A strategic crossroads

A multi-ethnic country with an open approach, engaged in progress and global security. Yet its model of tolerance needs to be seriously reviewed

Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev shaking hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping. Greg Baker/Pool via REUTERS/Contrast
Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev shaking hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping. Greg Baker/Pool via REUTERS/Contrast

With its privileged position at the very heart of Eurasia, at a crossroads on the paths drawn up for the new Silk Roads, Kazakhstan has all the right credentials to be able to carve out a leading role for itself in terms of logistics, diplomacy and international cooperation, and is certainly among the top candidates running for one of the most sought after prizes, becoming a powerhouse of the future.

All these issues were discussed last October last, when Astana became the setting for the sixth edition of the Leaders of World and Traditional Religions Congress, a very inclusive event which saw the participation of more than 80 delegations from as many as 46 different nations. The Congress, which was eagerly endorsed by Kazakh President Nursultan Nazerbaev, is an integral part of a specific national strategy that aims to promote the Kazakh model on a global level, emphasizing as much as possible its apparent religious tolerance, respectfully praised by most of the religious leaders in attendance, and the state of harmony that exists among the many ethnic groups and different faiths, which in Kazakhstan are as many as eighteen. The former Soviet republic, with its mostly Muslim population, has been run by President Nazerbaev ever since 1990, a year before it gained its independence, and over the course of time it has become the most important economic powerhouse in Central Asia. Kazakhstan's growth process, in recent times, has been further bolstered by the organisation of top level summits and meetings, such as those called to try and stabilize the situation in Syria and a number of religious congresses that have definitely certified Kazakhstan's ambition to become one of the main regional hubs for the promotion of peace and global cooperation.

But the idea that the Kazakh model of tolerance has already reached a stage where it can be exported abroad unavoidably clashes with the how things are actually run in the country and the living conditions of a fair number of the country's 18 million inhabitants. Like other governments in the region, the Kazakh authorities appear to exercise a very strict control over religion and certain aspects of its citizens' daily existence, stretching as far as indicating what they should wear or what they can access through the Internet. In modern Kazakhstan, but also in other Central Asian countries like Tajikistan, the government seems to transfer its authoritarian inclinations onto its approach to religion and worship, often justifying its restrictive measures with the need to combat extremist and terrorist organisations. During the course of the religious congress in Astana, as was highly predictable, the issue of terrorism was tabled by most of the leaders in attendance, who (also very predictably) firmly reiterated their condemnation of all forms of extremism.

One of the most interesting addresses was undoubtedly the one by Saidmukarram Abdulkodirzoda, a the mufti of Tajikistan who stressed that it was essential not to get the concept of Islam muddled up with those related to terrorism. «Islam is the religion of peace and tolerance and does not promote extremism», the Islamic scholar explained. To get an idea of the extent to which Central Asia is directly involved in the dossiers that concern international terrorism one only has to review the figures on the numbers of Central Asian Islamic extremists who joined Islamic State fighters, particularly in the Middle East. From 2013 onwards it has been calculated that between 2000 and 5000 men from Central Asia headed to Syria and Iraq to join IS. Besides the threat connected to the potential infiltration of extremists hailing from unruly Afghanistan, which  shares stretches of its borders with Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, in Central Asia, like in the rest of the world, one is also aware of the fear that terrorists may carry out attacks within its national borders.

As it turns out, in recent years, the Central Asian state that has suffered the most terrorist attacks is Kazakhstan, which between 2011 and the present had to withstand over half of all the terrorist attacks carried out in Central Asian countries. One of the bloodiest took place in Aktobe in June 2016 when an extremist unit killed 7 people and injured another 40. In any case, in Central Asia these attacks are rather rare and for the most part are directed at state authorities. The religious congress in Astana was partly organised for this very reason, to stimulate international cooperation and the fight against terrorism by using religion as a tool.

«I personally believe that religious organizations can certainly play an important role in promoting stability and countering violent extremism. But the current approach used by governments in Central Asia, as far as I'm concerned, is prevailingly authoritarian», explains Dr. Edward Lemon, a researcher at the Daniel Morgan Graduate School in Washington. «They [the governments] seek to keep religion in check and prevent it from becoming a social force that might at some point threaten their power. In doing so, my research indicates that they are actually making many Central Asians more susceptible to joining terrorist groups. Central Asian governments have tried to monopolize what it is to be a 'good Muslim', while also trying to put a lid on debate and discussion, and restricting critical thinking. The result is», Lemon adds, «that their younger citizens, when they move to Russia to seek employment, or hear Islamic extremist messages online, appear to be much more vulnerable. I think that terrorist groups have used Islam as a powerful mobilizing force, praying on those with a limited knowledge of religion. To truly realize the goals that mufti Abdulkodirzoda set out in Astana, I think governments in the region need to allow citizens and the many different religious movements in the country more room to openly discuss religion and find ways to develop mutual tolerance». 

If the Kazakh model of religious tolerance appears to be widely perfectible, the country on the other hand seems well on the way to developing very efficient and effective logistics and infrastructure, particularly given its collaboration with China and its participation in the Belt and Road Initiative. The issue of the BRI – the sweeping logistic and infrastructural project announced by Chinese leader Xi Jinping in 2013 – also came up during the sixth religious congress in Astana, where it was addressed by the vice-president of China's Buddhist Association, Chun Yi. During his address, the venerable master insisted on the connection between the development of the BRI and the promotion of Chinese Buddhism along the traditional Silk Road. On the border between China and Kazakhstan, at one of the points furthest in the world from any ocean, the land port of Khorgos is currently being built and is fated to become one of the main hubs of the new Silk Road. By 2020, this dry port will be transferring as many as 500,000 containers a year from China's narrow gauge railways, to the Soviet wider gauge version and vice versa, transforming Kazakhstan into one of the most important commercial hubs throughout Eurasia.

In order to be become a future powerhouse to all intents and purposes, Kazakhstan must undoubtedly perfect its religious tolerance model, which is currently too straight-jacketed, while attempting to get the most out of the growing tension between Russia and the West and from the economic opportunities offered by China, with the aim of setting forth along the luminous path to greatness as soon as possible.

@Cassarian

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