With Two Kazakhs Arrested After Boston, Eyes Now Turn, Unfortunately, to Kazakhstan

by Casey_Michel on 5/2/2013 · 8 comments

Dias and Azamat

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:

Economist Graph Survey

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.

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This post was written by...

– author of 29 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Casey Michel is a graduate student at Columbia University's Harriman Institute, focusing on Eurasian political and social development, and he has worked with both International Crisis Group (Bishkek) and as a Peace Corps Kazakhstan volunteer. His writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Foreign Policy, RFE/RL, Al Jazeera, The Moscow Times, The Diplomat, and Slate. You can follow him on Twitter at @cjcmichel.

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Wendell Schwab May 2, 2013 at 5:49 pm

You are probably right that “Any potential threat from [Kazakhstan] is either overblown or fabricated.”

But can we stop with the “Islam rests lightly on these people” rhetoric? If you want to cite the Pew study to show that Kazakhs “voiced the lowest support on both Shariah law and capital punishment for apostasy,” you should also to cite it to show that they voiced the most support for appealing to the deceased. Do you think that Catholics who pray to saints (like Kazakhs appeal to deceased saints and ancestors) are somehow less devout than socially conservative and politically active Christians (like Afghans who support shariah law)?

If we want to talk about Islam in Kazakhstan, we can do better than cherry-picking statistics from a survey and judging Kazakhs’ Islamic practice by standards only the strictest of Salafis would hold other Muslims to (Do they pray every day? No? Half-Muslim! Do they drink? Yes? Apostate! Do they want to chop off people’s hands for stealing? No? Impious!).

Casey_Michel May 2, 2013 at 6:16 pm

To answer your question on Catholicism/Evagelicism: I have no idea, as other metrics are left unknown, and thus can’t answer as to whether which group, if any, should be considered more “devout.” I found nothing within the recent Pew survey to dissuade me of the claims above – if you could send along the link to the specific page with appeals to the deceased, that’d be great – as, as you may have noted in the piece, I tended to associate devotion with those who’d ascribe to Sharia and related protocol. Kazakhstan not simply owns the lowest rate on the above-mentioned chart, but boasts, among those who’d seek to implement Shariah, the lowest rate of those who’d seek to employ it among the entire polity.

Likewise, Kazakhstan also had far and away the highest rate – 56%! – of Muslims who state that a belief in God is not necessary for morality. It also maintained the lowest rate of those who profess to live their lives according to hadith/sunna.

I understand why it may appear as statistical cherry-picking to boost my claim, but I found nothing to sufficiently persuade me otherwise. If there are numbers, or further definitions as to devotion, available, please share.

Wendell Schwab May 3, 2013 at 3:52 am

The numbers on appealing to the deceased I cited are from page 101.

My thought behind my question about Catholics and politically active Christians was not that we need better metrics to figure out who is more devout, but that asking “who is more devout” is not a very good question. I have no idea of a better definition of devotion would look like. My point is that you are, essentially, defining Islam for Kazakhs and then measuring their practice by your own definition rather than understanding what Kazakhs do. (Your association, by the way, of shariah and living in accordance with Sunna with devotion is a Salafist idea. Again, why would we use Salafist ideas to judge how devout Kazakhs are?) Wouldn’t it be better to try to understand what Kazakhs see as Islam and how they go about their daily lives? I actually think you are pointing people in the right direction – many, many Kazakhs simply do not make time for daily ritual practice (e.g., 4% of Kazakhs pray salat/namaz multiple times a day – which is really low). But that does not mean they do use Islamic ideas to understand social relations or work ethics or gender roles or kinship. And who are we to define one ritual as Islamic and other ideas as less or half-Islamic?

Casey Michel May 3, 2013 at 6:52 am

I think that’s an excellent point. The relevancy of religion, on a large-scale, perhaps remains, though in different structure and expression than the traditional tracts. As Mike pointed below, such devotion may reflect itself in far more liberal manners, and is far more pluralistic.

And right, just finding the pray-to-deceased numbers. Looks like it was in the 2012 report.

Wendell Schwab May 3, 2013 at 8:01 am

Right, 2012 report. My mistake. I shall now go look at the 2013 report!

Mike Ebertz May 3, 2013 at 6:26 am

What comes out of this discussion of Islam in Kazakhstan is the fact that it is hardly Islam as is spoken about in the Koran. These people certainly are not giving up their alcohol, their absolute dependence upon prostitutes, nor their marijuana for anything. In fact, Kazakh men spend a ton of their time doing all that is haram. As for me, I find it a positive thing that the Islam here is so far from the Sharia crap that creates madness and ultimately terrorism.

Wendell Schwab May 3, 2013 at 7:59 am


I think I know what you are saying – street life in Almaty (or Astana, or wherever in Kazakhstan) is different than street life in Riyadh. And you are right. But Islam is not simply the Qur’an, or shariah law (which is not one thing, but varies throughout time and space). My larger point is that we have to get rid of the idea that Islam is what a certain subsection of Muslims argue for (shariah law, all Islam is is the Qur’an and sunna, irregardless of 1400 years of jurisprudence and philosophy and art) and accept that even if a Kazakh Muslim drinks alcohol, it is not up to us to say if he is a good Muslim or not. Nor is it particularly helpful in understanding what Kazakhs do as Muslims. I think a rough equivalent would be a Kazakh Muslim saying that a American Catholic woman who uses birth control is not a Catholic, or is not a Catholic according to what is in the Bible or some such. It would not really help us to understand why that Catholic woman uses birth control and how she thinks she could best be a Catholic. We might want to ask her some other questions.

Adil May 6, 2013 at 4:00 am

Who is “the Islamic leader of a nationalist party “?

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