Some Quick Observations on Islam and Opposition in Kazakhstan

by Wendell Schwab on 2/28/2012 · 4 comments

Some opponents of the current Kazakhstani government held a demonstration over the weekend, after which some of their leaders were imprisoned. I will leave it to others to discuss the implications of this particular protest. However, because the “Arab Spring frame” for protests in Kazakhstan endures, and because Muslim reformists have been particularly successful in elections in Egypt and Tunisia, I spoke with some Kazakh reformist Muslims about Islam and politics in Kazakhstan. These men, who, like the majority of Kazakhs, are not part of the opposition, included an imam, a teacher, and a student. Although I had talked with these men about Islam and politics before the recent protests, I wanted to get a quick update on what they were thinking in light of these events. They had not changed their minds about the Kazakhstani opposition and Kazakhstani politics in general, which they saw as largely irrelevant to their projects. They were neither extremely supportive of nor opposed to the current government; moreover, they saw the opposition in a less than favorable light.

My interlocutors gave three reasons for their lack of opposition to the current Kazakhstani government and, more generally, for their lack of interest in Kazakhstani politics. First, they argued that they hoped to avoid conflict. One imam told me that causing conflict between Muslims is, along with polytheism and apostasy, a great sin. He added – perhaps melodramatically – that you cannot kill another Muslim for his lack of piety because he may become more pious in the future. Thus, even if a Muslim thinks that the current government of Kazakhstan is an impious state, he cannot rebel against the Muslims in the government (unless they became apostates). Instead, a Muslim’s duty is to preach to members of the government in order to bring about a more pious world, rather than to protest against the government. Second, Kazakh Muslim reformists are not particularly interested in the opposition or democratic reform. Rather, they are – not surprisingly – interested in Islamic reform. If the opposition would help more Kazakhs pray five times a day, Muslim reformists would be all for opposition. But the majority of Kazakh reformist Muslims with whom I have spoken do not see the opposition as helping to create the conditions for piety. Finally, there is the lack of a credible Islamic alternative to the current Kazakhstani government. As Scott Radnitz and others have pointed out, there is no independent Islamic group capable of organizing mass support among Kazakhs or other Central Asians. My interlocutors felt that the current opposition is simply a group of elites who have been thrown out of the government. All of this adds up to a general apathy toward the opposition: one Kazakh told me that the arguments between the billionaires in the government and the billionaires in the opposition are not his concern.

Kazakh reformist Muslims’ acceptance of secular power has many parallels in the Muslim world. For example, anthropological works (particularly those of Saba Mahmood and Charles Hirschkind) based on research done with Egyptian Muslims in the 1990s (and published in the mid-2000s) show a minority undercurrent of Muslims more interested in personal piety than challenging existing states. The political changes in Egypt have opened up space for parties catering to these Muslims, such as the al-Nour party, to operate. However, it should be noted that none of the Kazakhs I spoke with see Egypt as a model for Kazakhstan. As one of my interlocutors cautiously told me, only God knows what will happen in the future – it is best to be as pious as one can be and let others deal with politics.

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– 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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Nate Schenkkan February 29, 2012 at 2:36 am

Very interesting post. I would also add there is an element of time involved: devout Muslims of various stripes I’ve spoken with in Kazakhstan see their efforts in the context of decades, not months or years. Because their concern is primarily spiritual, they are willing to look past the day-to-day battles and concentrate on the long-term goal of creating a more Islamic society — a goal that they are making progress on in many parts of the country, I would add.

Nonetheless, I have heard people bristle at the kind of pressure the government places on them for being devout. It’s true it doesn’t rise to a level of political opposition, but I’m wondering if you don’t think this carries the seeds of organized opposition at a later point in time.

Wendell Schwab February 29, 2012 at 8:13 am

Nate, I completely agree that reformist Muslims see their work in terms of decades and that they are succeeding in many of their efforts.

And you are right that people are disappointed and, in some cases, angry, at the law restricting prayer in government workplaces or various types of pressure from local authorities. But many of the reformist Muslims I have spoken with don’t blame those at the top of the Kazakhstani government for these issues. For example, I have heard that the new religion law was the result of pressure from the Russian government, homosexual members of the mazhilis, Jews, etc. The seeds of opposition are there. But anger and opposition are aimed, somewhat paradoxically, either more globally (Russia, the USA, international conspiracies) or more locally (the mayor is corrupt).

Kazakh March 1, 2012 at 12:54 am

An interesting post. Let me comment briefly on one issue discussed at the post.

The Law on Religion. This law has caused widespread indignation and protests in the Kazakh ummah. The law prohibits public servants to pray five times per day except for the mosks. If they find someone praying namaz at the working place they could fire this person from the job. However how this could done remains unclear because under the Civil law this may amount to discrimination and the laid off public servant may appeal his case in the court. If the Muslim/Muslims are found praying in jamaat at public places (e.g. because they don’t miss the namaz times) they might be taken to the police for questioning or be detained for violation of the public order. All places for collective worship (called in the kazakh namazkhanas) should be closed except for the railway stations and prisons. I could go on but I stop here for the lack of space. The Muslims continue praying albeit hidden. This law tests the resolve and submission to the Allah, and inshAllah the Kazakh ummah will become stronger and unified. The law was conceived by the few high ranking officials in the government and administration of the president, who were truly ignorant of Islam and the consequences of their actions. Many Muslims pray daily to repel it and inshAllah their prayers will be answered soon.

Wendell Schwab March 1, 2012 at 8:07 am

Kazakh, thank you for the informative and polite comment. I would like to ask a follow-up question: where have Kazakhs protested this new law? And to whom? I have heard a lot of grumbling and indignation, but most members of the Kazakh ummah have not agreed on how to take action to try to change this law.

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