Strengthening Religious Harmony While Stamping Out Extremism in Kazakhstan

As a country, Kazakhstan has achieved many accomplishments in our first 25 years as an independent nation. Living standards for our citizens have improved dramatically, for example, and the respect we have built up as a global champion for peace and disarmament has seen us become the first Central Asian state to be elected to the United Nations Security Council.

No achievement, however, has been more important than the way in which a stable and harmonious society has been built from our very diverse population. A combination of factors including our geographical location and an often-troubled recent history resulted in people of different backgrounds and faiths living within our borders. We have worked hard to ensure every group is respected, able to make their full contribution to our society and co-exists peacefully.

This is certainly the case with religious beliefs. Although the majority of people in Kazakhstan are considered to be Muslims, our state is secular and followers of all the world’s great faiths are guaranteed freedom of conscience and equality before the law. The Islam traditionally practiced in Kazakhstan has always been linked and gone hand-in-hand with our ethnic habits and ways, and is moderate in outlook with no tolerance of religious fanaticism.

Within our borders, there are 2,550 operating mosques and 294 Russian Orthodox churches to serve the two largest religious groups. Moreover, there are also 108 Catholic churches, 495 Protestant churches, seven synagogues, two Buddhist temples as well as prayer houses for the Hare Krishna and Bahai communities.

Kazakhstan has played its part internationally through successful initiatives such as the Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions to increase understanding between different faiths and to unite efforts in fighting extremism in the name of religion. We are proud of the good relations that exist between faith communities and the state and, importantly, between every citizen. This respect and understanding has been a major part of our success as a country. 

Nevertheless, as it is the case with many other countries, we face increasing threats from outside our borders to this stability and harmony. Last year, Kazakhstan experienced two terrorist attacks, which had their roots in violent religious extremism and radicalism.

We have also seen small numbers of our young people, as has happened throughout Central Asia and Europe, attracted by the savage ideologies of groups like the so called ISIL. We need to step up our efforts to prevent our youth from radicalization.

Linked to these serious threats, Kazakhstan has seen, as is again the case in many other places, the import of more extreme interpretations of religion into our country. These radical beliefs are entirely alien to our moderate national traditions. They undermine the secular nature of our state and risk inter-faith tensions.

It is to counter these threats and protect the right of the overwhelming peaceful and moderate majority to worship freely that Kazakhstan has developed a new framework for the relationship between religion and the state formulated in the Concept for State Policy in Religious Affairs up to 2020. The Concept has two goals:

-         To formulate a system of views and approaches of the state in its interaction with religious organisations;

-         To send a clear message to the population of Kazakhstan on the Government’s attitude to religion.

The Concept will be the basis for policies and practical steps. The aim is to define more clearly boundaries and responsibilities, and put in place new programmes, so our country continues to be known for its harmony and stability, respect for religious beliefs and tolerance between different faiths.

We believe that it is not the government’s role to interfere in the internal workings of religions and there is no intention to do so. The framework clearly declares the continued freedom of conscience for individuals and the right for freedom of associations for over 3,500 faith organisations in our country. However, it is the responsibility of all governments to ensure that a platform is not given to those preaching hatred and violence.

Though the framework rests heavily on our own culture and experience, it was also drawn up after examining how partners such as America, the European Union, China and Russia are responding to similar challenges. It has helped shape the adoption of policies, in particular those which will lead to greater transparency over finances in order to help prevent the misuse of religious donations to fund extremism.

There is, however, no single system of interaction between government and religion. Even within the Islamic world, there is no uniformity in the interpretation of religious dogma. We believe that we have a right to develop our own model which balances the importance of faith for moral and spiritual health with the preservation of our historic and ethnic traditions. Our secular government structure itself is a part of this tradition.    

We are also employing new methods to prevent religion being used as a justification to flout the law or divide communities. We should expect all marriages, for example, to be registered legally. Nor should religion be used as an excuse to damage the education of children or put their health at risk by preventing vaccinations. We will not allow, either, the clock to be turned back on gender equality. 

If we are to succeed in countering religious extremism and preventing division, new rules must be coupled with improved education programmes. In particular, we need to inform young people about the distortion of religion as well as increase their understanding of what the different religions have in common. We are keen for the involvement of all 18 faiths represented in our country to help us ensure  these education initiatives are as effective as possible.

It is clear that Kazakhstan is not the only country which faces these threats to the security and stability of society. Many countries across the world are also struggling with the same challenges. 

We have worked very hard as a country to build a stable and tolerant society and we do not want to see it threatened by religious extremism and fundamentalism, whether it is from beyond or within our borders. The steps we are taking are aimed to protect the stability of our country against those who abuse faith for their own perverted ends while protecting the moral and spiritual values in our national life.

Nurlan Yermekbayev

Minister for Religious Affairs and Civil Society of Kazakhstan

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