Kazakhstan introduces online strategies for preventing extremism

By Ksenia Bondal

A man in Kazakhstan searches for information online. [Aydar Ashimov]

A man in Kazakhstan searches for information online. [Aydar Ashimov]

ALMATY -- Kazakh theologians, religious scholars and psychologists are moving to include online work as part of efforts to prevent the spread of extremism.

By the end of this year, Nur-Sultan's specialists in religion and psychology will work in both online and in-person formats as part of a decision made by Nur-Sultan's municipal Directorate for Religious Affairs and municipal Centre for Research on Religious Problems.

Awareness work under the new format has taken place among the public since August 17, according to a August 19 statement from the Nur-Sultan akimat (mayor's office) press office.

"These are online lectures delivered through daily live broadcasts on the 'Elorda_cipr' Instagram page, as well as offline lectures with specialists' direct participation that took place at organisations and businesses in the capital," the press service said.

"In all formats, [the lecturers] provide complete information in response to listeners' relevant questions," it added.

Analysts have been meeting with vendors and employees since August 17 at a number of markets and shopping centres in Nur-Sultan.

The analysts provided information on laws concerning religion, the dangers of destructive movements and ways for their listeners to protect themselves and their loved ones from extremist recruiters.

Such meetings are set to continue until the end of the year, taking into account the sanitary and epidemiological situation.

Fighting extremism with online resources

"Now that there is a quarantine, it is not possible to gather in large groups," said Asylbek Izbairov, an extremism prevention specialist from Almaty, referring to the coronavirus pandemic.

Working via the internet means that "there is no need to waste time travelling in order to work with an audience ... in another city," Izbairov said. "There's no need to look for an office to gather an audience for a discussion or lecture."

However, working remotely does not produce the effect of in-person meetings, when you can feel the audience, he said.

"If you see that the audience is losing interest in your words or arguments, then you can immediately react and take control," Izbairov said of in-person events.

"Just as a surgeon cannot remove a malignant tumour using an online connection, it won't be possible to fully help someone who is seriously 'sick' with radical ideas," he added.

Remote work can be beneficial even for the radicalised, said Yerlan Dosmagambetov, a doctoral candidate in religious studies at Al-Farabi Kazakh National University in Almaty.

However, for it to succeed with the radicalised, the theologian or religious scholar must already have established a rapport with them, he said.

"Dissuasion is delicate and painstaking work, so psychological rapport with the person being rehabilitated is needed," he said.

Dosmagambetov recalled "occasions when those whom we were rehabilitating ... during a telephone conversation, told their former 'fellow travellers' to listen to us".

Convicted of terrorism crimes

Since the beginning of the year, Kazakh courts have convicted 32 defendants of terrorism-related crimes, Kazakh Supreme Court judge Yerden Aripov announced August 20. He was speaking at an online meeting held jointly in Kazakhstan with the American Bar Association in Kazakhstan Rule of Law Initiative.

"If earlier our state was categorised as having average risk in the global counter-terrorism ranking, now Kazakhstan is a country with an insignificant threat of terrorism," Aripov said at the meeting.

The 32 convicted defendants received sentences ranging from two to 12 years.

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