, and that a person can be moral without believing in God. These numbers are off the charts in comparison with the rest of the Muslim world, and are indicative of a society deeply steeped in coexistence between religious communities.

Kazakhstan’s model of secular governance did not adopt an American-style policy of neutrality toward religious communities. Instead, the government took upon itself to regulate religion, thus gravitating toward the Skeptical/Insulating model and drawing on the French and Turkish experience. Going one step further, however, the Kazakhstani model differentiates between traditional and non-traditional religious communities. Government policies explicitly endorse and promote the traditional communities, and seeks to allow them to restore their position in society, while being hostile to the spread of non-traditional religious influences. That means Kazakhstan also borrows elements of the “Dominant Religion” model, though with a twist: it does not privilege one particular religion, as most examples of this model do, but traditional religions at the expense of the foreign and novel interpretations.

Over time, Kazakhstan has adopted increasing restrictions in the religious field, and new measures were passed following terrorist incidents in 2011 and 2016. A 2011 law prohibited foreigners from registering religious organizations, required the registration of places of worship, and prohibited the holding of religious services in private homes – a practice common to more secretive religious groups. The law also forced religious communities to re-register with the state, and required a minimum number of adult members for registration at the local, provincial, and national. As a result, some smaller or less established groups failed to register. The law also restricted the dissemination of religious literature, requiring approval by the Agency for Religious Affairs.

Following terrorist incidents in 2016, the government created a Ministry for Religious Affairs to protect secularism and moderate religious traditions. In particular, it was created to focus on the development of the country’s youth. Also in 2016, a compulsory course in “Secularism and Foundations of Religious Studies” became mandatory for ninth grade students. In 2018, further amendments to the law restricted minors’ ability to attend religious services, and tightened restrictions on foreign religious education.

Kazakhstan’s chief religious institution is the Muftiate, which works to coordinate religious practice with the state and is charged with training Islamic clergy. While the clerical establishment rests firmly on Hanafi Sunni Islam, Kazakhstan developed cooperation with Egypt to train its clergy, and created the Nur-Mubarak university for this purpose. Meanwhile, the country’s most recent two muftis were both trained at Cairo’s Al-Azhar Islamic university.

This raises questions regarding the possible influence of the stricter Islamic interpretations that dominate at al-Azhar. In addition, its influence contributes to hostility to Sufi practices, which provides a dilemma for Kazakhstan’s government – which characterizes both Hanafi Islam and the Sufi-influenced “Folk Islam” as traditional, but does not appear to account for the possibility of a conflict between them. This matter will be one to watch over coming years, and may require attention by the Ministry of Religious Affairs. 

Meanwhile, Kazakhstan’s National Security Committee has taken the lead in fighting extremism. In particular, it monitors, infiltrates and prosecutes alleged extremists with considerable zeal. According to its own accounts, the organization has successfully intervened to prevent over 60 terrorist attacks in the country in the past five years. More controversially, it has also infiltrated and prosecuted groups engaged in nonviolent religious practices. These are typically prosecuted under a provision in Kazakhstan’s criminal code that prohibits propagandizing the superiority of one religion over another.

Events in the past decade led Kazakhstani authorities to conclude that they had underestimated the threat posed by extremist religious groups. Revisions to laws and policies have led to state intervention against individuals and communities that authorities deem extremist or non-traditional. This is one reason for the Western criticism directed against Kazakhstan.

However, another reason behind this criticism is a more philosophical disagreement: Western advocates support full religious freedom and state neutrality toward religion, accepting only intervention against groups engaging in or inciting violence. But Kazakhstan’s authorities operate on the basis of a fundamentally different principle: that it is the duty of the state to regulate religious affairs to ensure the revival of traditional religious communities, and to ensure stability and harmony in society.

Kazakhstan’s model is by no means perfect. If it was, the country’s leaders would not feel the need to make so many adjustments to it.  There is justified criticism that the state’s policies have erred on the side of excessive restrictions. Meanwhile, Western criticism of Kazakhstan’s policies also misses the mark, because it rejects the very premise of Kazakhstan’s policies – the Skeptical/Insulating model of a secular state. Because of this, much of Western criticism falls on deaf ears in Kazakhstan, and has little influence in the country. A more fruitful approach would be to accept the premises of the Kazakh model, and rather than take an antagonistic approach, work with Kazakh authorities to improve the country’s policies in the religious field. This could, over time, help Kazakhstan develop a model of relevance to Muslim-majority societies elsewhere.

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  • ASIA Spotlight with Prof. S. Frederick Starr on Unveiling Central Asia's Hidden Legacy
    Thursday, 28 December 2023 00:00

    On December 19th, 2023, at 7:30 PM IST, ASIA Spotlight Session has invited the renowned Prof. S Fredrick Starr, who elaborated on his acclaimed book, "The Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia's Golden Age from the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane." Moderated by Prof. Amogh Rai, Research Director at ASIA, the discussion unveiled the fascinating, yet lesser-known narrative of Central Asia's medieval enlightenment.

    The book sheds light on the remarkable minds from the Persianate and Turkic peoples, spanning from Kazakhstan to Xinjiang, China. "Lost Enlightenment" narrates how, between 800 and 1200, Central Asia pioneered global trade, economic development, urban sophistication, artistic refinement, and, most importantly, knowledge advancement across various fields. Explore the captivating journey that built a bridge to the modern world.

    To know watch the full conversation: #centralasia #goldenage #arabconquest #tamerlane #medievalenlightment #turkish #economicdevelopment #globaltrade

    Click here to watch on YouTube or scroll down to watch the full panel discussion.

  • Some Lessons for Putin from Ancient Rome
    Thursday, 04 January 2024 17:01
    By S. Frederick Starr 
    American Purpose
    January 4, 2024
    Vladimir Putin, having sidelined or destroyed all his domestic opponents, real or imagined, now surrounds himself with Romano-Byzantine pomp and grandeur. The theatrical civic festivals, processions of venerable prelates, cult of statues, embarrassing shows of piety, endless laying of wreaths, and choreographed entrances down halls lined with soldiers standing at attention—all trace directly back to czarism, to Byzantine Constantinople, and ultimately to imperial Rome. Indeed, Putin considers himself as Russia’s new “czar,” the Russified form of the Latin “Caesar.”
    But besides all the parallel heroics, Roman history offers profound lessons for today’s world. All of America’s Founders saw the Roman Republic as the best model for their own constitution. Napoleon, Mussolini, and Hitler, by contrast, found in imperial Rome a stunning model for their own grandeur. True, some of Rome’s ancient chroniclers, including the celebrated Livy, so admired specific politicians that they saw only their good sides and ignored the problems and failures. Yet there were others, notably the pessimistic Sallust, who not only wrote bluntly of history’s painful issues but delved deep into their causes and consequences.
    Is Putin likely to delve into the history of Rome for insights on his own situation? Unfortunately for Russia, Putin is not a reader, preferring instead to engage in exhibitionist athletic activities, preside at solemn ceremonies, or offer avuncular obiter dicta. However, if he would study the Roman past, he might come to realize that that model presents more than a few chilling prospects that he will ignore at his peril.
    To take but one example, a glance at Roman history would remind Putin that self-declared victories may not be as victorious as he and Kremlin publicists want to think. Back in the 3rd century B.C., when Rome was still a small state in central Italy, it was attacked by a certain King Pyrrhus, a rival ruler from Epirus, a region along today’s border between Greece and Albania. In his first battles Pyrrhus routed the Roman legions, and celebrated accordingly. But matters did not end there.
    Like Pyrrhus, Putin’s army scored some early victories in its war on Ukraine. As recently as December 1, Putin’s Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu was still claiming, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, that Russian forces “were advancing on all fronts.” Pyrrhus made similar false claims, only to discover that his own soldiers were no match for the determined Romans. As the Romans drove Pyrrhus’ army from the field, he groused, “If we win one more such victory against the Romans we will be utterly ruined,” which is exactly what happened. Pyrrhus’ statement gave Romans the term “Pyrrhic victory,” which we still use today. Putin should apply it to his “victories” at Bakhmut and Avdiivka.
    Another crisis in Rome’s early formation as a nation occurred when a peasant uprising threatened Rome itself and, according to the historian Livy, caused panic in the Roman capital. In desperation, the elders turned to Lucius Cincinnatus, who was neither a military man nor a professional politician, but who had earned respect as an effective leader. It took Cincinnatus only fifteen days to turn the tide, after which he returned to his farm. George Washington rightly admired Cincinnatus and consciously emulated him, returning after the Battle of Yorktown to Mount Vernon. By contrast, Putin’s “special military operation,” planned as a three-day romp, is now approaching the end of its second year. Putin, no Cincinnatus, doomed himself to being a lifer.
    Roman history is a millennium-long showcase of motivation or its absence. In this context, Putin might gain further insights by examining Rome’s centuries-long battle against the diverse tribes pressing the empire from the north. For centuries Rome’s legionnaires were well trained, disciplined, and committed. The list of their early victories is long. Both Julius Caesar and the philosopher-emperor-general Marcus Aurelius succeeded because they motivated and inspired their troops. But over time the Roman army was increasingly comprised of hirelings, déclassé men who fought not to save the empire but for money or a small piece of the bounty. Inflation and rising costs outpaced pay increases. Punishment was severe, in some cases including even crucifixion. In the end, Rome’s army eroded from within.
    This is what is happening to the Russian army today. Putin attacked Ukraine in February 2022 with what was then an army of several hundred thousand trained professional soldiers. But after the Ukrainians killed more than 320,000 Russian troops, their replacements were unwilling and surly conscripts and even criminals dragooned from Russia’s jails. Putin quite understandably fears such soldiers. Putin’s army, like that of the late Roman Empire, is collapsing from within.
    By contrast, Ukraine’s army at the time of the invasion was small and comprised mainly Soviet-trained holdovers. Both officers and troops of the line had to be quickly recruited from civilian professions and trained. Yet they quickly proved themselves to be disciplined and resourceful patriots, not tired time-servers. True, Ukraine is now conscripting troops, but these newcomers share their predecessors’ commitment to the nation and to their future lives in a free country.
    Sheer spite and a passion for avenging past failures figured prominently in Putin’s decisions to invade both Georgia and Ukraine. Roman history suggests that this isn’t smart. Back in 220 B.C., Rome defeated its great enemy, the North African state of Carthage. Anticipating Putin, the Carthaginian general Hannibal sought revenge. Acting out of spite, he assembled 700,000 foot soldiers, 78,000 mounted calvary, and a force of war elephants, and crossed the Alps. Though he was a brilliant general, Hannibal’s war of spite turned into a disaster.
    Why did Hannibal lose? Partly because of his sheer hubris and the spite that fed it, and also because the Romans avoided frontal battles and simply ground him down. They were prudently led by a general named Fabius Maximus, whom later Romans fondly remembered as “the Delayer.” Today it is the Ukrainians who are the Delayers. By grinding down Putin’s army and destroying its logistics they have positioned themselves for victory.
    The Roman Republic fell not because of any mass uprising but because of the machinations of Julius Caesar. A victorious general, Caesar looked the hero as he was installed as imperator. As was customary at such ceremonies, an official retainer placed behind the inductee solemnly repeated over and over the admonition to “Look behind you!” Caesar failed to do so and underestimated the opposition of a handful of officials and generals who feared the rise of a dictator perpetuus. Even if Putin chooses not to read Cicero, Plutarch, or Cassius Dio, he could productively spend an evening watching a Moscow production of Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Julius Caesar.
    Turning to a very different issue, Putin seems blithely to assume that whenever Russia defeats a neighboring country it can easily win the hearts and minds of the conquered, whether by persuasion or force. This is what many Roman generals and governors thought as well, but they were wrong—fatally so. Speaking of the impact of corrupt officials sent by Rome to the provinces, the great orator-politician Cicero declared to the Roman Senate, “You cannot imagine how deeply they hate us.” Does Putin understand this?
    Finally, it is no secret that Russia today, like ancient Rome, is increasingly a land of immigrants; its economy depends on impoverished newcomers from Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and elsewhere in Central Asia who fled to Russia in search of work. Yet Moscow treats them as third-class citizens and dragoons them as cannon fodder or “meat” to die by the thousands on the Ukrainian front. Rome faced a similar problem and wrestled with it unsuccessfully over several centuries. Over time the despised immigrants who poured across the Alps from Gaul demanded a voice in Roman affairs, and eventually took control of the western Roman Empire.
    Sad to say, neither Putin himself nor any others of Russia’s core group of leaders show the slightest interest in learning from relevant examples from Roman history or, for that matter, from any other useable past. Together they provide living proof of American philosopher George Santayana’s adage that, “Those who forget history are condemned to repeat it.” In Putin’s case, though, he seems never to have known it. 

    ABOUT THE AUTHORSS. Frederick Starr, is a distinguished fellow specializing in Central Asia and the Caucasus at the American Foreign Policy Council and founding chairman of the Central Asia Caucasus Institute.

    Additional Info
    • Author S. Frederick Starr
    • Publication Type Analysis
    • Published in/by American Purpose
    • Publishing date January 4, 2024
  • CACI Chairman S. Frederick Starr comments on "Preparing Now for a Post-Putin Russia"
    Friday, 03 November 2023 18:30

    Whether Russian President Vladimir Putin dies in office, is ousted in a palace coup, or relinquishes power for some unforeseen reason, the United States and its allies would face a radically different Russia with the Kremlin under new management. The geopolitical stakes mean that policymakers would be negligent not to plan for the consequences of a post-Putin Russia. On November 2, 2023, CACI Chairman S. Frederick Starr joined a panel organized by the Hudson Institute’s Center on Europe and Eurasia for a discussion on how US and allied policymakers can prepare for a Russia after Putin.

    Click here to watch on YouTube or scroll down to watch the full panel discussion.

  • Central Asia Diplomats Call for Closer Ties With US
    Monday, 26 June 2023 00:00

    REPRINTED with permission from Voice of America News
    By Navbahor Imamova

    WASHINGTON -- U.S.-based diplomats from Central Asia, a region long dominated by Russia and more recently China, say they are eager for more engagement with the United States.

    Many American foreign policy experts agree that a more robust relationship would be mutually beneficial, though U.S.-based nongovernmental organizations express deep concerns about human rights and authoritarian rule in the five countries: Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.

    Michael Delaney, a former U.S. trade official, argued in favor of greater engagement this week at a webinar organized by the American-Uzbekistan Chamber of Commerce.

    He noted that three of the five republics are World Trade Organization members and the other two are in the accession process — a goal actively encouraged by the U.S. government.

    "I've always believed that this is a geographically disadvantaged area. There are relatively small national economies," he said. But, he said, collectively the region represents a potentially more connected market, about 80 million people.

    Key issues

    In this virtual gathering, all five Central Asian ambassadors to Washington expressed eagerness to work on issues the U.S. has long pushed for, such as water and energy sustainability, security cooperation, environmental protection and climate, and connectivity.

    Kazakhstan's Ambassador Yerzhan Ashikbayev said that despite all factors, the United States does not want to leave the field to China, its global competitor, which actively invests in the region.

    "Recent visit by 20 companies to Kazakhstan as a part of certified U.S. trade mission, including technology giants like Apple, Microsoft, Google, but also other partners like Boeing, have shown a growing interest," Ashikbayev said.

    The Kazakh diplomat described a "synergy" of economies and diplomatic efforts. All Central Asian states are committed to dialogue, trade and multilateralism, he said. "As we are witnessing the return of the divisive bloc mentalities almost unseen for 30 years, it's in our best interest to prevent Central Asia from turning into another battleground of global powers."

    During his first tour of Central Asia earlier this year, Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, meeting separately with the foreign ministers of all five countries.

    That was deeply appreciated, said Meret Orazov, Turkmenistan's longtime ambassador, who also praised the regular bilateral consultations the U.S. holds with these countries.

    Uzbek Ambassador Furqat Sidiqov sees the U.S. as an important partner, with "long-standing friendship and cooperation which have only grown stronger over the years."

    "The U.S. has played a significant role in promoting dialogue and cooperation among the Central Asian nations through initiatives such as the C5+1," he said, referring to a diplomatic platform comprising Washington and the region's five governments.

    "This is where we address common concerns and enhance integration," said Sidiqov. "We encourage the U.S. to bolster this mechanism."

    Tashkent regards Afghanistan as key to Central Asia's development, potentially linking the landlocked region to the markets and seaports of South Asia. Sidiqov said his country counts on American assistance.

    'Possibility of positive change'

    Fred Starr, chairman of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute in Washington, ardently advocates for the U.S. to adopt closer political, economic and people-to-people ties with the region.

    In a recent paper, he wrote that among dozens of officials, diplomats, entrepreneurs, experts, journalists and civil society leaders interviewed in Central Asia, "even those most critical of American positions saw the possibility of positive change and … all acknowledged that the need for change is on both sides, theirs as well as ours."

    This is the only region that doesn't have its own organization, said Starr, arguing that the U.S. could support this effort. "We have not done so, probably because we think that this is somehow going to interfere with their relations with their other big neighbors, the north and east, but it's not going to. It's not against anyone."

    "Easy to do, low cost, very big outcome," he added, also underscoring that "there is a feeling the U.S. should be much more attentive to security."

    "Japan, the European Union, Russia, China, their top leaders have visited. … No U.S. president has ever set foot in Central Asia," he said. He added that regional officials are left to wonder, "Are we so insignificant that they can't take the time to visit?"

    Starr urges U.S. President Joe Biden to convene the C5+1 in New York during the 78th session of the U.N. General Assembly in September. "This would not be a big drain on the president's time, but it would be symbolically extremely important," he said. "All of them want this to happen."

    Read at VOA News

  • Read CACI Chairman S. Frederick Starr's recent interview on the resurgence of Imperial Russia with The American Purpose
    Tuesday, 23 May 2023 00:00

    Why Russians Support the War: Jeffrey Gedmin interviews S. Frederick Starr on the resurgence of Imperial Russia.

    The American Purpose, May 23, 2023

    Jeffrey Gedmin: Do we have a Putin problem or a Russia problem today?

    S. Frederick Starr: We have a Putin problem because we have a Russia problem. Bluntly, the mass of Russians are passive and easily manipulated—down to the moment they aren’t. Two decades ago they made a deal with Vladimir Putin, as they have done with many of his predecessors: You give us a basic income, prospects for a better future, and a country we can take pride in, and we will give you a free hand. This is the same formula for autocracy that prevailed in Soviet times, and, before that, under the czars. The difference is that this time Russia’s leader—Putin—and his entourage have adopted a bizarre and dangerous ideology, “Eurasianism,” that empowers them to expand Russian power at will over the entire former territory of the USSR and even beyond. It is a grand and awful vision that puffs up ruler and ruled alike.

    What do most Russians think of this deal? It leaves them bereft of the normal rights of citizenship but free from its day-to-day responsibilities. So instead of debating, voting, and demonstrating, Russians store up their frustrations and then release them in elemental, often destructive, and usually futile acts of rebellion. This “Russia problem” leaves the prospect of change in Russia today in the hands of alienated members of Putin’s immediate entourage, many of whom share his vision of Russia’s destiny and are anyway subject to Putin’s ample levers for control. Thus, our “Putin problem” arises from our “Russia problem.”

    Click to continue reading...