The government of the former Soviet nation of Kazakhstan seems to be fostering the fear of Islamist extremism to further restrict civil rights, including religious freedom, WEA-RLC has learnt. It appears that the Kazakh parliament, a rubber stamp for President Nursultan Abishuly Nazarbayev, is preparing to strengthen the government’s grip over religious groups and activities.
In Kazakhstan, the world’s largest landlocked country, all religious groups are required to register with the government. Under Administrative Code Articles 374-1 and 375, local authorities can penalize activities of unregistered organizations with fines or detention. And the Ministry of Justice can deny registration on the basis of an insufficient number of members or if its charter violates the law. In addition, the Law on Extremism empowers the government to designate a group as an extremist organization, ban its activities and penalize its members.
As if this was not sufficient, the Kazakh parliament in 2008 passed the “Law on Amendments and Additions to Several Legislative Acts on Questions of Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations,” increasing the harshness of penalties for unregistered religious activities. However, the constitutional court annulled the amendment.
It is this amendment that may be re-introduced, albeit with a change in the terminology perhaps, as the issue is found in the 2011 schedule of the parliament. And to apparently make the country’s environment conducive for further repression, Islamist extremism is being projected as a major threat.
Of the 16.4 million people in Kazakhstan, roughly 70 percent are Muslim, the vast mostly of which are Sunni Muslim from the Hanafi school of Islam. Around 26 percent of the population is Christian, mostly from the Russian Orthodox denomination. Many Protestant churches also exist and are registered with the government. But some have chosen not to. The latter include some Pentecostal and Baptist groups and they are seen with suspicion by the authorities as well sections of the population. For example, a Baptist pastor was fined 100 times the minimum monthly wage for holding religious worship in the Taraz city in March. Ahmadiyyas, Shi’as, Jehovah’s Witnesses and some Hindu groups also face oppression.
On August 16, Central Asia Online quoted a domestic policy official, Gulzhiyan Suleimenova, as saying that activities of untraditional religious movements were responsible for extremism and terrorism. The statement came following conviction of 12 people for terror activities by a court. While Muslim minority groups are the main target of the government, untraditional and unregistered groups in general will also get affected.
On August 12, an influential organization, the Union of Muslims of Kazakhstan, locally known as SMK, called for the creation of Muslim public order forces to counter extremism in the country. “Senior SMK members believe that the spread of Islamic extremism must be countered primarily by representatives of the Muslim community,” the Union said in a statement.
On June 17, Gazeta.kz quoted the chairman of Kazakh Agency for Religious Affairs, Kairat Lama Sharif, as saying that he would work on development of moderate Islam in Kazakhstan based on the principle of “one nation, one religion.” According to Forum 18, President Nazarbayev has also called for increased surveillance of religious communities.
Islamist extremism is believed to have grown in Central Asia, including in the countries neighboring Kazakhstan. One explanation why the Kazakh government is particularly concerned is that the country has large oil, gas, and mineral reserves and therefore more foreign investors. To alleviate concerns of the investors in the oil and natural gas industry, the government will need to deal with it harshly.
However, another reason could be that the 71-year-old president wants to exploit the issue, as there is no substantial evidence of large presence of a terror group. There seems to be some presence of the Hizb ut-Tahrir outfit, but its strength remains in question. Eric McGlinchey, a political science professor at George Mason University who studies Islamic movements in Central Asia, recently told The Diplomat that there were far fewer such movements in Kazakhstan than in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, and circumstantial evidence in a handful of incidents shouldn’t lead observers to believe there’s an Islamist terror threat emerging in Kazakhstan now.
There is also a reason to suspect that President Nazarbayev could be using the fear of extremism, even if it is real, as an excuse to turn down calls for reforms. He has been in office since the country’s independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Like any other authoritarian country, Kazakhstan has grossly violated freedom of the press, the independence of judiciary, the right to form associations and the right of the people to protest as well as prevented a culture of democracy from taking birth – all apparently to maintain the president’s hold on power. President Nazarbayev in 2007 oversaw passing of a law virtually granting his office an indefinite term, immunity from criminal prosecution, and say in domestic as well as foreign policy.
While curbing or preempting terrorism is a noble cause, the means are equally important. There are alternatives to deal with or block attempts, if any, of extremists to gain ground in Kazakhstan. For example, the United States and the West in general would be more than willing to help the country with its intelligence capabilities.
Kazakhstan needs to be reminded, yet again, that the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), whose chairmanship this country had in 2010, involves a commitment to ensure full respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms; to abide by the rule of law; to promote the principles of democracy by building, strengthening and protecting democratic institutions; and to promote tolerance throughout the OSCE region. On the contrary, Kazakhstan, though a secular state as per its constitution, is on the list of countries “closely monitored” by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, along with Bangladesh and Morocco.
The OSCE, the European Union, which has been a trade partner of Kazakhstan since 2002, and the United States, which has been a strategic partner since the 9/11 attacks, have at least some leverage over President Nazarbayev. They should prevent him from flouting international commitments any further.
Kazakhstan needs reforms and freedom, not more restrictions. This is what the international community needs to say, louder.
World Evangelical Alliance (WEA) Religious Liberty Commission (RLC) sponsors this WEA-RLC Research & Analysis Report to help individuals and groups pray for and act on religious liberty issues around the world. WEA has a consultative status with the UN Economic and Social Council.
This report was researched and written by Fernando Perez, and moderated by the WEA-RLC Executive Director, Godfrey Yogaraja. It can be used for distribution or publication with attribution to WEA-RLC.