ALMATY -- Kazakhstan's development of a system of higher spiritual education might give young people a more solid foundation of knowledge to help ward off extremists seeking to radicalise them, researchers and academics say.
Kazakhstan's only university that provides spiritual education is the Nur-Mubarak Egyptian University of Islamic Culture.
Situated in Almaty, it certifies 200 religious studies scholars and clerics each year. Currently, 2,000 young men and women are studying there, Majit Junisbekov, the university's spokesperson, told Caravanserai.
To provide "genuine knowledge" to its students, Nur-Mubarak's leadership last year invited 18 Ph.D.'s in Islamic studies from Al-Azhar University in Cairo, the oldest Islamic spiritual university, to come teach, said Junisbekov.
Nur-Mubarak's Islamic studies department has trained 60% of the country's imams, said Junisbekov. The school also has a religious studies programme and offers Arabic and English.
A foundation for life
The university teaches Islamic studies as a full-fledged way of life, and instructors try to provide a foundation for all its elements, Junisbekov said.
In addition, members of the public who are not enrolled at Nur-Mubarak may attend free Arabic-language courses on its campus, he said.
At the same time, every mosque in the country offers free courses for men and women, taught by Nur-Mubarak graduates, Junisbekov added. At these classes, worshippers learn the basics of religion, Arabic, reading of the Koran and rules for proper dress and prayer.
"Someone who lacks a foundation is quickly lost," he said. "Terrorist groups pull him into their ranks, and then, like cannon fodder, they send him to Syria or to Iraq," Junisbekov said.
"'Sheikh Google' is ready to answer every question," correctly or not," he said, referring to naive use of the search engine for religious information. "Youth have an informational vacuum that will be filled either with accurate information about spiritual values, or with destructive ideas."
"The internet has sources of accurate information" such as "islam.kz and azan.kz, but they are not included in search engines' top results," Junisbekov explained.
"Instead, extremist websites receive a greater marketing push ... as a result, young men quickly end up on these websites, which repeat the same thing methodically to them, and they begin to take it on faith," he added.
Youth must have correct information so that they see Islam as a peaceful religion that has no place for coercion or cruelty, Junisbekov said.
Researchers have confirmed the importance of youth acquiring a base of knowledge centred around spirituality.
The stories "of children involved in violent extremism begin with early deprivation of parental care and attention, as well as a traumatic youth spent in deprivation and accompanied by numerous humiliations and losses [of a home, loved ones, property, etc.]," Zakon.kz reported April 25.
If children have no emotional ties, they will compensate ideologically or religiously, according to Zakon.kz.
In particular, they compensate with "fanatical devotion to one leader or another or to ideas and religious-utopian dreams of a perfect world," it added.
According to research, since "we can see the prerequisites of radicalisation even in early childhood, preventive work at an early age will be the most effective response. One of the important parts of preventive work is religious education," said Zakon.kz.
Even then, such education must be provided with care, noted Irina Chernykh, chief researcher at the Kazakhstan Institute for Strategic Studies in Almaty.
When a family sees signs of radicalisation in a child, the time has come to ask whether he or she should have a religious education, she told Caravanserai, adding that the question must be broached gently, depending on the child's religious denomination.