Speaking at a joint session of parliament on September 1, Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbaev recognized the looming threat of terrorism for his country. He expressed a serious concern over the security situation and the spread of religious extremism in the country, noting that last year authorities in South Kazakhstan seized about 1,000 leaflets from the extremist Hizb-ut-Tahrir religious organization; this year that number has risen to 11,000 (Kazakh Television, September 1).
In earlier public speeches, President Nazarbaev had limited his remarks on terrorism to a few passing comments referring to troubles in the Middle East, Caucasus, Tajikistan, or attacks by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. But rather than raising alarm, such references emphasized that, within the Commonwealth of Independent States, only Kazakhstan was safe from ethnic conflict. Nazarbaev’s latest comments, however brief, suggests that the August airplane crashes in Russia, terrorist attacks in Tashkent, and Uzbek allegation that Kazakh nationals were involved in the bomb attacks in Bukhara and Tashkent have awakened the leadership to the imminent danger of terrorism. “It is quite realistic to expect the influence of extremist organizations to rise in our country,” Nazarbaev declared, “as Kazakhstan’s openness attracts all active international players, especially when terrorist acts are happening a few dozen kilometers from the Kazakh border” (Kazakh Television, September 1). He dropped the usual complacent tone of his speeches and remarked that parliament seemed in no hurry to adopt a law to curb religious extremism in the face of mounting terrorism. He also noted that unlike other countries, law-enforcement bodies in Kazakhstan had no lists of terrorist and religious extremist organizations.
Some of Nazarbaev’s comments were indirectly addressed to an international audience. Citing the reasons for the rise of global terrorism, he pointed to the growing regional imbalance in global development. He also warned that religious extremists like Hizb-ut-Tahrir were attempting to turn Kazakhstan into a testing ground in their efforts to create a caliphate in Central Asia. The president also expressed concern over the growing number of foreign missionaries and religious sects in the country, which threaten the traditional spiritual values of Kazakhs. In general, the president’s address reflected the prevailing public attitude. Over the last few months, Kazakh-language newspapers, alarmed at the increasing number of converts to “non-traditional religions,” launched a campaign against evangelical sects and Hare Krishnas and demanded that these groups be banned to prevent an impending split in Kazakh society on religious grounds.
In a recent article, Ongar Omirbek, press secretary of the Religious Board of Muslims of Kazakhstan, wrote that foreign missionaries were abusing Article 19 of the 1992 law “On Freedom of Faith and Religious Associations,” which states that every individual has the right to determine his or her religious faith. Omirbek believes that Hindu and Christian teachings are swaying young Kazakhs, because their missionaries have enormous financial means to attract new followers. He says that the Muslims of Kazakhstan make no attempt to convert others to Islam and simply follow the teachings of the Koran, which says, “You have your own religion and I have mine” (Turkestan, August 19). Other analysts note that the declared aim of Hizb-ut-Tahrir, namely creating a caliphate in Central Asia, is impracticable, although the organization is capable of destabilizing the region. Last year Hizb-ut-Tahrir members staged unauthorized protest rallies in mosques in Shymkent and Arys, South Kazakhstan, demanding the release of their followers jailed in Uzbekistan. At least one analyst has concluded that, in the context of globalization and openness, the mushrooming Western religious sects pose as great a threat to stability in Kazakhstan as Hizb-ut-Tahrir (Aikyn, August 4).
President Nazarbaev’s reference to the growing threat from extremist organizations may be accepted by parliament as a signal to revise the 1992 law on freedom of religion. In this speech and in earlier public appearances, the president highly praised the Assembly of Peoples of Kazakhstan as important factor of ethnic unity. But it is hard to expect that this consultative body would be an effective tool in the event of terrorist acts or religious extremism. The capability of Kazakhstan’s inexperienced armed forces to respond adequately to terrorist attacks is often questioned as well. It appears that Kazakhstan, a melting pot of hundreds of religious sects, has no alternative but to revise its law on religion.