Patronage Networks and Reformist Islam in Kazakhstan

by Wendell Schwab on 1/30/2012 · 3 comments

One of the more amusing news stories to come out of Kazakhstan last week detailed the insertion of a Kazakhstani senator’s visage into a painting of the apostles greeting Jesus in a Russian Orthodox church.  While this could be viewed as a human-interest story to be placed in the same section as a waterskiing squirrel, it also reveals a basic truth about religion in Kazakhstan: patronage often drives the creation and maintenance of religious buildings, art, and literature.

This type of patronage is reviled by many Kazakhs, who share an idealized view of religion as separate from everyday life and politics.  This is one reason why many Kazakhs are often quick to condemn Muslim saints’ shrines that ask for donations from pilgrims as “businesses” and shrine caretakers as “charlatans” who are not “real Muslims.”  This notion mixes with an understanding of a paternalistic state, which should provide services, including religious buildings and texts, to citizens. (For this idea of a paternalistic state in action, see the reaction to the Zhangaozen events by the Kazakhstani government.)  Thus, to use an example I will return to shortly, if a shrine needs a new roof, the Ministry of Culture, which is in charge of shrines designated as architectural monuments, should provide the funds for a new roof.  Or, alternatively, if Kazakhs need more Islamic texts, the government-sponsored Muftiate should provide them.

However, it is rarely this simple.  In order to get government action on the local level, it is usually necessary to contact someone you know in the government, to whom you will owe a favor.  For example, while I was conducting 15 months of dissertation research in Kazakhstan, I spent some time in a small city that is also a minor pilgrimage center in southern Kazakhstan.  The roof of one of the shrines in the city needed to be repaired.  How this was actually accomplished is quite complicated and almost incomprehensible to anyone without knowledge of the town’s social relationships and patronage networks.  The chain of events was roughly as follows:

  1. Mukhtar, the local head of the Ministry of Culture, requested money from his superiors for the roof’s repair.
  2. Mukhtar then asked Abdulrashid, a local shrine caretaker, to find a contractor willing to work for less than the specified amount because he needed money for his granddaughter’s upcoming wedding.
  3. Abdulrashid contacted a contractor who had been his former colleague.  Abdulrashid had previously been a construction worker without any formal Islamic education who had asked his father’s friend Mukhtar for a job because he had hurt his leg and become disabled.  After a trial period in which he increased the amount of donations collected at the shrine, and thus increased Mukhtar’s unofficial earnings, Abdulrashid was put in charge of a shrine.  Thus, when Mukhtar called Abdulrashid to ask him to find a cheap contractor, Abdulrashid was expected to help a friend who had helped him.
  4. Abdulrashid’s contractor agreed – for reasons unbeknownst to me – to perform the work under cost.

The work on the shrine was thus finished through complex networks of patronage, corruption, and friendship, all of which was well known in the city – people recognized that Mukhtar did not simply stumble upon the money for his granddaughter’s wedding and that Abdulrashid did not get his job due to an outstanding Islamic education.  Islam is thus visibly intertwined with local figures and patronage networks.  The point of this story is not to denigrate the character of any of the men described above: Abdulrashid, for instance, had worked hard to become knowledgeable about Islam and the shrine he worked at after he was hired, and was dedicated to helping pilgrims who came to his shrine.  Rather, the point is that the social relationships that allowed for the repair of a shrine’s roof extended beyond a shared attachment to Islam into a messy realm of business and politics.

Other Islamic patronage networks hide their connection to business and politics – the messy realm outside of a somehow purely spiritual religion – more successfully.  It is not a secret that Saudi, Emirati, Egyptian, and Turkish individuals, charities, and businesses have been funding mosque construction and Islamic publishing in Kazakhstan since the disintegration of the Soviet Union.  I do not write this to bring up hoary fears of “foreign Islamic ideologies” infiltrating Kazakhstan (a trope that needs to be discarded, as, to the best of my knowledge, Islam was not revealed to the Prophet in Kazakhstan, and thus also represents a “foreign ideology”).  Instead, I want to look at how these foreign patronage networks appear less influenced by politics and business to Kazakhs than those relationships stemming from Kazakhstan’s patronage networks.

For example, when I was working with a Kazakh publisher of Islamic texts, he told me that his press got its start when a wealthy Saudi donor gave him money to publish a hadith collection and a few texts by a Saudi writer.  Rather than a complicated relationship built on local patronage networks, this was a relationship that focused exclusively on texts and bringing texts to a Kazakh public these two men saw as ignorant of Islam.  There was no favor asked or expectation of an ongoing relationship outside of a shared interest in Islam.  This purity of purpose influences how many Kazakhs see this publisher and his sponsor: as “pure” Muslims who stand virtuous outside of messy social relations. (It should be noted that other Kazakhs dislike any “foreign” Islamic influence in Kazakhstan.)

One idea that I have been toying with is that the difference in visible social relationships could account for some of the increase in popularity of reformist Islam in Kazakhstan.  Kazakhs dissatisfied with corruption or the networks of patronage that permeate life in Kazakhstan (and which President Nazarbaev has repeatedly denounced) can turn to networks of reformist Muslims whose relationships are based on a shared commitment to spreading reformist ideas – a sense of purpose that can lie outside of local patronage networks because of seemingly “clean” funding from well-meaning foreign Muslims.  Business practices in the United Arab Emirates – where Indian and Pakistani workers have their passports confiscated and are forced to work fourteen-hour days – that enrich businessmen and patrons are hidden from Muslims in Kazakhstan.  Consider the following hypothetical patronage network:

  1. Ali, a businessman from Dubai, hires Indian and Pakistani workers to build a hotel and pays them next to nothing.
  2. Ali earns several million dollars from the hotel.
  3. Ali gives some of this money to a Kazakh publisher to print a pamphlet written by a Saudi religious scholar.

Kazakhs only see the last step in this chain, and thus many Kazakhs see Ali as a virtuous Muslim standing outside of politics, business, and corruption.  In this way, the image of reformist publishers and other Islamic endeavors supported by Emirati, Saudi, or Turkish scholars stands in stark contrast with the “corruption” of Kazakh shrine caretakers who are part of Kazakhstani patronage networks.  And, as Andre Agassi told us, image is everything.

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This post was written by...

– author of 3 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Wendell received his Ph.D. in anthropology from Indiana University in 2011. He first wandered into Central Asia during a trip through Asia in 2001 and thought that anywhere that he could hail an off-duty ambulance as a taxi had to be interesting. His research focuses on the production and reception of Islamic literature in Kazakhstan. Wendell is currently employed as an assistant editor for a comprehensive Kazakh-English dictionary.

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Michael Hancock-Parmer January 30, 2012 at 9:31 pm

Hey Del – just throwing this out there for speculation:
Do you think this belief in the paternalistic state is something we can trace elsewhere in the Soviet sphere, or is there a possibility that residents of pre-Soviet populations (whether rural steppe or settlements like Aulie-Ata, Chimkent, etc.) might be continuing/preserving a pre-Soviet tradition in expecting a certain relationship between secular and religious leaders?

Del_Schwab January 31, 2012 at 7:35 am


That is an extremely broad question for speculation in a blog’s comments. To give an example from the subject of my post, the transfer of the administration of shrines from various types of waqf-funded institutions to a centralized bureaucratic state acting in the name of “culture” is definitely linked to the Soviet experience. See Pianciola and Sartori’s article in Central Asian Survey a few years back for much more detail about waqf in the early Soviet era.

Michael Hancock-Parmer January 31, 2012 at 2:12 pm

Thanks, Del – I haven’t read the article – and I imagine our reading lists thus far probably don’t line up like they could (lack on my part). The reason I ask is a seminar paper this semester approaching Russian Empire’s inclusion/omission of ranks, rules, and governmental regulations towards their new subjects in the steppe and along the Syr Darya. I will definitely read the piece you suggested.

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