Monday, April 27, 2009

Kazakhstan: A Secular Muslim State

Our expatriate Russian correspondent Russkiy, after recently returning from Kazakhstan, sent Gates of Vienna a comprehensive report on what he experienced:

I just came back from Kazakhstan and would like to share with you and readership of GoV some of my experience there.

As I have stated before about Kazakhstan, they are a very secular Muslim majority country.

A quick introduction to their history:

The Kazakh nation was founded in 1456 by couple of khans from the region of current Uzbekistan in the territory of southern Kazakhstan. The tribes of Turkic-Mongol background that were living in that territory slowly came under the control of those two khans. Some of those tribes were already Muslim and some were of a shamanistic variety (currently there are very few Kazakhs who are from shamanistic background).

In the 17th century the Russian empire started to expand southeast, and from the east of Kazakh territory tribes of Jungars (who they are I am not sure, but Kazakhs tell me they are Muslim nomadic people from the Chinese territory, Chinese used them to gain control) started to push Kazakhs to the west. This development made Kazakh khans ask the Russian empire for protection. That started the process of Russification of the Kazakh steppe.

Currently Russian influence in Kazakhstan is extensive. The Russian language is utilised more than Kazakh, and there is a definite divide between the Kazakhs of the South (Kazakh-speaking Kazakhs) and Kazakhs of the North and East (Russian-speaking Kazakhs).

It is very interesting, so many conflicting emotions… on the one hand those people (Russian-speaking) are part of Russian culture — they speak Russian, eat Russian food, enjoy Russian humour and music — and on the other hand they still have their patriotism of the Kazakh variety. But this is complicated even more by the fact that a stereotype of a true Kazakh — that being a Kazakh of the south — is looked down upon by the Kazakhs of the north (and the feeling is mutual on the other side). The Kazakhs of north accuse southerners of being stupid barbarians who follow tribal habits and breed corruption.

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I will try to describe the degree of religiosity amongst Kazakhs encountered by saying that the percentage of Muslim Kazakhs (who in theory are all Muslims) is about 60%, however, the number of hijabed women I encountered during the period of two weeks was approximately 4 (excluding old women who are none too representative, as old women among Russian Christians wear scarves too). Compare that to Amsterdam, where I stayed for half a day on my return, and where there were hundreds and hundreds of hijabed women.
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Another interesting fact I have noticed is the pride of Kazakhs in their European heritage. They like to say that their genotype is a mixed one, with about 50% Indo-European, and they are proud of that. They really resent it when someone calls them Asians (even if they look Asian). They often make derogatory statements about African Americans that I will not utter here.

Another interesting phenomenon I found here is that although they love Europe and the West, they make fun of its masochistic behaviour that all well educated Kazakhs observe when travel to Europe. I would not have any reservations saying the following to a Kazakh: “Those stupid Brits letting all those Pakistanis into their country, look what mess they have made, all the terrorism…” As long as I don’t make Islam the factor in my bashing of some ethnic group, everything would be fine.

I was discussing American emigration policy with respect to Latinos with one Kazakh, and he sounded like Rush Limbaugh in his attitude.

On a negative note, during the few times I watched TV — and on a few local analytical programs that discussed the economic crisis — a member of the audience (in that case a young, fashionably dressed, Kazakh girl) started talking about Islamic banking, and asking why is it not used in the country and saying that countries like the Emirates who use Islamic banking weren’t hit by the crisis as hard, etc.

Another time they showed a bank that received funds from Islamic countries to loan under Islamic conditions.

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As I mentioned before, Kazakhs like the West, but they also love Timur (Timurlane), whom they consider one of their own. I have heard this sentiment twice from two different people, and it may be fairly widespread. The sentiment is that Timur saved the world… How? you may ask. By attacking the Ottoman Turks, and preventing them from taking over Europe when Europe was weak, and therefore allowing the Renaissance to occur. I know it is fascinating, only because one group of Muslim Turks are supporting Europe against another bunch of Muslim Turks.

As you understand, I had to be extra careful not to say anything I would have regretted, but I did say that the Indians didn’t share their enthusiasm for Timur. They did concede that he killed a lot of people, but after all, they said, those were different times.

On the other occasion, I talked to two Kazakh women in their late 20s and early 30s (friends of my wife). They have traveled through Middle East and Turkey, and were commenting on how badly men in those countries behaved towards women. They also commented on the poor state of the affairs in those countries even compared to Kazakhstan. Then one of the girls told me that she started to read Qur’an after coming back from the Middle East, because she felt embarrassed because she didn’t know anything about their religion.

I told her not to go into it too much, as it is obvious that degree of religiosity is proportionate to the poor state of affairs and poor treatment of women in those countries. And I think she listened to me.

Another Kazakh complained that he was going to become a Buddhist, because he did not like Islam very much. He complained that “mullahs are bloody corrupt and that it seems Islam only breeds terrorism and misery.”

You must understand that I was talking to people from a middle class, Russified background, one may say not real Kazakhs, but I think this attitude in various degrees is prevalent in a large part of the Kazakh population.

I do feel that many of them make a connection between Middle East and other Muslim countries and backwardness and terrorism. These people, unless they have some idealistic, left-wing views, have very racist attitude towards Africans, Gypsies, Chinese, other Central Asians (not so much, but sometimes make statements that indicate such attitudes), Turks (from Turkey, as they are themselves Turks), and Middle Easterners. Basically, I didn’t detect any solidarity towards other Third-Worlders or other Muslims.

I did not found much anti-Semitism there (the same degree that is encountered in Russia, one may argue that Russia is full of anti-Semites, and you do get skinheads who hate Jews, but there are hundreds of thousands of Jews who live there in relative safety, as safe as it is for other Russians, and the majority of Russians, if they do not love them, at least respect them for their contribution to society) at least not as much as amongst many other Muslims I have met over the years. At most people joke about cunningness of Jews and their love of money, but the same joke is applied to another Turkic group there, the Tatars.

Another interesting development there is that in recent years there have been many more interethnic unions between Russian men and Kazakh women. Before they were fairly rare, as compared to marriages where the man is a Kazakh and the wife is Russian.

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A final anecdote about my conversation with the local mullah.

The family I was staying with visited a local mullah. When I was told that he was coming, I started to imagine to myself a bearded old man. I was wrong on that account, that mullah couldn’t even grow one; I think he would have been executed under Taliban in Afghanistan.

I started my conversation with him on the wrong foot — earlier on he read an opening verse of the Qur’an in Arabic, so when I addressed him in Arabic I was hoping he would answer. He just looked at me confused and told me that he doesn’t speak Arabic, he just learned certain verses of the Qur’an by heart in the seminary. From my conversation with him I gathered that he was preaching “righteous Islamic lifestyle” to the fellow Kazakhs but with all respect, his preaching was falling on deaf ears. I think because I started addressing him in Arabic he must have thought that I was a Muslim since he was consulting with me on some issues in the Qur’an. I really felt strange — I wanted to debate that guy; I didn’t want to reassure him in his belief system, but it wasn’t easy to do if I wanted to maintain a good relationship with those people, because if I gave them my criticism they would have gotten upset.

In some ways it is harder to argue about religion with cultural non-Arab Muslims, as they have a totally different idea of what Islam actually is. The majority of Muslims in Kazakhstan believe that all religions are the same, even Hindus and Buddhists; the understanding of what is Halal and what is Haram is completely absent.

The mullah has undertaken the Hajj, and was rather impressed with Saudi Arabia. I asked him what he thought of the strict rules there and he replied that they live by the rule of God’s law. I didn’t manage to get him to criticise anything in Saudi Arabia.

I asked him how successful he was in preaching, etc. He told me that it was very difficult, as the sinful ways of the Kazakhs are so ingrained and that they don’t listen to him and don’t go to the mosque.

This brings me to a question I was wondering about for a while: if you ignore foreign Muslims from Arabia or countries like Pakistan, Afghanistan etc, who influence the behaviour of converts to Islam in Western countries, would the converts actually behave the in same backward way the Third World Muslims do? I mean, they have been brought up in Western culture, where their mothers, sisters etc, had complete freedom, and if they are female converts, how can they turn into Muslim stereotypes without the influence of foreign Muslims?

In a country like Kazakhstan, where I spent two weeks, you don’t even think you are amongst Muslims. I saw more churches there than mosques. So it is definitely the case that it is possible to have a country with a majority Muslim population and also have a very secular non-religious population who are not interested for most part in anything like what they have in the Middle East.



John Sobieski said...

Sounds like many kazakhs are apostates and don't even know it.

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

I don't have a problem with the Kazakhs in general, but I don't like their government, as I detail here. Semi-off-topic, I know, as the point of this essay wasn't about the government but rather the regular people.

Zvonko M. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

Natalie Said: I don't have a problem with the Kazakhs in general, but I don't like their government, as I detail here. Semi-off-topic, I know, as the point of this essay wasn't about the government but rather the regular people.

Their government is very corrupt, the government is not incouraging local industries as they are getting money from foreign suppliers to import at an advantage.

The life is hell for those of them who are involved in the opposition to the government, their businesses are scrutinised until they are forced to sell at a loss.

On the other hand, people say that they are happy there's no war and their living conditions are better than in many other countries in the region. Having said that, Kazakhstan is very rich in natural resources, the economy should be much better than what it is.

Czechmade said...

In Kazakhstan you may have such funny stories as shamans married to muslim women. Given the intersection position Kazakhstan is very interesting. It works balancing somehow the surrounding supremacies of Russia, China, Turkey, the West.

We might do a wonderful job highlighting them and show them some respect. Most Kazakhs expats right now live in Germany. (It was easier to go to Germany with Kazakh passport than with Russian for reasons I do not understand) Does any GoV reader from Germany have the leisure to find out more?

Czechmade said...

Kazakhstan is divided in 6 tribes. We should learn how to deal with it.

Going to another tribe territory the Kazakh misses the support of his tribe. Are we as ousiders more free to move around without having to calculate the tribal "diversity" (MC PC hahaha)?

Unknown said...


You are not right about tribal stuff, it is not very widespread, rural Kazakhs from the south who are culturally closer to the real muslims of Uzbekistan behave in a tribal fashion, they are the cause of many corruption problems. People of the north and east are not tribal at all, they do acknowledge the fact that they historically belong to a certain tribe, but that makes no real difference in the interaction with each other and members of other tribes.

Hesperado said...

According to this analysis --

"...these two extremist groups [Taliban and Wahhabis] had relatively no influence with the Muslims in both Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan I have met ... On the other hand, other groups did have a strong influence on Muslims. One such group of Muslims was known as the Nurcu (pronounced Nur-ju).

"Nurcus are Turkish Muslims who follow the teachings of Bediuzzaman Said Nursi and/or Fetullah Gulen (there are more than one group of Nurcus in Turkey). Said Nursi is famous for his books, "The Words" ... The Words have inspired many Muslims and non-Muslims alike, including myself. When Nursi Said died, Fetullah Gulen, currently exiled in Pennsylvania, USA, continued his teachings..."

For anybody who doubts the insidious danger of Fethullah Gulen, consider these quotes from him in television sermons sometime after the year 1982 (when he was over 40 years old):

You must move in the arteries of the system, without anyone noticing your existence, until you reach all the power centers… until the conditions are ripe, they [the followers] must continue like this. If they do something prematurely, the world will crush our heads, and Muslims will suffer everywhere, like in the tragedies in Algeria, like in 1982 [in] Syria… like in the yearly disasters and tragedies in Egypt. The time is not yet right. You must wait for the time when you are complete, and conditions are ripe, until we can shoulder the entire world and carry it… You must wait until such time as you have gotten all the state power, until you have brought to your side all the power of the constitutional institutions in Turkey… Until that time, any step taken would be too early - like breaking an egg without waiting the full 40 days for it to hatch. It would be like killing the chick inside. The work to be done is [in] confronting the world. Now, I have expressed my feelings and thoughts to you all - in confidence… trusting your loyalty and sensitivity to secrecy. I know that when you leave here - [just] as you discard your empty juice boxes, you must discard the thoughts and feelings expressed here.And

The philosophy of our service is that we open a house somewhere and, with the patience of a spider, we lay our web, to wait for people to get caught in the web; and we teach those who do. We don't lay the web to eat or consume them, but to show them the way to their resurrection, to blow life into their dead bodies and souls, to give them a life.

Also, according to this BBC report,

"The Nur sect [= Nurcus] is enormously wealthy and runs schools and universities in Turkey, Central Asia and the Middle East. The BBC Ankara correspondent says many people regard Mr Gulen as a moderate figure but influential sections of Turkey's secular establishment are suspicious of a man who wields considerable power"

Hesperado said...

Natalie wrote:

"but I don't like their government"

I like their government -- at least for the reason that they try to crack down on Wahhabis, Taliban, and Hizb-ut-Tahrir, three loose networks of Islamic terrorists/supremacists trying to get support from Kazakh people.

Apparently, these Islamic groups (and others, like the Nurcus) are having some degree of success, else why is the government concerned to crack down on them?

Anonymous said...

Erich, did you not read my post on my blog that I linked to? The "president" of Kazakhstan is a de facto dictator who's clamped down on quite a number of freedoms.

Anonymous said...

Good post. In fact, the population of Kazakhstan is very heterogenous and you cant' pinpoint the "true" / "authentic" Kazakhs easuly. After all, there are many Kazakhs who were born into the mostly European Soviet culture and who dont identify themsleves with anything muslim at all. There are generations of atheist, (only) Russian-speaking families in Kazakhstan who could claim tot represent the "true" identity better than the muslim-wannabes that you have mentioned.