Nov 3, 2016 | 09:36 GMT

4 mins read

Islam Under Fire in Kazakhstan

Islam Under Fire in Kazakhstan
(URIEL SINAI/Getty Images)

Over the past few months, Kazakhstan has taken steps to quash the practice of Salafism, an ultraconservative strain of Islam, within its borders. The government in Astana, already grappling with a weak economy, persistent protests, militant attacks and a looming presidential succession, fears that the religious sect will further destabilize the country by inciting violence. But if the Kazakh government is not careful, its crackdown on Islam may exacerbate the security problems facing it rather than solve them.

Confronted with an increasingly perilous security environment, Kazakhstan has tightened its restrictions on religious activity in recent months. In mid-September, the Kazakh Ministry of Culture and Sports began to summon home some 300 Kazakh nationals studying at religious institutions abroad. Though officials did not give an explicit reason for recalling the students, they noted that the Kazakh Muslim Board had sent 100 of the individuals in question to their schools. Then, on Oct. 14, the newly created Kazakh Ministry of Religious Issues and Civil Society announced its plan to ban Salafism, an austere interpretation of Sunnism that does not recognize Islam's other branches, including Shiism and Sufism. The ministry's chief explained the move by saying Salafism "poses a destructive threat to Kazakhstan." Five days later, the ministry (along with the Ministry of Education and Science and the Ministry of Justice) prohibited women from wearing headscarves in educational institutions.

One Interpretation of Many

The new regulations come on the heels of a series of attacks across Kazakhstan, all of which authorities have blamed — either directly or indirectly — on Salafists. On June 5, for instance, militants killed four people in Aktobe before attempting to storm a military base, leaving three soldiers dead. President Nursultan Nazarbayev described the incident as "a terrorist foray by a group of followers of the Salafi nontraditional religious sect" that had received instructions from abroad.

Later that month in central Kazakhstan's Karaganda region, officials detained six people thought to be radical Islamists; one of the suspects then blew himself up while in custody. National Security Committee Chairman Vladimir Zhumakanov described those arrested as adherents of Salafism. A few weeks later, a man attacked the district police and National Security Committee departments in Almaty, killing four police officers and two civilians. Nazarbayev labeled the attack an act of terrorism once again, and Zhumakanov suggested that the assailant had met several Salafists during a previous stint in prison.

If the official line is accurate, Salafism is becoming more prevalent in Kazakhstan and has inspired violence across the country. But it is unclear whether the link the government claims to have found between Salafists and the recent attacks truly exists. Beyond the statements made by the authorities, no evidence has been offered to prove that the perpetrators were religious extremists, and no groups have claimed responsibility for the assaults. In fact, even the number of Salafists in Kazakhstan remains murky: In June, a senior religious affairs official put the count at 15,000, but National Security Committee figures from 2013 estimate it to be just under 500.

These discrepancies call into question the validity of Astana's account of events. Moreover, the Kazakh government may have good reason to exaggerate the supposed Salafist threat, particularly if the real motive behind the attacks could jeopardize its hold on power. Deteriorating socio-economic conditions, sweeping crackdowns on the political opposition, and jockeying for influence in the looming succession process have led to unrest and instability throughout Kazakhstan, and the government can ill afford to admit that those problems may have instigated actual violence.

Making Matters Worse

That said, the possibility of a genuine Islamist extremist threat arising in Kazakhstan cannot be completely discounted either. Several hundred fighters from Central Asian states, including Kazakhstan, have joined the Syrian conflict and could endanger the country's security as they return home. Moreover, Kazakhstan's proximity to Afghanistan makes it vulnerable to flows of refugees and militants fleeing that country. Kazakhstan suffered several Islamist attacks in 2011, and the recent incidents may be following that same pattern.

Even so, a crackdown on Salafism (or Islamic practices more broadly) could do more harm than good. Other Central Asian countries that have targeted Islamic groups in the past have seen instability only increase as a result. (The most notable example is in Tajikistan, which has banned Salafism and outlawed the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan.) Kazakhstan may suffer similar consequences should it issue harsh restrictions on Salafist practices, upsetting the fragile stability it is so eager to protect. 

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