By Ksenia Bondal
Men walk in front of the Nur-Astana mosque in Astana January 22. According to the Spiritual Administration for Muslims of Kazakhstan (DUMK), 4,967 Kazakhstanis gave up extremism and returned to traditional Islam during 2013-2017. [Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP]
ALMATY -- Kazakhstan's efforts to persuade radicalised citizens to return to traditional Islamic thought and forgo extremism are gaining traction, religious officials say.
The Spiritual Administration for Muslims of Kazakhstan (DUMK) says number of believers who "returned" to traditional Islamic thought grew by more than 1.5-fold in 2017 compared to in 2016.
"Each year we strive to modernise work in this field," Yerjan haji Malgajuly Mayamerov, the former mufti of Kazakhstan, said in his 2017 annual report, according to I-news.kz. "Our imams ... meet individuals who have been recruited [to extremist groups], and they conduct hours of conversations. They patiently and logically explain the error of their ways."
"Officials of the [national] Muftiate regularly conduct cultural, spiritual and sporting events with members of destructive ... movements," he said in the report.
According to Malgazhyuly, 4,967 Kazakhstanis returned to traditional Islam between 2013-2017. Among them, the number of "returnees" this year reached 940, compared to 533 individuals in 2016.
In 2017, Aktobe Province had the most former extremists who returned to traditional Islam -- 308. Almaty and Karaganda provinces had 127 and 123 "returnees", respectively.
A special commission established under the DUMK is working to raise awareness through personal conversations with wayward believers as part of the deradicalisation effort, Daulet Alikhanov, an adviser to the country's supreme mufti, told Caravanserai.
Similar rehabilitation work goes on in prisons with citizens convicted of extremism and terrorism.
Members of the special commission meet with convicts to explain the tenets and fundamentals of Islam and to talk about spiritual leaders who have made major contributions to the spread of Islam, Alikhanov said.
During their work, imams read excerpts from the Koran, cite hadiths and argue positions, he said.
"As a result of this diligent work, convicts understand that they have strayed," he said.
"Of course, it doesn't happen in one day -- you need months and sometimes years for them to return to traditional Islam," Alikhanov said. "Some individuals have dived very deep into destructive ideology, and we need to work even more with them, so it sometimes takes several theologians for explanatory work."
Another major concern is preventing rehabilitated extremists from falling again for extremist recruitment.
"In addition to returning them to traditional religion, it is important to prevent the believers from becoming re-infected with the virus of destruction," Alibek Kimanov, an extremism analyst from Astana, told Caravanserai.
The "virus" is constantly mutating as extremist recruiters continue to manufacture false justifications for radical ideas, he said.
"Sometimes you're just floored by how well thought-out [the extremists'] recruitment of religious believers is from a sociological point of view," he said.
Recruiters "know how to ... persuade people that living is not even necessary, [and that] to die and to take others with you are much better."
Kazakhstan is an open country with widespread internet access, through which ideas spread very quickly, Kimanov said.
"Consequently, 'cured' citizens might relapse," he said. "The immune system booster in this case is steady ... educational work by the DUMK."
"Imams and theologians need to constantly improve their professional knowledge to conduct de-radicalisation and to prevent extremism among believers," he added.
Presidents of Central Asian countries overall called 2017 a year of changes and said they foresee further innovations in 2018.
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