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Kazakhstan: Secularism is Not a Western Invention

Central Asia spoke about the religious freedom and separation of religion from state back in the 10th century. Today’s concept of “secularism” in Kazakhstan has changed and is not working for all. 


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From declaration of human rights to date

According to doctor of philosophy, theologian Rasim Chelidze, it is widely accepted that the idea of secularism of the state emerged in the end of 18th century in France and United States. It was documented for the first time in the French declaration of human and citizen’s rights, where the man’s persecution for religious views and opinions was banned.

Rasim Chelidze. Photo: CABAR.asia

However, the French concept of secularism differed from the American one by the fact that it developed amid state religion.

In the United States, the Constitution proclaimed the separation of church and state, banned state religion and religious freedom.

As to Central Asia, according to Chelidze, the region has always been and still is the consolidated organism with its religious microclimate.

“These territories have historically had various global religions. Islam is the main religion, whose followers comprise 90 per cent of the people of Central Asia. Islam as a religion does not provide for the creation of a religious institution and denied any religious hierarchy,” the theologian said.

According to him, the idea of separation of politics and religion in the Islamic world has been seen in the tractates of Central Asian Muslim theologians back in the 10th century. One of the vivid representatives of the followers of free thinking back in the old days in Central Asia was imam Abu Mansur al Maturidi. He stood for the separation of politics (state) and religion. In his works, he wrote that religious views are due to human’s freedom, not coercion.

“The works of theologians of that period on similar topics show the relevance and generality of the issue of combination of religion and politics. Today, maturidism is a traditional doctrine of the Muslims in modern Kazakhstan,” Chelidze said.

Under the mask of religiosity

Tatiana Rezvushkina. Photo: caravan.kz

In 2017, sociologist Tatiana Rezvushkina held a survey “Status of girls and women in religions of Kazakhstan” on the basis of the Institute of Equal Rights and Opportunities Public Association. She noted that despite religious dogmas women live the high life. For example, 30-40 per cent of respondents admitted they used contraceptives, although religion forbids birth control.

“We have arrived at a conclusion that religion for the majority of religious women is rather a formal status, some formal belonging to the organisation that creates a feeling of belonging and group identity in them. A deep immersion when a person really organises their life under religious standards does not happen,” Rezvushkina said.

According to her, for some women religion is a mask, figuratively speaking, they put on from time to time because it is comfortable, while in real life they act as common secular people.

“And this is peculiar to the Kazakhstanis. Our female respondents were Lutherans, Baptists, Muslims and Orthodox,” the sociologist added.

Secularism as a form of religion restriction?

Ivan Kryukov, pastor of the church “New life in Kazakhstan”, noted that secularism can become the reverse side for religious people. 

Church “New life in Kazakhstan”. Photo: CABAR.asia

“When we speak of religious people, whose rights are protected by law and Constitution, we understand that they have a right to practise their religion, but have no right to be secular just like others. In terms of the Hebrews, for example, you will never find a mention that women read Tora in a synagogue. However, if women want to read Tora in a synagogue, whose rights will the state protect? It will rather keep out as it is secular,” Kryukov said.

According to him, the secularism of a religious person in Kazakhstan means being a religious person inside, but never show it outside. But even if a person does not show his religiosity, their rights might be violated anyway.

“One person wanted to get a job at an oil company. But he was refused because his wife was attending religious meetings. In another case, a socially active young man could not get a job to the akimat, although he was invited there at first, because he was known to be a parishioner of a community – he was refused because a person associated with any religious community may not work in state bodies,” the pastor said.

According to the law “On religion and religious organisations”, at least 50 persons should be initiators to register a religious association in Kazakhstan. It means they should actually vote with their IIN (individual identity number – author’s note) for its establishment during registration. According to Kryukov, this information is then showed in any public service centre, whenever a citizen applies for any service. 

Ivan Kryukov. Photo: CABAR.asia

“We have many examples when a person indicating oneself as the initiator of establishment of a religious association or community could not take part in public tenders because of their religious views, or could not win business contracts. This is what we call “the legal practice”. We have the law, but in practice human rights are prejudiced, although they are neither priests, nor pastors. These people are ordinary citizens,” Kryukov said.

According to him, he and pastors from his community recently found themselves in a situation when their religion prevented them from being volunteers distributing foodstuffs during the lockdown despite their permit to move around the city. After they managed to distribute food, they were detained by the police under the pretext of preaching outside religious institutions and arrested for 24 hours. The court imposed a fine on them at first, but after the appeal issued a warning to them.

Main photo: rawpixel.com


This article was prepared as part of the Giving Voice, Driving Change – from the Borderland to the Steppes Project.

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