Kazakhstan to prepare highly qualified theologians

By Ksenia Bondal

Worshippers listen to a Friday sermon at the Almaty central mosque in October 2015. []

Worshippers listen to a Friday sermon at the Almaty central mosque in October 2015. []

ASTANA -- Supreme Mufti of Kazakhstan Yerjan Mayamerov said preparing highly educated imams is one of the main challenges, as well as improving the country’s theological education system.

He met with the Kazakh Minister for Religious Affairs and Civil Society Nurlan Ermekbayev September 20 to discuss these issues.

Co-operation between government authorities and the SAMK in the fight against extremism and terrorism intensified after the terrorist attacks in Aktobe and Almaty in July.

Imams need religious and secular education

SAMK warns about shortage of professional staff in mosques.

"There are 3,611 clergy members working in Kazakh mosques: imams, mullahs, muezzins (someone who calls Muslims to prayer). There are very few theologians – about 100 people - so most of them work on weekends as well. In addition to Islamic studies experts, we need Quran and Hadith scholars," Bakitbay Beisenbayev, the head of SAMK's religious education and science department, told Caravanserai.

"The country’s main higher education institution where young people gain an education in Islamic studies is Nur Mubarak University,'' Galym Shoykin, the chairman of the Religious Affairs Committee at the Kazakh Ministry for Religious Affairs and Civil Society, told Caravanserai. "Now there are 1,130 students studying there, and 1,321 more people are acquiring knowledge in scores of madrassa colleges across the country."

To prepare highly qualified imams and theologians, Kazakhstan has been increasing the number of grants for their education over the last several years.

"There are 373 grants allocated from the federal budget for 2016-2017 for Kazakh citizens to study free of charge at Nur Murbarak University," Beisenbayev said.

Out of this number, 198 grants totaling an amount of 67.7 million KZT (US $203,300) were given to study at the university and 175 grants for madrassa students for a total of 34.6 million KZT (US $104,050).

The monthly stipend for university students is 28,500 KZT (US $85.50) and for madrassa students - 16,500 KZT (US $49.50).

"For the last three years, the radicalisation of young people in Kazakhstan has increased sharply," Shoykin said. "The attacks in Almaty and Aktobe that occurred in the summer of this year show what it leads to."

He said the government and SAMK have been working together for the last three years to improve training programmes in madrassa colleges.

About 200 people graduate from Nur Mubarak University and another 150 from madrassa colleges every year and start working as imams in different mosques, he said.

"The students also receive a secular education that conforms with the Kazakh Ministry of Education's programme ... [to] work not only in mosques, but also in state agencies," he said.

The SAMK regularly does performance assessments for existing imams as well. According to Shoykin, about 3,000 people went through the SAMK evaluation process in 2014-2015.

Highly qualified imams could "save lost souls"

More than 80% of those who support radical views, as a rule, are people who have wandered astray in good faith - that is, those who have been duped and, defending and practicing religious radicalism, erroneously take it for the essence of religion, Alibek Kimanov, an analyst in the field of law and religion, told Caravanserai.

"If you competently make it clear to them that they are wrong, then most of these people return to traditional Islam. This is natural, because people are not born extremists and radicals, but become them," he said.

Recruiters are not targeting people of mature age, but rather youth, he said.

"Young people become the victims of radical ideological influence owing to a lack of internal resistance to this kind of suggestion and persuasion. And we must use all possible means to protect Kazakh citizens from this."

Mukhamejan Pakirdinov, the director of the dual training centre at the Kunaev Eurasian Law Academy believes that SAMK should travel across Kazakhstan and actively educate youth.

"Let billionaires also actively engage in the fight against religious extremism, and invest their capital in the country’s safety. They would do nothing but benefit from this," he said.

"There are always chances to save lost souls, and any opportunities need to be used. But this work must be carried out by highly qualified professionals, using the appropriate methodology. Comprehensive work done by theologians, psychologists, and other specialists is sufficiently effective at this job," Kimanov said.

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