Financial Crisis Talk Hits Kazak Mosques

Some mosque-goers dismayed at political messages preached from pulpit.

Financial Crisis Talk Hits Kazak Mosques

Some mosque-goers dismayed at political messages preached from pulpit.

Regular visitors to mosques in Kazakstan have been taken aback to hear the normal Friday sermons on religious themes prefaced with admonitions to remain calm and avoid panic during the current economic crisis.

There is some resentment at the new tone, as many believe the country’s Muslim clerical hierarchy is delivering a political message on behalf of the government.

The Muslim leadership has instructed preachers to back the government’s anti-crisis efforts and call for national unity at a difficult time, as the economy slows and businesses shed workers.

At a March 27 press conference, Kulmuhamet Mahambet, prayer-leader at the central mosque in Almaty, Kazakstan’s biggest city, said that from now on, Friday prayers would be preceded by a half-hour talk on the right way to approach the current economic slowdown – with patience and forbearance.

A spokesman for the Spiritual Administration of Muslims in Kazakstan, or Muftiate for short, told IWPR on condition of anonymity that the decision came from the Mufti himself, Absattar Haji Derbisali.

Asked whether this amounted to religion interfering in the affairs of the secular Kazak state, Mahambet replied, “The Holy Koran says that people should obey their ruler. The address by the president calls on people in Kazakstan to unite, so it is our duty to support his appeal.”

He was referring to the state-of-the-nation speech on March 6, in which President Nursultan Nazarbaev outlined the steps his government was taking to alleviate the crisis, such as encouraging domestic businesses and helping vulnerable groups such as people made unemployed by the economic contraction.

Nazarbaev also called on Kazakstan’s people to display the calm and cohesion needed to get them through the economic crisis.

His party, Nur Otan, has already responded to the call by getting a number of political parties and pressure groups to agree not to arrange demonstrations or engage in other anti-government activities until the crisis is over. (For a report on this, see Kazak Opposition Baulks at “No Protest” Pact, RCA No. 571, 27-Mar-09.)

Now the authorities have received backing from the Muftiate, a formal structure which leads the country’s Sunni Muslim majority and is seen as close to government.

“We want to help people in difficult times,” the deputy head of the Muftiate, Muhammed Hussein Alsabekov, told IWPR. “Now we must pray to Allah, be patient and not be afraid. At times like these, we should be united and help each other.”

Alsabekov said clerics at all of the country’s mosques had “understood and accepted” the Muftiate’s call.

Among the mosque-goers interviewed for this report, there was concern that the Muftiate was positioning itself too close to government, even among those who back Nazarbaev’s plea for unity.

“Frankly speaking, I am disappointed that my faith is being used to propagate someone else’s ideas,” said Rinat, a 33-year-old businessman who said he recently “discovered Islam”. Now, he said, “I am even thinking of stopping going to the mosque.”

Like many interviewees, one regular visitor to the central mosque in Almaty was against mixing private belief and public politics.

“Of course it isn’t desirable for such an initiative to come from the religious leadership,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Both he and other people at this mosque felt it was pointless trying to hammer home messages about an economic situation with which they were all too familiar.

“I don’t think we need to be told about the financial crisis,” said 65-year old pensioner Abdumalik, “That isn’t what I come here for.”

Maksat, a 19-year old student in Almaty, said it was wrong to issue instructions to congregations, since the basis for attending a mosque was voluntary.

At the same time, he was less than surprised that clerics were following the lead of Kazakstan’s political masters.

“In our country, it’s customary to look to the top and do what they say,” he explained.

By contrast, Nazar, a teacher in Almaty, argued that the Muftiate was doing the right thing. “It is proper that we should support our government and not express discontent,” he said.

The director of the Kazakstan Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law, Yevgeny Zhovtis, said religious leaders could and should work towards tolerance and peace, but argued that “it arouses suspicion if it’s done sporadically”.

Zhovtis sees the Muftiate’s plan as a one-off gesture, similar to the campaign to rally political parties and other groups behind the government.

“There’s a sense that this plan has been coordinated from a single centre…. In other words it is like Soviet times, where workers, peasants, religious figures, NGOs and the rest all have to sign up to appeals for peace and accord.”

“There is a political element which shouldn’t be there, because religion is about moral values,” said Zhovtis.

Amirjan Kosanov, deputy chairman of the opposition National Social Democratic Party, argues that the Muftiate is used by government to ensure the Muslim community remains quiescent.

“I think that what the constitution states about the separation of state and religion is not working,” he said.

Political analyst Oleg Sidorov said the Muftiate’s support for Nazarbaev placed other faith groups such as the Russian Orthodox Church and the Jewish community in a somewhat awkward position.

“Those who haven’t made an official statement look as though they haven’t demonstrated their loyalty,” he said.

Daulet Kanagat-Uly is a freelance reporter and Marik Koshabaev an IWPR-trained journalist in Almaty.

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