KESTON NEWS SERVICE: 20.00, 17 January 2002.
Reporting on violations of religious liberty and on religion in communist
and post-communist lands.
______________________________________

KESTON NEWS SERVICE SPECIAL REPORT

KAZAKHSTAN: IS CHIMKENT A HOTBED OF ISLAMIC
RADICALISM? 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. The region
is home to the majority of Kazakhstan�s ethnic Uzbek population, who
are generally considered more devout than the Kazakhs. In off-the-record
conversations with Keston News Service, several officials cited the
presence of "Islamic extremists" in the south of the country as
justification for harsh control over the activity of religious organisations.
On a visit to the region, however, Keston found little evidence to support
this view.

KAZAKHSTAN: IS CHIMKENT A HOTBED OF ISLAMIC
RADICALISM?

by Igor Rotar, Keston News Service

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)

Copyright (c) 2002 Keston Institute. All rights reserved.