Publication: Prism Volume: 4 Issue: 7

Is Islamic Fundamentalism a Threat in Kazakhstan?

By Talgat Ismagambetov

The seizure of power by the Taliban in Afghanistan and the influence of Islamic parties in Tajikistan have attracted attention to the issue of Islamic fundamentalism. Is the fear of religious extremism well founded where Kazakhstan is concerned?

Like the majority of the Turkic peoples of the former Soviet Union, the Kazakhs are Sunni Muslims. As nomadic herders, however, they were relatively late converts to Islam, and the process of Islamization was interrupted by several centuries-long intervals that saw dramatic declines in Islamic influence.

The expansion of Islam occurred in three main waves: during the tenth and nineteenth centuries, and in the 1990s.

Transoxania (a translation of the Arabic Mavarannahr, denoting the area lying between the Syr-dar’ya and Amu-dar’ya Rivers) was Islamized by the Arabs in the eighth century. Islam did not reach the territory of today’s Kazakhstan until a century later. The first wave of Islamization, which encompassed only the southern part of what is now Kazakhstan, began in the ninth and early tenth centuries.

Until the tenth century, Zoroastrianism, Manichaeanism, Nestorian Christianity and Buddhism all coexisted in the region alongside traditional paganism — Tengrianism — remnants of which persist to this day. Islam was brought to the region by missionaries from the already Islamized Mavarannahr. Their success was to some extent due to political considerations: leaders of the nomadic tribes saw conversion to the new faith as a way of securing the support of Mavarannahr’s Muslim rulers and as an excuse to launch raids into neighboring regions under the banner of "fighting the infidel."

The Mongol conquest in the 1220s put an end to the first wave of Islamization.

The second wave, which followed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, was stimulated by predominantly political factors. Russia, which had begun to colonize the region in the late sixteenth century, originally encouraged the spread of Islam by protecting the Muslim clergy. Only later, in the mid-nineteenth century, did the Tsarist government try to curtail the expansion of Islam into the steppes. This rearguard action did not weaken the Kazakhs’ adherence to their faith. Strict controls over the building of new mosques and limits on the number of clergy proved unable to counteract the consolidation of Islamic belief.

Politics also played a role in ending the second wave of Islamization: religious practice was suppressed under Communist rule.

Kazakhstan’s third wave of Islamization began in the 1990s. The number of religious communities grew rapidly between 1990 and 1995. In 1989, there were 671 religious communities, belonging to twenty confessions and denominations, in Kazakhstan. By 1995, there were 1,180 registered religious communities belonging to almost thirty confessions and denominations. Muslim communities grew most rapidly. New mosques were built in virtually every city and town. Mosques closed down and confiscated during the Soviet years were returned and restored to their original purpose; and a number of buildings which were not originally intended for religious purposes were also turned over to religious communities.

The first edition of the Koran in the contemporary Kazakh script, which is based on the Cyrillic alphabet, was published in Almaty in 1992. An Islamic Institute was opened and began to train clergy. Increased interest in Islam in turn stimulated an interest in the study of Arabic literature.

Support came from several Islamic states, notably Turkey, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Egypt, for example, spent an estimated $10 million designing and building an Islamic Cultural Center in Almaty. President Nursultan Nazarbaev laid the cornerstone of this center in 1993. His words on that occasion reflected his desire to preserve the secular character of the state while fostering a single understanding of Islam in Kazakhstan: "I have seen and heard various interpretations of Islam in the enormous territory of Kazakhstan. The time has come to develop a unified, precise and coordinated body of knowledge," Nazarbaev said. (1)

Since 1995, the rate of growth of Muslim communities has dropped off in Kazakhstan. Islam has had to contend with the fact that almost half of the population of the republic hold views that can best be characterized as agnostic; that is, they are neither atheists nor do they profess any specific religion.

Logically, the next step of the third wave of Islamization would be the adoption of the norms, ideas and rites of Islam on a mass scale and, if Islamic values took root, the Islamization of political life. So far, however, Islamic fervor remains restricted to the south of the country and shows no sign of spreading to other regions of Kazakhstan.

In general, fervor among Kazakhstan’s Muslims is low. Muslims in Kazakhstan tend to have relatively little knowledge of the principles of Islam and show little interest in politics. However, the amorphous structure of Kazakhstan’s Muslim communities and the unpopularity of Mufti Ratbek-kazi, head of the Spiritual Board for the Muslims of Kazakhstan (DUMK), who is loyal to the present government, could encourage the emergence of competing centers of spiritual authority. (2) In this regard, the spread of the Hanbalite rite of Sunni Islam, with its strict observance of Shariah norms and its intolerance of unbelievers, deserves attention.

In a poll taken in Kazakhstan in 1996, no fewer than half of all ethnic Kazakhs questioned described themselves as believing Muslims. Fewer than four to five percent called themselves atheists; while the rest declined to specify a religious orientation.

A poll of university students in Shymkent, capital of South Kazakhstan Oblast, where ethnic Kazakhs make up a majority of the population and Islam has always been more firmly rooted than in other parts of Kazakhstan, found that students tended to be particularly religious: almost 80 percent described themselves as believers while only 11 percent did not. But this religiosity is still in the formative stage: only four percent of respondents said they went to a mosque once or twice a week; 18 percent attended mosques on religious holidays; 32 percent — once or twice a year; and 44 percent — no more than once a year. It is worth noting that many respondents described religion as a means of protecting themselves from the difficulties of life. Almost half of the students polled did not rule out the possibility that Kazakhstan might develop in an Islamic direction, and 11 percent said they considered religious fundamentalism an inevitable consequence of Kazakhstan’s geopolitical closeness to Muslim countries. (3)

The influence of Islam in Kazakhstan is determined by demographic factors, the need to fill the ideological vacuum left by the collapse of communism, and the peculiarities of clan, tribal, ethnic, religious and civic identification.

In pre-revolutionary times, clan, tribal and ethnic identities were of overriding significance, with religion also playing an important role. In the Soviet period, the state-sponsored concept of a politically-monolithic, multinational Soviet people was the dominant paradigm, and the influence of religious and tribal identities tended to decline. The collapse of Soviet ideology opened the way again for the expression of ethnic, religious, civic and tribal identities. The importance of civic consolidation, which would make religious and other forms of identification less significant, is understood by the government and all the leading political groups. In the absence of a pan-national Kazakhstani civic identity, however, the prospects for such consolidation are still unclear at present.

Kazakhstan today faces an important choice: will civic or religious identification assume the leading role in coming decades?

Demographers estimate that, by 2015, Kazakhstan’s population will number 18 million, up from 16 million in 1997. The proportion of ethnic Russians in the republic is expected to have fallen to 20 percent (from 38-39 percent in the early 1990s) while ethnic Kazakhs will make up over 60 percent of the population (at present, they constitute 51 percent). The rest of the population is likely to be made up of Uzbeks, Uighurs and other people of non-European, traditionally Muslim, descent.

So far, the ideological void left by the collapse of communism has been filled by a return to an undogmatic form of Islam. Prayers are gradually becoming a part of popular demonstrations demanding the payment of wage arrears. The reduction of the network of cultural institutions (museums, libraries, schools) which served for decades as the medium through which the population was introduced to knowledge and spiritual values, has left a gaping hole in ordinary people’s lives. In these circumstances, the general unpopularity of the official clergy and of official Islam could open the door to other spiritual influences.

At present, the only form of identity able to compete with religion is Kazakhstani civic identity. The main obstacle to the formation of such a civic identity is the lack of a common idea around which Kazakhstani citizens of all nationalities could rally. In these circumstances, the weakness of Kazakhstan’s political opposition and its failure to elaborate a strong alternative to the government’s positions could facilitate the development of a radical Islamic alternative as a means of political mobilization. So far, however, the politicization of Islam remains only a remote possibility in Kazakhstan.


1. Sovety Kazakhstana, June 17, 1993

2. The establishment of DUMK in January 1990, separate from the Central Asian Spiritual Board which had determined policy on Muslim affairs until then, was one of the most important causes of the increase of awareness of Islam in Kazakhstan

3. S. B. Aidosov, "Mirovozzrencheskie orientatsii studentov: otnoshenie k

religii," in Sayasat, No. 9, 1997, pp. 48-49

Translated by Mark Eckert

Talgat Ismagambetov is an independent political researcher in Almaty.


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