By Ksenia Bondal
A screen shot from an 'Islamic State' propaganda video shows a boy from Kazakhstan being trained to use an assortment of guns.
ASTANA -- A new Kazakhstani charity is helping the government and clergy fight extremism's inroads, say observers.
The Astana-based Uakyp Foundation, which was registered with the Justice Ministry July 1, is a charity meant to help clergy develop social and religious projects and to protect Kazakhstanis from extremist influence, Yerkin Ongarbayev, acting chairman of the country's Committee for Religious Affairs, told Caravanserai.
Uakyp (meaning "good deeds") "is focused on preventing ... radicalism and extremism, giving our citizens immunity from destructive religious ideology, rehabilitating the victims of destructive religious movements and helping the poor, unemployed, handicapped, etc.," he said. "It will help finance social projects in these areas and will support the development of the clergy."
The foundation's registration occurred after instructions came from President Nursultan Nazarbayev.
Until now, donations to religious groups, legitimate or not, have taken place in Kazakhstan with little or no oversight from government.
The founders of Uakyp are a number of agencies and organisations, including the Spiritual Administration of Muslims of Kazakhstan (DUMK), the Astana-based Congress of Religious Scholars of Kazakhstan, and the Religious Affairs and Civil Society Ministry's in-house think tank on religious matters.
"Kazakhstan is finally moving toward a civilised and transparent form of religiously and spiritually oriented charity work," Alim Shaumetov, director of the Astana-based outreach and rehabilitation centre Akniyet, told Caravanserai. "There are many well-off Muslims in [Kazakhstan] ... They currently leave their donations in mosques, but now they can do it through a registered foundation."
Uakyp primarily will facilitate social projects aimed at preventing radicalism and extremism and will be setting up training for clerics on the basics of government policy, economics, philosophy and the social sciences, said Ongarbayev.
The foundation plans to conduct various seminars and to screen anti-extremism documentaries and feature films, he added.
"We hope to channel funds into projects that are truly useful for society," he said, adding that Uakyp will provide social and economic assistance to imams living in remote areas or villages.
The foundation is awaiting its first infusion of funding, which will come "soon", according to Ongarbayev. It expects to receive funds from various private sources
Transparency matters in the campaign to prevent fraud or steering of funds into radicalism.
"It's important to know how [Uakyp's work] is financed, both for the foundation and for the projects where it will invest its money," Almaty security consultant Rasul Rysmamebetov told Caravanserai. "Educational programmes receiving [Uakyp's] money should be well defined and have clear goals."
All of Uakyp's activities "including allotment and spending of funds, will be performed in accordance with Kazakhstani law", said Ongarbayev.
"The foundation's board of trustees will approve charity programmes," said Ongarbayev.
"It's likely that the state wants to centralise the reporting for incoming [religious and charitable] revenues and to gain a picture of the cash flow related to religion," he added. "[Random] donations by foreigners and Kazakhstanis make it hard for the government to oversee this socially significant area."
One commentator, Aidso Sarym, an Almaty political scientist, had ideas for further reforms.
"In terms of Islamic education, we have done quite a bit in the past few years," he said. "The number of scholarships for majoring in religious studies has gone up."
"Now the task before the government and society is to keep track of the quality of the work done," he said.
Sarym pointed to a potential problem that arises in the countryside, where imams often face poverty and the temptation to find other sources of income.
"I have a more radical solution," said Sarym. "Give imams and mullahs the same status as civilian social workers [and the corresponding government salaries]."
"In many villages ... the mosque is one of the few centres where people gather and where social and civic activity goes on."
Presidents of Central Asian countries overall called 2017 a year of changes and said they foresee further innovations in 2018.
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