On Tuesday morning, just before Dias Kadyrbayev and Azamat Tazhayakov were set to learn the charges they would face stemming from their actions surrounding the Boston bombings, The Economist published a pair of graphs summarizing the Pew Research Center’s survey on the overlap of religion and law within Muslim-majority nations. The entire survey, of course, is worth going through, but The Economist wanted to take a look at but a handful of metrics — namely, support within Islamic communities for religious freedom, forced execution of apostates, and implementation of Shariah:
While much of the resultant media attention from the survey has centered on Afghanistan’s near-unanimous desire to implement Shariah, or the surprise at overall support for religious freedom, it’s worth noting which nation voiced the lowest support on both Shariah law and capital punishment for apostasy, and which offered, after Kosovo, the second-lowest rate of belief in severe corporal punishment for criminals: Kazakhstan. It’s worth pointing, likewise, that Kazakhstan, with Muslims comprising 70 percent of the nation, sees one of the highest rates of alcohol acceptance among Muslim-majority countries in the world. Not exactly the bed of backwater repression some may presume.
As Colin Thubron once wrote about the Kazakhs, “Islam rests lightly on these people.” (Likewise, as the Islamic leader of a nationalist party once stated, “Kazakhs are non-Muslims or at very most half-Muslims. … The Shariah is harmful to Kazakhs.”) Among all Central Asian nations, and especially as evidenced above, Kazakhstan enjoys one of the most liberalized interpretations of Islam in the world. Women are free to wear the hijab, or not. Men are free to consume their vodka, or not. Despite growing divisions between Russian- and Kazakh-language schools, children are free to mix with the Protestants and Orthodox among them, experiencing far less division than, say, whites and blacks largely know within certain Rust Belt and mid-Atlantic American cities.
Likewise, it’s worth reminding that Kazakhstan saw its first brush with Islamic terrorism only in 2011, and only when directed at state, rather than foreign, apparatuses. A shooting in Taraz, a few small pipe bombs near state buildings, exchanging fire with security forces — that was it. Despite being the home of Kadyrbayev and Tazhayakov, independent Kazakhstan has neither reason to support, nor history of supporting, anything approaching Islamic terrorism as it is currently understood. Nor has it suffered through it like its neighbors surrounding.
Yes, the devout exist. And, yes, there remain concerns of Salafism slipping through the western and southern borders. But Muslims in Kazakhstan largely enjoy both state support and the most massive mosque in Central Asia. (It should be noted that Zhulduz Baizakov, an analyst based in Almaty, recently said, “Today, there is no direct connection reported between the insurgency in [the] North Caucasus and terrorist acts taking place in Kazakhstan.”) But Kazakhstan sees neither the religious repression of Uzbekistan or Turkmenistan, and, while there have been recent spates of secular clampdowns on underground cells, there’s no sense that Jund al-Khilafah is anything more than a handful of guys with a few videocams and an unfortunate cruel streak. Kazakhstan’s experience with Islamic terrorism is more limited than America’s. Any potential threat from that nation is either overblown or fabricated.
If anything, it’s interesting that it appears Tazhayakov is from Atyrau, one of the few locales in Kazakhstan that have recently experienced something approaching Islamic extremism. And, in a certain light, that may mean something. But look at the affidavit. It’s clear that these two, as well as the American charged alongside, had nothing to do with the pre-planning stages of the bombing. They only learned of the Dzhokhar’s connection following the FBI’s photo release. They only thought to aid Tsarnaev after they connected the dots. These two 19-year-olds saw their friend about to be fingered for a heinous crime, and flipped shit, and determined, inanely, that they should try to help. For this, they’re facing up to five years in prison. For this, people lump two dolts with an entire nation.*
*While Kazakhstan has voiced full-throated support for the ongoing investigation, it would be fantastic to hear Nazarbayev’s thoughts on the entire affair. Not only have Kadyrbayev and Tazhayakov done more to impact Americans’ views on Kazakhstan than any PR shill ever could, but, for those who missed it, (Uncle) Ruslan Tsarni once testified in British court against Nazarbayev’s regime. Not the best revelations for Astana over the past few weeks.
Unfortunately, Americans are now looking at Kazakhstan with a weather eye, if only because of a questionable suffix and an unsettling otherness. And if Chechnya’s recent experience is any indication, Kazakhstan is about to be battered through assumption and romanticism and publications looking for any reason — be it familial etymology or the impact on an unaware three-year-old(!) — to keep the story going. Anything for the hits. Anything to put this nation in one camp or the other. Anything to make the story cleaner.*
*For what it’s worth, it’s been a great treat to see those on Twitter question why Kadyrbayev and Tazhayakov look “Asian,” rather than, say, Semitic, or Pashtun, or any of the other Greater Middle East ethnicities we’ve come to see suspiciously. Likewise, it should be noted that Azamat remains an altogether common name within Kazakh communities. He wasn’t named after the guy in Borat.
As of right now, the potential ethnic stereotyping following the charges has remained refreshingly absent, if only because none yet existed outside Sacha Baren Cohen’s masquerade. That’s not to say that it won’t come — as Sarah Kendzior already posited, it’s all too easy to see what could arise — but, rather, we that haven’t yet seen any screeching that the Kazakhs Are Coming! Hopefully, this remains. And hopefully, people will pay more attention to survey and cross-section, like those above, than the idiotic, flustered actions of a pair of teenagers attempting to help their friend the only way they knew how.