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.