The growth of orthodox—and in some cases militant—forms of Islam is leading to a belated attempt to manage the new religious pluralism in Kazakhstan. A special section on religion in Kazakhstan in the the journal Central Asia and the Caucasus (Volume 12, Number 3) reports that the delicate balancing act maintained by the Kazakh leaders between the Russian Orthodox Church (representing about one-quarter of the population) and Islam (63 percent) is failing, particularly after extremist incidents took place last summer.
The government has attempted to control Islam through the organization SAMK (Spiritual Administration of Muslim Kazakhstan), which encourages traditional Sufi and moderate expressions of the religion. But the younger generations now gravitate toward orthodox and in some cases extremist Islam. By SAMK’s own estimate, by 2009 only about half of the mosques were under its administration, according to writer Kadyrzhan Smagulov. While religious devotion was previously strongest in rural areas and among ethnic minorities, today religious revival is most prevalent in the large cities and among Kazakhs.
Arab “missionaries” from Saudi Arabia, particularly in the western oil-rich regions of the country, have spread Salafi Islam. The government’s involvement in Islamic financing as an alternative to the weakening Anglo-American model during the economic crisis has also facilitated Islamic growth. The Russian Orthodox Church has also become alienated from the government, at the same time as new Kazakh theologians and their followers are coming into conflict with the official clergy in Russia.
Non-traditional religions—from evangelical Protestantism to Scientology—have likewise grown (from 671 organizations in 1990 up to 4,300 today). Smagulov concludes that these developments have forced the government to pay more attention to religious issues, including regulating non-traditional groups.
(Central Asia and the Caucasus, Press AB, Hubertusstigen 9, 97455 Sweden)