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31 May 2024

The Rising Divide in Religious and Secular Societies in Kazakhstan

Amidst the news of the Kazakhstani politicians trying to regulate the rise of religious extremists, we spoke with Ayan Oryntay, a religious studies scholar from Kazakhstan, to try to understand the current state of affairs.

Mosque in Oskemen, Kazakhstan

Mosque in Oskemen, Kazakhstan. Image: 3DMart/Shutterstock

The rise of Islam in Kazakhstan has been a popular topic of discussion within the country for a while now. In March this year at the National Quriltai (Kazakh: Congress), President Tokayev made a remark regarding the “religious fanaticism” of those who are covered in all black, stressing that it is a foreign influence and has nothing to do with the spiritual values of Kazakhs. This comment comes amidst the news of politicians discussing the spread of radical Islamic movements, such as Salafism and Wahhabism, and ways to prevent it. 

In the streets of Kazakhstan’s cities, you can spot more young girls and women in hijabs, which wasn’t the case just a few years ago, when the country, due to its Soviet past, was far removed from any religious attributes beyond the spiritual holiday celebrations. The question then arises: What is going on in Kazakhstan? Is its Muslim identity going to overpower secularism popular among other post-Soviet states? Or is it going to implement stricter laws regarding religious attire, like its neighboring country, Uzbekistan, did in the past

According to Ayan Oryntay, a religious studies scholar and Religious Freedom for Kazakhstan project coordinator at the Kazakhstan office of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, the resurgence of Islam in Kazakhstan is obvious. His articles on religious topics in Kazakhstan have shed light on the country’s current religious trends, from TikTok imams to the rise of Tengrism, a pagan religion of the indigenous Turkic people. 

However, he doesn’t agree that society itself is transforming from secular to religious. “For instance, according to relatively recent research from 2019, among Muslims, who constitute the predominant majority in Kazakhstan, only about 17% attend the mosque once or more times a week, while 83% visit mosque rarely or never attend the mosque at all,” the religious scholar says. “Thus, it can be argued that, overall, the majority of practicing Muslims in Kazakhstan are so-called ‘nominal’ or ‘ethnic’ Muslims, who primarily observe only the rituals of the ‘life cycle,’ meaning they turn to religious rituals at birth, death, weddings, and so forth.”

However, Oryntay notes that despite the majority of Muslims in Kazakhstan not practicing religion, “you can also see packed mosques on Fridays in almost every city where young people between 18 and 35 are the majority.” He explains it by referencing a few factors. “Firstly, it’s widely believed that as a post-Soviet nation, Kazakhstan went through a sort of religious ‘vacuum’ during the Soviet era. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, there was a quest for self-identity and answers to questions about what it means to be a true ‘Kazakh.’ Whether there truly was a ‘vacuum’ during the Soviet era is up for debate, but it’s undeniable that there’s been a resurgence of religious interest 30 years after gaining independence,” Oryntay explains.

Indeed, the so-called “quest for self-identity” for a nation that has been under the oppressive regime of Moscow for over 70 years, to the point of not only not being able to celebrate their either pagan or religious holidays, but also having to accept the Russian language as the main lingua franca, in what was then, Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic. The language topic remains a valid point, stating additional division within the country. 

“There’s also the question of societal polarization and bilingualism, where one-half of Kazakhs think and speak in Russian while the other is Kazakh-speaking. There’s a huge difference between them in worldview and many perspectives on what Kazakhstani society should look like,” a religious scholar says. “Typically, for the Kazakh-speaking part, religion and traditions play a larger role than for the Russian-speaking population. This is getting even more complex after the Russian-Ukraine war, where the question of ‘Kazakhness’ is being even more relevant for both parts of Kazakhstani society.”

So, as Kazakhstan is now going through its renaissance of national identity, even an attack on the Kazakh instrument dombra, which some regard as an integral part of Kazakh cultural values, by newly-emerged religious Kazakhs, was met with hostility by the public. In September last year, a video of a hijabi woman saying that playing any musical instrument is haram, an Arabic term in Islam meaning “prohibited or unlawful”. To that, Kazakh deputy Amanzhol Altai responded that dombra is a symbol of Kazakhstan and insulting it can be perceived as an insult against the whole Kazakh nation. In addition, he added that dombra lessons need to be added to the school curriculum. 

This is one of a few instances where the Kazakh religious half of the society clashes with its secular and even nationalist half. Oryntay, however, points out that this divide is not as crystal clear as it might seem at first. “As I mentioned earlier, the majority of Muslims are what we call “nominal” or “ethnic” Muslims, identifying with Islam but not strictly adhering to all its pillars,” he says. It is, therefore, more of a question of generational differences. “It’s no surprise that this trend is particularly evident now: a generation has grown up without exposure to Soviet ideology and has come of age during a time of shifting paradigms, uncertainty, and the establishment of an independent society.” 

Then, if the divide in the Kazakhstani society can be explained by its internal societal differences, such as age and language, can what President Tokayev called influence from foreign Muslim countries be regarded as valid? “The influence is definitely there. Kazakhstan is part of global trends and processes, so it’s impossible to ignore entirely the influence from other countries,” Oryntay explains. “But when it comes to Islamization, I think it’s mainly a natural internal demand of our society. Opinions about ‘Arabization’ mostly come from those who aren’t fond of such changes and believe that religion should remain a private matter, separate from public life. On the flip side, there are Kazakhs who feel they should be free to express themselves however they want, without restrictions.”

Among those who aren’t fond of the so-called Arabization are the state officials. One such recent comment comes from another Kazakh politician, Yermurat Bapi. “Over the past few years, alien movements of Islam have threatened to undermine the social everyday foundations, and these threats are becoming increasingly widespread. These threats started to destroy society and challenge state integrity, oppose the traditions of national unity, the national development of the Kazakh people, and the Islamic way of life of the Kazakhs, which has developed over thousands of years,” he writes.

Oryntay yet again points out that Kazakhstan is neither leaning toward Muslim countries nor “so-called Western values.” Instead, he sees the rising religiousness as a natural human desire to find meaning in life. People choose to turn to religion “as it offers quick answers to their existential questions.” 

Besides that, not everyone in Kazakhstan chooses to turn to monotheistic religions. According to Oryntay, there is a growing number of people who identify as Tengrians. “They believe that Kazakhs weren’t originally Muslims and that our identity lies in the beliefs and stories that existed before Islam came to Kazakhstan,” he explains. “Interestingly, many of them see Arabization as something imposed by Arab countries, while some Muslims see Tengrism as a divisive ‘project’ aimed at splitting Kazakhstani society.”

“Regardless of who’s right, we must deal with the reality we have now and create an environment where diverse opinions can coexist without crossing any lines. It’s in these debates that truth emerges, and paths for progress should be discovered,” Oryntay concludes.