Our expatriate Russian correspondent Russkiy, after recently returning from Kazakhstan, sent Gates of Vienna a comprehensive report on what he experienced:
I just came back from Kazakhstan and would like to share with you and readership of GoV some of my experience there.
As I have stated before about Kazakhstan, they are a very secular Muslim majority country.
A quick introduction to their history:
The Kazakh nation was founded in 1456 by couple of khans from the region of current Uzbekistan in the territory of southern Kazakhstan. The tribes of Turkic-Mongol background that were living in that territory slowly came under the control of those two khans. Some of those tribes were already Muslim and some were of a shamanistic variety (currently there are very few Kazakhs who are from shamanistic background).
In the 17th century the Russian empire started to expand southeast, and from the east of Kazakh territory tribes of Jungars (who they are I am not sure, but Kazakhs tell me they are Muslim nomadic people from the Chinese territory, Chinese used them to gain control) started to push Kazakhs to the west. This development made Kazakh khans ask the Russian empire for protection. That started the process of Russification of the Kazakh steppe.
Currently Russian influence in Kazakhstan is extensive. The Russian language is utilised more than Kazakh, and there is a definite divide between the Kazakhs of the South (Kazakh-speaking Kazakhs) and Kazakhs of the North and East (Russian-speaking Kazakhs).
It is very interesting, so many conflicting emotions… on the one hand those people (Russian-speaking) are part of Russian culture — they speak Russian, eat Russian food, enjoy Russian humour and music — and on the other hand they still have their patriotism of the Kazakh variety. But this is complicated even more by the fact that a stereotype of a true Kazakh — that being a Kazakh of the south — is looked down upon by the Kazakhs of the north (and the feeling is mutual on the other side). The Kazakhs of north accuse southerners of being stupid barbarians who follow tribal habits and breed corruption.
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I will try to describe the degree of religiosity amongst Kazakhs encountered by saying that the percentage of Muslim Kazakhs (who in theory are all Muslims) is about 60%, however, the number of hijabed women I encountered during the period of two weeks was approximately 4 (excluding old women who are none too representative, as old women among Russian Christians wear scarves too). Compare that to Amsterdam, where I stayed for half a day on my return, and where there were hundreds and hundreds of hijabed women.
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Another interesting fact I have noticed is the pride of Kazakhs in their European heritage. They like to say that their genotype is a mixed one, with about 50% Indo-European, and they are proud of that. They really resent it when someone calls them Asians (even if they look Asian). They often make derogatory statements about African Americans that I will not utter here.
Another interesting phenomenon I found here is that although they love Europe and the West, they make fun of its masochistic behaviour that all well educated Kazakhs observe when travel to Europe. I would not have any reservations saying the following to a Kazakh: “Those stupid Brits letting all those Pakistanis into their country, look what mess they have made, all the terrorism…” As long as I don’t make Islam the factor in my bashing of some ethnic group, everything would be fine.
I was discussing American emigration policy with respect to Latinos with one Kazakh, and he sounded like Rush Limbaugh in his attitude.
On a negative note, during the few times I watched TV — and on a few local analytical programs that discussed the economic crisis — a member of the audience (in that case a young, fashionably dressed, Kazakh girl) started talking about Islamic banking, and asking why is it not used in the country and saying that countries like the Emirates who use Islamic banking weren’t hit by the crisis as hard, etc.
Another time they showed a bank that received funds from Islamic countries to loan under Islamic conditions.
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As I mentioned before, Kazakhs like the West, but they also love Timur (Timurlane), whom they consider one of their own. I have heard this sentiment twice from two different people, and it may be fairly widespread. The sentiment is that Timur saved the world… How? you may ask. By attacking the Ottoman Turks, and preventing them from taking over Europe when Europe was weak, and therefore allowing the Renaissance to occur. I know it is fascinating, only because one group of Muslim Turks are supporting Europe against another bunch of Muslim Turks.
As you understand, I had to be extra careful not to say anything I would have regretted, but I did say that the Indians didn’t share their enthusiasm for Timur. They did concede that he killed a lot of people, but after all, they said, those were different times.
On the other occasion, I talked to two Kazakh women in their late 20s and early 30s (friends of my wife). They have traveled through Middle East and Turkey, and were commenting on how badly men in those countries behaved towards women. They also commented on the poor state of the affairs in those countries even compared to Kazakhstan. Then one of the girls told me that she started to read Qur’an after coming back from the Middle East, because she felt embarrassed because she didn’t know anything about their religion.
I told her not to go into it too much, as it is obvious that degree of religiosity is proportionate to the poor state of affairs and poor treatment of women in those countries. And I think she listened to me.
Another Kazakh complained that he was going to become a Buddhist, because he did not like Islam very much. He complained that “mullahs are bloody corrupt and that it seems Islam only breeds terrorism and misery.”
You must understand that I was talking to people from a middle class, Russified background, one may say not real Kazakhs, but I think this attitude in various degrees is prevalent in a large part of the Kazakh population.
I do feel that many of them make a connection between Middle East and other Muslim countries and backwardness and terrorism. These people, unless they have some idealistic, left-wing views, have very racist attitude towards Africans, Gypsies, Chinese, other Central Asians (not so much, but sometimes make statements that indicate such attitudes), Turks (from Turkey, as they are themselves Turks), and Middle Easterners. Basically, I didn’t detect any solidarity towards other Third-Worlders or other Muslims.
I did not found much anti-Semitism there (the same degree that is encountered in Russia, one may argue that Russia is full of anti-Semites, and you do get skinheads who hate Jews, but there are hundreds of thousands of Jews who live there in relative safety, as safe as it is for other Russians, and the majority of Russians, if they do not love them, at least respect them for their contribution to society) at least not as much as amongst many other Muslims I have met over the years. At most people joke about cunningness of Jews and their love of money, but the same joke is applied to another Turkic group there, the Tatars.
Another interesting development there is that in recent years there have been many more interethnic unions between Russian men and Kazakh women. Before they were fairly rare, as compared to marriages where the man is a Kazakh and the wife is Russian.
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A final anecdote about my conversation with the local mullah.
The family I was staying with visited a local mullah. When I was told that he was coming, I started to imagine to myself a bearded old man. I was wrong on that account, that mullah couldn’t even grow one; I think he would have been executed under Taliban in Afghanistan.
I started my conversation with him on the wrong foot — earlier on he read an opening verse of the Qur’an in Arabic, so when I addressed him in Arabic I was hoping he would answer. He just looked at me confused and told me that he doesn’t speak Arabic, he just learned certain verses of the Qur’an by heart in the seminary. From my conversation with him I gathered that he was preaching “righteous Islamic lifestyle” to the fellow Kazakhs but with all respect, his preaching was falling on deaf ears. I think because I started addressing him in Arabic he must have thought that I was a Muslim since he was consulting with me on some issues in the Qur’an. I really felt strange — I wanted to debate that guy; I didn’t want to reassure him in his belief system, but it wasn’t easy to do if I wanted to maintain a good relationship with those people, because if I gave them my criticism they would have gotten upset.
In some ways it is harder to argue about religion with cultural non-Arab Muslims, as they have a totally different idea of what Islam actually is. The majority of Muslims in Kazakhstan believe that all religions are the same, even Hindus and Buddhists; the understanding of what is Halal and what is Haram is completely absent.
The mullah has undertaken the Hajj, and was rather impressed with Saudi Arabia. I asked him what he thought of the strict rules there and he replied that they live by the rule of God’s law. I didn’t manage to get him to criticise anything in Saudi Arabia.
I asked him how successful he was in preaching, etc. He told me that it was very difficult, as the sinful ways of the Kazakhs are so ingrained and that they don’t listen to him and don’t go to the mosque.
This brings me to a question I was wondering about for a while: if you ignore foreign Muslims from Arabia or countries like Pakistan, Afghanistan etc, who influence the behaviour of converts to Islam in Western countries, would the converts actually behave the in same backward way the Third World Muslims do? I mean, they have been brought up in Western culture, where their mothers, sisters etc, had complete freedom, and if they are female converts, how can they turn into Muslim stereotypes without the influence of foreign Muslims?
In a country like Kazakhstan, where I spent two weeks, you don’t even think you are amongst Muslims. I saw more churches there than mosques. So it is definitely the case that it is possible to have a country with a majority Muslim population and also have a very secular non-religious population who are not interested for most part in anything like what they have in the Middle East.