Muslim Kazakhstan

by Joshua Foust on 5/17/2011 · 8 comments

A suicide bomber blew himself up (himself? because women are never suicide bombers?) at the Aktobe headquarters of the National Security Committee, Kazakhstan’s domestic security police. That’s upsetting as it is, but in the piece describing the bare outlines of what happened, Reuters adds a completely unnecessary paragraph:

Oil-rich, mainly Muslim Kazakhstan, Central Asia’s largest economy, has to date avoided outbreaks of violence that have occurred in ex-Soviet neighbors Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

I get the need to add context about which country one is writing about, espeically in a wire where there is an assumption that normal people reading it might need some background information. But if an editor feels a need to do that, she should at least adhere to some basic level of honesty. Kazakhstan is indeed oil-rich, and most people in it are Muslim, but describing it in that way is drawing a direct comparison to Saudi Arabia. When I worked in Kazakhstan as an teacher, one of my Muslim students explained to me that she didn’t eat pork—not because it was unIslamic, but because she just didn’t care for the taste.

Kazakhstan’s status as a Muslim country has nothing to do with its oil wealth or the relative size of its economy (the latter has far more to do with Uzbekistan’s deliberately-imposed economic dysfunction than anything else). Similarly, to pretend Kazakhstan has experience no ethnic or political violence is to deceive—there have been riots targeting ethnic minorities in Almaty, and there has been a campaign of intimidation against political dissidents.

Things in Kazakhstan are definitely not as bad as in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, or Kyrgyzstan. In fact, it is an alright place to live, and probably the best place to live in the region. But Reuters’ attempt to add “context” actually misleads readers about the country, its recent experiences, and its probably future. Just that one paragraph—a single sentence, really—undoes an otherwise perfectly fine story.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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zaji May 17, 2011 at 11:27 am

Josh, I generally like your work but I don’t really see the point of this post. The Reuters paragraph in question was certainly brief but not dishonest.

1) As you acknowledge, Kazakhstan has a majority of confessed Muslims (and in what way does the Muslim-ness -or even Salafi-ness- of Saudi Arabia have anything to do with the size of the Saudi economy?).

2) The level of violence in Kazakhstan, while not zero (and where in the world would it be?) is not comparable to Tajikistan’s civil war, the ethnic riots in southern Kyrgyzstan or Andijan.

Joshua Foust May 17, 2011 at 11:29 am


I see what you’re saying, but what does the “Muslimness” of Kazakhstan have to do with anything? There was no need to put that in the story.

Similarly, the Reuters piece was not referencing Tajikistan’s civil war of 15 years ago but the last two years of violence in Tavildara. The comparison was just dishonest.

Sarah May 17, 2011 at 9:53 pm

I agree with zaji on this one. You are forgetting that the goal of any reporter covering Kazakhstan is to convince his readership that Borat is not real. Basic background like this is needed.

Nathan Hamm May 18, 2011 at 7:24 am

I got cash on the barrelhead saying that’s not why that line was in the original Reuters story. Over the past decade or so that I’ve been paying close attention, Reuters has routinely published on its wires “facts about [insert country here]” pieces that provide filler “context” for what might otherwise be a two sentence report. They used to have a list of five to ten for Uzbekistan that weren’t untrue, but were misleading and often had nothing to do with the story being reported.

Background and context are needed, but I, and Josh too, I’m sure, are very sensitive to how “basic facts” endlessly repeated in our media create distorted, over-essentialized stereotypes of distant lands. Josh has a fair point; the editor may not intend to draw comparison to Saudi Arabia, but many, if not most, Western readers are likely to think “Oh, like Saudi Arabia,” when they hear “oil rich, Muslim country.”

Joshua Foust May 18, 2011 at 8:10 am

To follow up on Nathan’s point: given the revelations now that the suicide bomber had a relationship with organized crime, rather than Islamic terrorism, I’m left scratching my head more than ever about why Reuters went with the “Muslim country” tag.

Oh yeah, I forgot, all oil-rich Muslim countries should have suicide bombers. Right?

Narcogen May 17, 2011 at 11:27 pm

I honestly don’t see much of a problem with the Reuters story. When covering topics and countries that a reporter assumes a general audience is not intimately familiar with, a little background is relevant: location, recent history, neihgbors. Like it or not, religious affiliations, whether formal or informal, are going to be viewed as relevant, especially when relatively recent, significant attacks have been made by self-professed members of that faith who claim to be motivated by their faith– even if the majority of believers disavow their methods if not their principles.

I suppose if Reuters added a single line to its reports about the United States, to the effect that it is “predominantly Christian” and a reference to the Crusades, that might take away any appearance of singling out Muslim countries in stories about events like these– although I suspect most newspapers would just edit that line for space anyway.

Nathan Hamm May 18, 2011 at 7:34 am

Google “key facts about Kazakhstan.” Reuters has a big list of filler from which to choose already drafted up. Is “muslim” the most relevant item of background to include?

Joshua Foust May 18, 2011 at 8:19 am

Guys, in 2009 a Kazakh was found in Chechnya. So, clearly, Reuters wasn’t wrong to imply that the suicide bombing, even though it was all about organized crime, was really about Islamic terrorism.

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