Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 177

On September 18, Kazakhstan’s General Prosecutor’s Office, Internal Affairs Ministry and State Security Committee collectively announced a joint decision to investigate Islamic religious groups in the south of the country. The operation concentrates on the three regions of Kyzyl-Orda, South Kazakhstan and Zhambyl. The Muslim faith is more deeply rooted in the south than in other parts of the country.

Official briefers suggest that the operation aims to: (1) determine whether or not religious associations’ activities are in conformance with the law; (2) uncover sources of external financing of those associations; (3) curb missionary activities; (4) stop the dissemination of “sectarian literature;” and (5) halt the “illegal, ubiquitous” construction of mosques. Four “illegally built mosques” were, earlier this year, discovered by the authorities in Taraz–the Zhambyl Region’s administrative center–alone.

According to the authorities, more than half of the total number of religious associations in this part of Kazakhstan are not legally registered. Those lacking such registration may be ordered to disband. On September 21, Prosecutor-General Yurii Khitrin criticized the three regions’ authorities for failing to stop the “spontaneous (stikhiinyi) spread of religion” and the proliferation of unauthorized religious associations and mosques.

The three agencies, moreover, express concern at the “growing interest displayed by emissaries of foreign organizations” toward Muslims in Kazakhstan. Such purportedly include Islamic universities in countries of the Middle East, Arabic language study centers, religious-philanthropic associations, Wahhabi missions and groups propagandizing for the creation of a “true Islamic state” in Kazakhstan. In announcing the start of the surveillance operation, the spokesmen seemed to lump those organizations together as actual or potential threats to state security.

In a related measure, the Education Ministry in Astana has announced a decision to check on Kazakh students enrolled in religious universities in the Middle East and to cut the number of Kazakhs allowed to accept scholarships from those universities. The current number of students is said to be in excess of 200. In the West. Kazakhstan Region, authorities announced not without a touch of paranoia that “Islamist literature of an extremist character” had been discovered in the Uralsk ordinary-regime penal colony [labor camp for common-law convicts].

The investigative operation in southern Kazakhstan proceeds against the backdrop of Islamist guerrilla operations in the neighboring countries. The regions of Kyzyl-Orda and Zhambyl are adjacent to Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, respectively, while the South Kazakhstan Region is sandwiched between those two countries. The insurgency has, however, petered out by now in both Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, and it never threatened any part of Kazakhstan. On September 19, Kazakhstan’s Internal Affairs Minister Kairbek Suleymenov ruled out the possibility of Islamist militants penetrating southern Kazakhstan from either Uzbekistan or Kyrgyzstan. He described the situation in the two neighboring countries as “gradually reverting to normal,” and the situation in the three southern Regions of Kazakhstan as fully under control.

All this suggests that the security agencies might be taking advantage of the Islamist attack on the neighboring countries as a rationale for curbing the activities of independent religious groups at home. Lumping the above-ground, mainstream groups with potentially subversive ones and treating religion as a police problem carries the risk of boomeranging against the authorities (Habar, Kazakh Commercial Television, Itar-Tass, September 15, 18-19, 21).