West Kazakstan Under Growing Islamic Influence

Authorities need to stop confusing all practicing Muslims with radical minority, newspaper editor says.

West Kazakstan Under Growing Islamic Influence

Authorities need to stop confusing all practicing Muslims with radical minority, newspaper editor says.

Kazakstan’s first suicide bomber and a group of armed men accused of killing two policemen all hail from the north-western Aktobe region, and are believed to belong to informal Islamic communities that exist outside the control of the state controlled Muslim clerical body.

In mid-May, a man called Rahimjan Makhatov blew himself up at the local office of the security service in the city of Aktobe. In an unrelated incident at the end of June, two policemen were shot dead in the village of Shubarshi in the same region, sparking a manhunt that ended with 12 people dead. 

Although the suicide attack and the conflict around Shubarshi do not appear to be directly linked, what they do have in common is that the individuals involved were known to be devout Muslims practicing their faith among their own circle, outside the mainstream mosques.

IWPR asked Azamat Maitanov, deputy editor-in chief of the newspaper Akjayik in Atyrau, also in western Kazakstan, to describe the Islamic groupings that currently exert the most influence, and the ideas their supporters believe in.

Azamat Maitanov: The information I have, for Aktobe region in particular and western Kazakstan more generally, is that there are a lot of followers of “jihadism”, a radical strand that regards holy war as the principal and supreme doctrine of Islamic ideology.

What one needs to understand and distinguish is that there are several groups and communities in Kazakstan that bear similar religious features, but believe different things.

Each of them has its own influential, local spiritual leader. The most well-known of these are Rinat Abu Muhammad, who has “Madkhalist” views [followers of Saudi Salafi scholar Rabi ibn Hadi al-Madkhali, critical of jihadi ideas]; Daryn Mubarov, a Kazak preacher of Murji'ism [Salafi doctrine advocating cooperation with rulers regardless of their failings]; and the North African Al-Rezki, a former veterinary student who has now left Kazakstan. Among those religious communities that are described as Salafi, speeches by Abdulkhalil Abdujabbarov, better known as Khalil, are popular. He spent several years officially teaching at a mosque in Atyrau, but is now wanted by Interpol and is in hiding in Saudi Arabia.

Relations between these religious groups vary –some regard the others as brothers in faith, while others accuse the rest of losing their way, heresy and lack of faith.

The Kazak authorities, security service and media generally lump together all groups whose religious practice and views differ from those of the official spiritual authority under the terms Wahhabi or Salafi.

IWPR: How should we view the actions of the suicide bomber in Aktobe within the context of the radical Islamic ideas now prevalent in Kazakstan?

Maitanov: Let’s take jihadism.... jihadi scholars have issued numerous fatwas giving clear instructions about how to wage war against infidels and against secular authorities whom they dismiss as “taghut” [false, alien to God]. There is, for example, a fatwa by Sheikh Abu Jandal al-Azadi, a jihadi ideologue in Saudi Arabia, giving permission to kill representatives of institutions that protect taghut. This fatwa… justifies the killing of police and other law-enforcement members associated with a secular government.

All the jihadi dogma has been translated from Arabic and is widely available on the internet. Any Muslim seeking more knowledge may come across them and pick up on these ideas.

IWPR: Apart from internet, what other channels are there for spreading radical Islamic ideas in Kazakstan?

Maitanov: The nearest place to Kazakstan from which jihadi ideology emanates is the Russian Federation, and specifically the North Caucasus.

One of the main ideologues of jihadism in the post-Soviet region is the preacher Said Buryatsky [Alexander Tikhomirov, from Buryatia in Siberia, killed by Russian forces in Ingushetia in 2010]. Buryatsky visited Kazakstan, notably Aktobe, and gave talks on several occasions. It’s been confirmed that Buryatsky met Kazak pilgrims during the Hajj in Mecca in 2006.

It isn’t surprising that young people from Aktobe region should have been the first to go down the jihadi route. Young men around Makhatov’s age [25], went to the North Caucasus, where they believed an underground group of Caucasus Muslims was building a theocratic Islamic Emirate of Caucasus. The media regularly report the death or detention of Kazak nationals in the Caucasus, and most of them come from the Aktobe region.

IWPR: You note that devout Muslims in Kazakstan follow a range of ideas. But isn’t there a distinction to be made between those with a radical agenda and those who are simply devout Muslims?

Maitanov: There are groups that follow Islamic strictures in their daily lives and families – growing a beard, or wearing the Muslim headscarf or hijab, without trying to impose their beliefs on others. Others, though, call for the establishment of an Islamic state or caliphate, while some are waiting for a Messiah to unite all Muslims. They are wrongly referred to as Salafis or Wahhabis. If you ask any of them, they’ll say they follow Taza Din, the Pure Faith.

IWPR: How would you describe Taza Din supporters?

Maitanov: They were the first Muslims in western Kazakstan to be independent [outside the state-regulated mosques] and to follow Islamic rules in their community, but without imposing their views on others or calling for a caliphate.

The group was swiftly subjected to persecution by the official religious body and the authorities. After several arrests and human rights abuses, [many] have been forced to emigrate to Europe.

IWPR: How did radical Islamic ideas – as opposed to the moderate Hanafi school of Sunni Islam that is traditional in Central Asia – take off in Kazakstan?

Maitanov: At the beginning of the Nineties, a range of Islamic ideologies began displacing the common form of Islam that had been tightly controlled by the Soviet state. They were brought in by volunteers [missionaries] from Turkey and Arab countries, who were made welcome in the former Soviet states.

It was also at this time that the first students from Kazakstan went off to the Middle East, absorbed dogma that had been there for centuries, and brought it back home to elderly mullahs who practiced the traditional Hanafi rituals or Sufism. That led to the first debates and arguments about whether it was right to read the Koran for money [at ceremonies like weddings] or about what the right form of prayer was.

These harmless debates subsequently grew into a confrontation [between traditional and incoming ideas] and led to persecution. Some gave up, and fell into line behind the Religious Directorate of Kazakstan Muslims, while others withdrew and began teaching the like-minded in their own homes.

IWPR: The authorities reject the view put forward by human rights defenders that cracking down on followers of fundamentalist trends who worship outside the state-controlled mosques is fomenting radicalism among them. What’s your take on that?

Maitanov: I’m profoundly convinced that it’s impossible to tackle religious extremism through punitive action. For example, the phrase [used by then Russian president Vladimir Putin] that [militants] should be “drowned in the toilet” has aggravated the problems Russia is facing in the North Caucasus, where a civil war is going on accompanied by monstrous violations of human rights.

In Kazakstan, the current policy is intolerance and repression of dissent, persecution on the grounds of religious belief, and the fabrication of criminal cases. Mosque-goers are told they are “praying the wrong way”, and are forced into a straitjacket of invented rules. The authorities alienate devout citizens, violate their constitutional rights, attach labels to them, and arrest them for wearing a beard.

For example, in the Isatay district of Atyrau region, the district government chief barred an imam from going to the mosque on the grounds that he was “not traditional”. The crazy bureaucrat posted policement outside the mosque and personally checked to ensure that only certain people attended Friday prayers.

On top of all that, there are problems like inequality, unemployment and the complete corruption of the authorities. All this radicalises the views not only of the devout, but also of the average citizen.

Personal faith is a delicate matter that cannot be measured by secular rules. Everyone’s relationship to God is an intimate and private affair. It is frightening that after killing off faith in common human values, the authorities are trampling on and trying to appropriate the final, most sacred thing – belief in God.

This is creating fertile ground for the seeds of jihadism and of other kinds of religious extremism to grow. The first fruit are already in evidence, in the shape of Makhatov and the gunmen from Shubarshi.

IWPR: What can you say about “religious” prisoners, whose numbers are believed by human rights groups to run into the hundreds?

Maitanov: I think there are hundreds of these religious prisoners. What’s more, many of those convicted in connection with religious activity subsequently get additional jail terms. This practice has been described by Adiljan Muzdybaev, a former prisoner who belonged to a religious community in Mangystau [and was released in 2010 after five years’ imprisonment].

According to Muzdybaev, religious prisoners from across Kazakstan were brought together in one penal facility, No. 20, located in Jetikara in the [northern] Kostanai region in 2007. They were subjected to torture and degrading treatment, and forbidden to pray. All the religious prisoners were held in a prison used for life sentences. Subsequently, following complaints and letters, they were dispersed around different prisons.

Almaz Rysaliev is IWPR editor in Kazakstan.

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