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Kazakhstan Works to Quash Extremism

  • Daniel Schearf

Kazakhstan hosted January's Syrian peace talks that saw agreement on reinforcing a cease-fire. Hosting the talks is about more than just prestige for Kazakhstan, as the country looks to prevent the spreading influence of Islamist extremism at home.

Those talks did not include Islamist militant groups, and the truce excludes such extremists, which all parties say they are fighting against, including Kazakhstan in its own way.

Kazakh authorities estimate several hundred of the country's citizens joined Islamist militant groups in Syria and Iraq.

They say a series of rare terrorist attacks in Kazakhstan in 2016 that killed a number of police, troops and civilians were ordered from Syria. A gunman said to have Islamist links was blamed.

"Islam never calls to bloodshed, on the contrary it calls upon peace," says the imam of Astana's Khazret Sultan Mosque Serikbai Haji Oraz. "Several young people went to Syria. But there are those who came back home and they go through rehabilitation."

"If peace will be established in the territories of Syria and Iraq, it will sanitize the religious situation as a whole in Kazakhstan," says director of Kazakhstan's Akniet Rehabilitation Center Alim Shaumetov.

FILE - A resident walks in a street in Astana, Kazakhstan.
FILE - A resident walks in a street in Astana, Kazakhstan.

The Center works to reintegrate those extremists who return to the country and counsels others who want to leave.

"The radical ideology, that is spread via foreign international terrorist web-sites, influences mostly young people who fall under such propaganda easily," says Shaumetov.

One former al-Qaida adherent, who does not wish to be identified and gives the pseudonym "Zhanserik," wanted to go fight in Pakistan. He was prevented from travelling there, but says he's been ostracized by childhood friends who are extremists.

"As they are my friends, I worry about them. I like them. Actually, they are good people. If they find the right way in their lives, they will do many good things. I try not to destroy our relations as I can."

Astana's central mosque has its own media operation that includes a television station, Hikmet TV, and distributes a video condemning Islamist extremists and terrorists.

"Our aim is to de-radicalize our community," says Imam Serikbai Haji Oraz. "And to be able to do that, we should relentlessly pursue some activities in this direction."

At a recent Friday prayer, thousands of Kazakhs packed into Astana's Khazret Sultan Mosque. After prayers ended and worshippers filed out of the mosque, a group of men remained behind. They sat on the floor of the mosque's massive main hall in a semi-circle as a religious leader spoke about Islam.

While the threat to Kazakhstan is comparatively minimal, authorities there say educating youth about true Islam is key to preventing the spread of extremism.

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