Another Futile Attempt at Control in Kazakhstan

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Project Director, Nations in Transit

On October 25, the year-long process of reregistration of religious groups in Kazakhstan came to an end. In the fall of 2011, after a number of startling terrorist attacks rocked Kazakhstan’s carefully cultivated image of stability, the government passed a new law requiring all religious organizations in the country to submit new applications for official registration. Without registration, the activities of the groups would be illegal. Both “traditional” religions, like Russian Orthodoxy and Sunni Islam, and “minority” religions underwent the procedure, which included complex and ambiguous new membership requirements and “expert” vetting of religious texts. Under the new rules, the number of religious organizations in the country has dropped by over 30 percent, from 4,551 to 3,088. The number of confessions with at least one registered organization dropped even more dramatically, from 42 to 17.

An examination of this new religious landscape reveals two major outcomes of the reregistration process. First, it appears to have disproportionately affected so-called minority religious groups. These are groups with relatively small numbers of followers that have gained adherents since the fall of the Soviet Union. According to current Freedom House information, Hare Krishnas did not secure registration in Almaty, where they have the most followers, but they were registered in some regions. Meanwhile, all branches of the Ahmadiyya movement, an offshoot of Islam, have been denied registration. And Scientology is facing a ban throughout the country, as officials say that its texts have not passed expert review. Based on back-of-the-envelope calculations, it seems that roughly 81 percent of the newly registered organizations belong to the Orthodox Church or Kazakhstan’s official Muslim spiritual body.

The second main outcome of the process is its impact on adherents of Kazakhstan’s “traditional” religions, especially Islam. As the chairman of the Religious Affairs Agency, Kairat Lama Sharif, said in announcing the new registration statistics, “a single, monolithic Islamic organization has practically been formed in Kazakhstan,” based on the Hanafi school of Sunni Islam. This has been accomplished by reregistering nearly all mosques across the country under the Spiritual Board of the Muslims of Kazakhstan, a semigovernmental agency that is a holdover from the Soviet period, and before that, the Russian Empire. The board, known by the Russian initials DUMK, appoints imams and determines what kind of religious instruction is acceptable in mosques.

The danger of this “single, monolithic Islam” is that—as in so many aspects of public life in Kazakhstan—there is no room for those who disagree. In conversations with observant Muslims in mosques in Kazakhstan’s western provinces in early 2012, I encountered many who did not trust the imams appointed by DUMK, or who disagreed with them about the proper way to perform Islamic prayers or to remain obedient to Islamic requirements. Many of these devout Muslims, who are influenced by proselytizing movements from other parts of Central and South Asia and from the Caucasus, will not cease observing their religion as they understand it. But they will do so outside of the government-controlled mosques, meeting with tightly knit communities in private homes or “underground” mosques. By criminalizing such activity, the state’s efforts to control religious practice will only deepen public alienation from the government and further shrink the space for peaceful dialogue about legitimate differences of opinion and belief in Kazakhstan.

What the authorities in Kazakhstan repeatedly fail to understand is that the control they seek over what people believe and think is unattainable. Even the Soviet Union, with its greater ideological commitment and resources, could not prevent new intellectual and religious movements from entering the country. In today’s Kazakhstan, where hundreds of thousands of people cross the border every year and information from the outside world is readily available on the internet, the attempt is even more futile. To be truly strong and stable, a state must enable institutions that respond dynamically to the aspirations and grievances of its populace. With its new registration of religious organizations, Kazakhstan’s government risks weakening itself in a hopeless bid to suppress them.

*Correction: A previous version of this post stated that Mormons have not received registration in Almaty. According to the Mormon Church, this is incorrect and the group has received registration in Almaty.

Analyses and recommendations offered by the authors do not necessarily reflect those of Freedom House.

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