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Kazakhstani religious agencies battle extremism together

By Alexander Bogatik

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Yermek haji Mukhatai (at head of table), the chief imam for DUMK in Oskemen District, East Kazakhstan Province, discusses the fight against extremism with rural imams at the Kokpekti District Mosque October 20. [Khalifa Altai Mosque photo obtained by Alexander Bogatik]

ASTANA -- The Committee for Religious Affairs (KDR) at the Kazakhstani Ministry of Religious Affairs and Civil Society is co-operating with the Spiritual Administration of Muslims of Kazakhstan (DUMK) to counter youth radicalisation.

Kazakhstan has seen hundreds of radicalised citizens join militants inn the Middle East and was shocked when terrorists committed deadly attacks in Aktobe city and Almaty this summer.

In a sign of high-level concern about Aktobe Province, where terrorists killed either seven or eight locals June 5 (media reports vary), Religious Affairs and Civil Society Minister Nurlan Yermekbayev visited the province October 20.

Yermekbayev conferred with officials from the provincial government, provincial DUMK office and NGOs and toured a local seminary. He called for stronger efforts to fight extremism and to stick to traditional Islam.

"We are working to prevent a repeat of the tragedy that took place in Aktobe June 5," he said during a conference with Aktobe college students, according to zakon.kz. "Young people need to go to mosque imams ... for religious knowledge so they do not fall under the influence of destructive movements."

Prevention is the best medicine

Yermekbayev September 19 in Astana conferred with DUMK Chairman and Supreme Mufti Yerjan Mayamerov. They discussed the challenge of providing reliable religious information to youth and of doing preventive work with them.

Strengthening co-operation between the ministry and DUMK on prevention of extremism is essential, they agreed, according to Kazinform.

Preventive work already is taking place nationwide.

Smayyl Seyitbekov, chief imam of Mangystau Province, October 28 in Fort-Shevchenko conferred with schoolteachers, schoolchildren and community elders on extremism.

"We shouldn't fear religion," Seyitbekov said at the meeting October 28, according to muftyat.kg. "If we adhere to traditional Islam ... we will never fall under the sway of extremist organisations."

Seyitbekov explicitly rejected the value of "listening ... to anything and everything on the internet".

In another meeting October 25 in Kokpekti, East Kazakhstan Province, Yermek haji Mukhatai, authorised imam for DUMK in Oskemen (Ust-Kamenogorsk) District, East Kazakhstan Province, conferred with rural imams.

Topics included holding courses on religious literacy and working against extremism.

"Co-operation between the KDR and DUMK represents major work being done in all of the country's provinces," Zhambyl theologian Sanjar Suleimenov told Caravanserai.

The KDR and DUMK complement each other, he said.

"Religious scholars who can work with audiences and explain everything correctly to youth are needed for effective outreach work," he told Caravanserai.

"Imams who explain some things from the perspective of faith have a direct contact with believers and with those inclined toward radicalism," he said.

Addressing youth

Mosques are an ideal location for finding youth, because 85 to 90% of the worshippers in Kazakhstani mosques are young, according to DUMK.

Yaroslav Zvonarev of Janatas recalled how he once attended a meeting with outreach group members.

"After all those terrorist attacks [in Kazakhstan], some friends, classmates and I talked ... about why someone would go down the terrorist path, what motivates them, and why they go to Syria."

"Right then, we were invited to a lecture by an imam, a religious specialist and a teacher," he said. "They explained much to us."

The lecture gave him a "sense of disgust for those who urge people to terrorism and an understanding that sometimes you have to give those recruiters a resounding 'No',", he said.

Women denounce extremism

Women are denouncing extremism too, recognising the abuses that extremists in Syria and Iraq have inflicted on women.

Astana September 23 hosted a conference on "The role of women's organisations in preventing extremism among youth".

Members of DUMK, the KDR and women's groups and civil servants from many agencies attended the event.

"The role of women in modern Kazakhstani society grows every year," according to a KDR statement about the conference. "Women's organisations can have a positive impact on Kazakhstani youth, forming a stable immunity in them from radical ideology."

Some work in enabling women to stand up to radicalism is already taking place. Kazakhstan has had women's clubs called Kyz Jibek since 2013.

Clubs like Kyz Jibek "help radicalised women become involved in community work", Gulnaz Razdykova, director of the Centre for Analysis and Development of Inter-faith Relations in Pavlodar, told Caravanserai. "They can keep them from dropping out of community projects and government programmes."

Universities meanwhile have been creating clubs for female students that encourage moral behaviour and a moderate attitude toward religion.

During the conference in Astana, Abzalbek Gabit, chairman of the KDR, noted his committee's interest in working with women's groups to thwart extremism.

"Kazakhstani women's organisations ... are not limited to problems related to women," Almaty resident Nazerke Miyatova, chairwoman of the women's NGO Akyl, told Caravanserai. "I like the idea of working to prevent extremism."

It is essential to finance women's organisations through the government's contracting system for social services, she said, as well as to teach NGO employees how to work with youth on extremism issues.

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