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.

Read 19797 times Last modified on Thursday, 12 April 2018 16:26





  • New Article Series on Changing Geopolitics of Central Asia and the Caucasus
    Wednesday, 24 November 2021 11:53


  • CACI Initiative on Religion and the Secular State in Central Asia and the Caucasus
    Sunday, 24 January 2021 13:53

    In 2016, the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program launched an initiative on documenting the interrelationship of religion and the secular state in the region. This initiative departed from the fact that little systematic reserch had been undertaken on the subject thus far. While there was and remains much commentary and criticism of religious policy in the region, there was no comprehensive analysis available on the interrelationship of religion and the state in any regional state, let alone the region as a whole. The result of this initiative has been the publication of six Silk Road Papers studying the matter in regional states, with more to come. In addition, work is ongoing on a volume putting the regional situation in the context of the Muslim world as a whole.


    Case Studies

    Each study below can be freely downloaded in PDF format.


    Azerbaijan's Formula: Secular Governance and Civil Nationhood
    By Svante E. Cornell, Halil Karaveli, and Boris Ajeganov
    November 2016   

    2018-04-Kazakhstan-SecularismReligion and the Secular State in Kazakhstan
    By Svante E. Cornell, S. Frederick Starr and Julian Tucker
    April 2018




    1806-UZ-coverReligion and the Secular State in Uzbekistan
    Svante E. Cornell and Jacob Zenn
    June 2018




    2006-Engvall-coverReligion and the Secular State in Kyrgyzstan
    Johan Engvall
    June 2020

     Event video online


    2006-Clement-coverReligion and the Secular State in Turkmenistan
    Victoria Clement
    June 2020

    Event video online




    Articles and Analyses

    Svante E. Cornell, "Religion and the State in Central Asia," in Ilan Berman, ed., Wars of Ideas: Theology, Interpretation and Power in the Muslim World, Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2021.

    Svante E. Cornell, "Central Asia: Where Did Islamic Radicalization Go?" in Religion, Conflict and Stability in the Former Soviet Union, eds. Katya Migacheva and Bryan Frederick, Arlington, VA: RAND Corporation, 2018.

  • Basic Principles for the Rehabilitation of Azerbaijan's Post-Conflict Territories
    Wednesday, 07 October 2020 09:01

    Rehab-coverIn 2010, the CACI-SRSP Joint Center cooperated with Eldar Ismailov and Nazim Muzaffarli of the Institute for Strategic Studies of the Caucasus to produce a study of the methodology and process for the rehabilitation of the occupied territories in Azerbaijan. The study was written in the hope that it would prove useful in the aftermath of a negotiated solution to the conflict.

    Such a resolution nevertheless did not materialize. At present, however, it appears that some of these territories are returning to Azerbaijani control as a result of the military conflict that began in late September, 2020. While it is regrettable that this did not come to pass as a result of negotiations, it is clear that the challenge of rehabilitating territories is as pressing today as it would be in the event of a peaceful resolution - if not more, given the likelihood that such a solution would have included a time-table and provided the Government of Azerbaijan and international institutions time for planning.

    It is clear that the study is a product of a different time, as much has changed since 2010. We fully expcect many updates and revisions to be needed should the recommendations in this study be implemented today. That said, we believe the methodoloy of the study and its conclusions remain relevant and would therefore like to call attention to this important study, published in English, Russian and Azerbaijani versions.

    Click to download:



  • Resources on the Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict
    Monday, 05 October 2020 08:19

    Resources on the Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict


    The Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program have a long track record of covering the Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict. This page presents the key resources and most recent analysis. 

    In 2017, Palgrave published the first book-length study of the International Politics of the Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict, edited by Svante Cornell. The book concluded by arguing that if international efforts to resolve the conflict are not stepped up, “the ‘four-day’ war of April 2016 will appear a minor skirmish compared to what is sure to follow”.

    In 2015, CACI & SRSP released the Silk Road Paper  “A Western Strategy for the South Caucasus”, which included a full page of recommendations for the U.S. and EU on the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict. These are reproduced below:


    Develop a substantial and prolonged Western initiative on the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict.

    o This initiative must be led by the United States, in close consultation with its European partners – primarily the EU Commission and External Action Service, and France. Barring some process to reinvigorate the Minsk Process – a doubtful proposition given Western-Russian relations in the foreseeable future – Western leaders must be prepared to bypass that process, utilizing it where appropriate but focusing their initiative on developing direct negotiations between the Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders.

    o The U.S. and its European partners must abandon the practice of relying solely on the Minsk Group co-chairs to resolve the Karabakh conflict. These diplomats have contributed greatly to formulating a workable framework agreement. However, strong and sustained U.S. Government leadership from the top level is needed to complement or, failing that, to replace the Minsk Process. In practice, this means the expressed support of the President, involvement of the White House, and leadership manifested in the appointment of a distinguished citizen as Special Envoy for the resolution of the conflict.

    o The EU must take a more clearly defined and substantial role in the process, by integrating to the highest degree possible the French co-chairmanship of the Minsk Group with EU institutions. While Washington will need to take the lead on the political side, it would be natural for the EU to take the lead in organizing an international development program for the currently occupied Azerbaijani provinces and Karabakh itself. That effort, too, would need to be led by a senior EU figure.


    In 2011, CACI & SRSP helped launch an extensive study of the steps needed for the post-conflict rehabilitation of Azerbaijan's occupied territories, in cooperation with Eldar Ismailov and Nazim Muzaffarli of the Institute for Strategic Studies of the Caucasus. The monograph "Basic Principles for the Rehabilitation of Azerbaijan's Post-Conflict Territories" can be accessed here


    More background resources:

    Svante E. Cornell, "Can America Stop a Wider War Between Armenia and Azerbaijan?", The National Interest, October 2020

    Brenda Shaffer and Svante E. Cornell, Occupied Elsewhere: Selective Policies on Occupation, Foundation For Defense of Democracies, January 2020. 

    Brenda Shaffer and Svante E. Cornell, "The U.S. Needs to Declare War on Proxies", Foreign Policy, January 27, 2020

    Svante E. Cornell, “The Raucous Caucasus”, American Interest, May 2017

    Svante E. Cornell, Small Nations and Great Powers: A Study of Ethnopolitical Conflict in the Caucasus, RoutledgeCurzon, 2001.

    Svante E. Cornell, The Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict, Uppsala University, 1999

    More recent analysis:

    Turkey Seeks to Counter Russia in the Black Sea-Caucasus Region,” Turkey Analyst, 10/5/20, Emil Avdaliani

    Turkey’s Commitment to Azerbaijan’s Defense Shows the Limits of Ankara’s Tilt to Moscow,” Turkey Analyst, 9/25/20, Turan Suleymanov & Bahruz Babayev

     “Cross-Border Escalation between Armenia and Azerbaijan,” Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 9/25/20, Natalia Konarzewska

    Russia and Turkey: Behind the Armenia-Azerbaijan Clashes?”, Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 8/31/20, Avinoam Idan

    Armenia and the U.S.: Time for New Thinking?”, Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 10/2/19, Eduard Abrahamyan.

    Why Washington Must Re-Engage the CaucasusCentral Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 7/8/19, Stephen Blank

    Azerbaijan’s Defense Industry Reform”, Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 5/7/19, Tamerlan Vahabov.

    Military Procurements on Armenia's and Azerbaijan's Defense Agendas”, Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 3/27/19, Ilgar Gurbanov

    Armenia's New Government Struggles with Domestic and External Opposition,” Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 3/20/19, Armen Grigorian.

    Bolton's Caucasian Tour and Russia's Reaction”, Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 12/17/18, Eduard Abrahamyan.