It didn’t take long for the new Ministry of Religious Issues and Civil Society, established in Kazakhstan this September, to bring up the topic of banning a religious movement. On October 14, Minister Nurlan Yermekbayev announced that the ministry is “thoroughly studying [the] issue” of banning the Salafi branch of Islam, emphasising that the movement "poses a destructive threat to Kazakhstan”, according to Kazakh media reports.
Yet the minister found himself playing it safe, as there are both proponents and critics of a Salafi ban. While he noted that the ministry will be taking steps to hamper the proliferation of Salafist ideology, he also mentioned, “[the ministry believes] a mature and wise Kazakh society can, without a legal prohibition, prevent the spread of this foreign movement to our country”.
A proposal for a ban has emerged following events such as deadly attacks in June in the northwestern city of Aktobe, as well as a lone gunman attack in Almaty. Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev has blamed the former on Salafism, while the latter was revealed by investigations to have Salafist motivations. Following the attacks, a number of allegedly planned terrorist attacks have been thwarted by the National Security Committee (KNB). Kazakhstan has imposed the lightest level of terrorism alert until January 15, 2017.
All the aforementioned circumstances lead to fears that radicalism is on the rise in the Central Asian country, albeit there being no tangible way of understanding its scope. Salafism, an ultra-conservative branch of Sunni Islam, is seen as the latest security threat in the country, largely because of claims by Islamic State that it subscribes to it. Moreover, some estimates say at least 200 Kazakhs are currently fighting alongside terrorist groups in Syria.
Nevertheless, there is no organised terrorist movement in Kazakhstan, and, instead the government has to deal with disparate cells of radicals, where jihadist-Salafism is likely one of many ideologies.
“The fact that the government brought a discussion on disallowing Salafism indicates the government might be either preparing the population or testing its reaction,” Kazakh political analyst Dosym Satpayev told bne IntelliNews. “However, there’s no certain way to predict the likelihood of an actual legal ban.”
“There are approximately 15,000 to 16,000 followers of Salafism in Kazakhstan - they are not all extremists,” Satpayev noted. “The number isn’t small considering Kazakhstan’s population, which raises the following questions. Where will most of them go? Will they reject their beliefs or will they develop an underground form of Salafism?”
The track record of outlawing Islamic movements in Central Asia has generally spawned further radicalisation of prohibited religious groups, as seen by Uzbekistan’s example. The late Islam Karimov contributed to the growth of radical groups such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) through violent crackdowns.
In 1998, in the name of preventing extremism, the Uzbek government adopted one of the world’s most restrictive laws on religion, regulating religious clothing, outlawing most forms of public or independent worship and placing mosques under the de facto control of the state. This forced Uzbekistan’s political Islamic movements underground, leading to radicalisation, especially among the youth, and the creation of IMU.
Kazakhstan itself isn’t foreign to declaring Islamic movements illegal - Kazakh authorities banned Hizb ut-Tahrir al-Islami (HUT) in 2005 and Tablighi Jamaat in 2013. “The forbidding of Taglibi Dzhamaat and HUT movements led to arrests. And what do arrested followers of a radical ideology get in prison? They are [unintentionally] offered a unique platform to spread their beliefs among other prisoners,” Satpayev said. “Thus, the number of the movements’ followers has increased. Similarly, banning Salafi beliefs will lead to an expansion of Salafism.”
The impracticality of such policies raises questions about alternate approaches. Satpayev believes that the Kazakh authorities should focus their efforts on dissuading disciples of radical ideologies instead of imprisoning them.
“I always say - every ‘Trotsky’ needs another ‘Trotsky’ to counter him. Trotsky was the biggest orator of the Bolsheviks. Their opponents lacked a man of equal charisma,” Satpayev suggested. “Kazakhstan is lacking its own ‘Trotskies’ to counter the advocates of radical ideologies - especially someone to work with the youth. There needs to be a focus on education, including Islamic education, not on imposing bans.”
It is also vital to understand that socio-economic factors, such as unemployment, low income and youth marginalisation play a major role in nurturing extremism. In Uzbekistan the rise in religiosity and the sparking of rebellions were a response to poor socioeconomic conditions. Hence, as Kazakhstan faces its worst economic crisis since the late 90s, the responsibility of quelling Islamic radicalism might depend on the effectiveness of the government’s employment programmes and anti-crisis measures.