This book is the fruit of several years of Dina Wilkowsky’s research and fieldwork on Arab Islamic organisations in Kazakhstan and their role in Kazakhstani society. Wilkowsky’s overarching research question is whether Islamic missionary work by Arabic organisations in the country can be regarded in the context of the cultural dialogue that is supported by Kazakhstan’s state and society (22). The author does not provide a particular answer to this question; however, it becomes clear that the official standpoint is not to include ‘foreign’ forms of religion in this dialogue.
The first major chapter of the book (pp. 27-68) is on the development of diplomatic and economic relations between Kazakhstan and the Arab world after 1991 — largely an account of President Nazarbaev’s meetings with Arab state leaders and the declarations of intent that were made at these occasions. This chapter is not very well connected to the rest of the book, except that we learn that the government had no qualms in accepting Arab money for state Islamic construction projects in the 1990s. This is followed by a general overview of the challenges of Kazakhstani Islam (69-84), and by an overview of the Arab Islamic organisations and their activities in the country (madrasas, universities and institutes; 85-168). D. Wilkowsky focuses on the south of the country, especially on Almaty and Shymkent, but occasionally she also provides information on other cities (Astana, Pavlodar, etc.). This documentation is welcome, since there is hardly anything else on this topic in a Western language. (The recent study by Aitzhan S. Nurmanova & Asylbek K. Izbairov does not cover the years after 2004, and it was not yet published when Wilkowsky’s book came out; see their “Islamic Education in Soviet and Post-Soviet Kazakhstan,” in M. Kemper, R. Motika, S. Reichmuth, eds., Islamic Education in the Soviet Union and Its Successor States, London – New York: Routledge, 2009: 280-312.) However, it is not very critical, and official Kazakkstani positions are rarely challenged by Wilkowsky’s work.
In general, the author uses five source groups: official statements by the Kazakhstani authorities and the Muslim Board (Muftiyyat); evaluations and opinion articles in the press; analyses of (mostly Russian and Kazakh) Orientalists and specialists; public statements by the Arab-Islamic organisations themselves (often published on the web); and finally Wilkowsky’s own observations and interviews with functionaries, teachers, and students in Kazakhstan (indeed we often find the most original accounts in footnotes, where Wilkowsky provides space for the accounts of her informants). The tone of the book, however, is set by the first group of sources, the official Kazakh state discourse on Islam, which is feeding the second group, popular articles in the press. The official view is that the Soviet Union almost exterminated Islam in Kazakhstan, but that the Kazkah Muslims today still maintain their ‘traditional’ Hanafi Islam (= allegedly tolerant, open to borrowings from Kazakh customs and to adaptation to modernity) which needs to be protected from foreign influences (= radical, strict, non-Kazakh). This black-and-white classification of religions into ‘traditional’ and ‘non-traditional’ ones confronts us with two problems. First, all evidence shows that Kazakh Islam itself is barely institutionalised and not a stable monolith (and in fact it has to date little to do with the tradition of the Hanafi school). So we are talking about constructions, not realities.
Second, the opinion that ‘non-traditional’ Islam is per definition dubious and potentially disruptive to society (if not supporting terrorism) is simply wrong and in itself disruptive; the official discourse barely differentiates between the educational impact of a Kuwaiti-financed Islamic university, the religious challenges of Tablighi Jama‘at door-to-door missionaries, Hizb al-Tahrir’s nocturnal flyer propaganda, and the terror operations of openly jihadist movements (that have, fortunately, not yet occurred in Kazakhstan on a significant scale). Underlying this gross simplification is the view (of Soviet tradition) that society should be homogenous, and that religion should be directed, and formulated, from above; as the Mufti had it himself: “We must improve the methods of our agitation” (quote on p. 178). The question is whether violent radicalism is averted or to the contrary fed by state measures of propaganda, surveillance and direct interference in the religious sector. In recent years most non-state Islamic teaching institutions have been closed down, often under vague pretexts (‘ideological influence on students’, in a case discussed on p. 138).
Equally to be regretted is the one-sided picture of ‘non-traditional’ Christian denominations in Kazakhstan: every time they are mentioned we find a note that their activities are partly illegal [or should we say: made illegal?], and that they use questionable methods and foreign money to attract poor and uneducated social groups of Kazakhstani society. Usually these allegations are supported by obscure newspaper articles or oral reports. For instance we learn that Jehova’s Witnesses fool the poor Kazakhs by putting their sectarian books into the cover of a Qur’an (p. 75); are we supposed to believe this story? To be sure, Kazakhstan stands out as less repressive than other Central Asian states, and the country is doing its best to maintain a good image in the West. Still, what we observe in the field of religious policies is a return to the Soviet model. With Islamic competition eliminated or pushed underground, the state controls religion not only through its monopolist Muftiyyat but also by a system of councils for ‘registration’ and surveillance of religious communities—and with state security organs for closing down all non-registered (and therefore ‘illegal’) minority congregations.