Kazakhstan needs religious patriots! (And already has them.)

by Wendell Schwab on 2/6/2012

Last week, Kazakhstan’s Vice Prime Minister Erbol Orynbaev told the board of the Ministry of Education and Science that the country’s schools have a vital assignment: to prevent “ideological extremism” – presumably the type of extremism that led to the criminal acts done in the name of Islam in western Kazakhstan and Taraz last year – by developing Kazakh “patriots” who think independently.  This assignment reflects the Soviet approach of some Kazakhstani government officials to criminal acts done in the name of Islam: the problem to be solved is the false consciousness of “extremists.”  Except, in this case, instead of the proletariat’s misrecognition of its class interests, it is Kazakh Muslims’ misrecognition of their true ideology: Kazakh patriotism.

While I applaud Orynbaev’s emphasis on education and independent thinking, anyone who has ever spent time in Kazakhstan knows that Kazakh patriotism in not in short supply.  The Ministry of Education and Science is already producing Kazakh patriots.  What turns “extremists,” or, to use a less judgmental term, pious Muslims (whether those who seek to purify Islam of “superstitions,” those who attempt to reclaim their ancestors’ legacy, or those interested in other types of piety) against the government in Kazakhstan is not a lack of Kazakh patriotism or independent thinking. (An ironic prescription by Orynbaev, as independent scriptural interpretation is a hallmark of Salafist exegetical practice.)   Instead, it is an environment that prevents Muslims from fulfilling the conditions of their own notions of piety that creates friction between pious Muslims and the Kazakhstani government.  Many reformist women who wear loose gowns and tight hijabs are frightened by some government officials’ rhetoric on the hijab; for example, one woman I spoke with believes she was passed over for a government position because of her dress and is now quite concerned about the future of like-minded Muslims in Kazakhstan.  Members of Ata Zholy, a neo-traditionalist group, were upset when regional prosecutors shut down their official pilgrimage corporation.  In both cases, the repression of these groups by some government officials is unnecessary: the vast majority of reformist Muslims I have spoken with in Kazakhstan support the government of Kazakhstan and, in particular, President Nazarbaev’s emphasis on economic development before political change. Members of Ata Zholy are ready to beatify Nazarbaev: his “five forefathers” are seen as saints who can help Muslims in their everyday lives, and Nazarbaev is already believed to visit Kazakhs’ dreams to foretell dangers or opportunities.  Before repressive action from regional governments, these pious Kazakhs had been Kazakh “patriots,” and many remain so today.  The Ministry of Education thus finished its assignment before it was even given – someone else just scribbled all over it.

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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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