KAZAKHSTAN SPECIAL REPORT: Is Chimkent A Hotbed of Islamic Radicalism?

Igor Rotar, Keston News Service, 17 January 2002

The Chimkent region of southern Kazakhstan, which borders Uzbekistan, is privately regarded by the Kazakh authorities as the main breeding-ground for religious extremism in the republic. In off-the-record conversations with Keston News Service, several officials have openly cited the presence of "Islamic extremists" in the south of the country as justification for harsh control over the activity of religious organisations. Officials speak of the widespread presence of "Wahhabis", a term frequently deployed in Central Asia to describe both Islamic extremists and ordinary Muslims who simply worship outside state-controlled structures.

The public prosecutor of the department monitoring the activity of state agencies in the public prosecutor's office of Kyzyl-Orda region, Terek Shotayev, admitted to Keston on 8 November that Kazakhstan's constitution and the religion law do not require religious groups to register. He said human rights activists constantly question state sanctions against religious communities that refuse to register, but he was keen to justify these measures. "We must not forget the complex situation in Kazakhstan, where in the south religious extremists hold quite a strong position, particularly the Wahhabis. And so we have to take measures against religious communities that refuse to be registered."

The unwavering attention paid by the authorities to Chimkent region in particular is easily explained: the overwhelming majority of the republic's 330,000 ethnic Uzbeks are concentrated in Chimkent region, making up around 18 per cent of its population. Generally, the Uzbeks are far more devout than the Kazakhs, and consequently the number of Islamic radicals among them is much greater. There is a similar situation in Kyrgyzstan, where radical Islamic parties banned in the country (particularly Hizb-ut-Tahrir) are active in the southern regions, where Uzbeks make up around 30 per cent of the population.

Several foreign experts have echoed government concerns about the alleged activity of Islamic extremists in southern Kazakhstan. Speaking on 7 November 2001 at the Slavic University in Bishkek, Professor Aleksei Malashenko, a scholar-in-residence at the Carnegie Moscow Centre, declared that the threat posed by Islamic extremists in Kazakhstan was greater than in Kyrgyzstan. This is a surprising assertion, given the tense situation in southern Kyrgyzstan. The Hizb-ut-Tahrir party regularly distributes leaflets there calling for the creation of an Islamic caliphate in Central Asia and the Kyrgyz authorities have already prosecuted around 100 people for belonging to Hizb-ut-Tahrir.

By contrast, on a visit to Chimkent region between 5 and 9 January Keston found the official picture of the region as a hotbed of Islamic radicalism hard to recognise. "We have a very calm situation here," the imam-hatyb of the central mosque of Sairam district, Ibadulla Tajidov, told Keston in the village of Sairam, 10 kilometres (six miles) east of Chimkent. "Unlike in Uzbekistan, our Muslims do not get involved in politics and we have neither Wahhabis nor Hizb-ut-Tahrir members." Tajidov added that of the 115 mosques functioning in the district, 90 have been registered.

Tajidov's views are remarkable. Sairam district is known in Kazakhstan as "little Uzbekistan", with 145,000 ethnic Uzbeks making up 70 per cent of the district population. "Our region has the largest number of registered religious organisations in Kazakhstan - 235 mosques and 86 Orthodox churches," Vladimir Zharinov, chief specialist at the department for relations with religious organisations in the office of Chimkent's regional akim (administrator), told Keston in the town of Chimkent on 8 January. "According to the Kazakh law on freedom of conscience and religious associations, registration is not obligatory and therefore, in our region at least, believers who for whatever reasons do not want to register their organisations are not persecuted." He believed the main reason for believers' unwillingness to register religious associations is the registration fee, equivalent to almost 100 US dollars (70 British pounds). "In order to help believers, between 4 July and 4 October registration of religious associations was allowed in Kazakhstan free of charge, and many believers took advantage of that."

Asked by Keston whether any extremist religious organisations were active in Chimkent region, Zharinov responded: "Chimkent is just 110 kilometres [70 miles] from Tashkent. Many of our Uzbeks have relatives in Uzbekistan. And so one may assume that many members of Uzbekistan's underground Islamic movement find refuge here in Kazakhstan. However, at least for the time being, the situation here is very calm. Unlike in southern Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, the Hizb-ut-Tahrir party is practically inactive here." Although four members of the Hizb-ut-Tahrir party were arrested last year in the town of Turkestan, 165 kilometres (100 miles) north-west of Chimkent, he said they were almost immediately released under amnesty. "You will agree that this number of arrests is simply negligible compared to other Central Asian republics."

Such views might be regarded as propaganda by the authorities, were it not for the fact that the opposition agrees. A resident of Sairam village, an English language teacher at the South Kazakhstan pedagogical institute Mirkamol Yuldashev, is called a "Wahhabi" by local residents. He has been called in by the National Security Committee and questioned about his religious views. But, talking to Keston on 7 January in Sairam, Yuldashev agreed that the religious situation in southern Kazakhstan is calm. "Although the authorities are suspicious of people like me, so far they are leaving us alone. There are unregistered mosques in the region and so far the authorities are not troubling the Muslims who meet in them. In my view, the main problem today lies not with the state agencies, but with Muslims themselves, who have got caught up in everyday concerns and have forgotten about God."

The relatively calm religious situation in southern Kazakhstan contrasts sharply with the policies of the Kazakh authorities who, citing the danger of Islamic extremism, are seeking to impose harsh limits on the rights of believers. Since the end of 1998, the government has produced six versions of a new religion law, the latest version being presented to parliament last November. Ninel Fokina, head of the Almaty Helsinki Committee, told Keston on 12 December that the draft law contained many discriminatory clauses relating to faith and age, and unlawfully limited the religious freedoms of Kazakh citizens. (END)