Secular Governance in Central Asia: the Case of Kazakhstan

Event Summary by Sarah Martin

On Tuesday, December 12, the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute (CACI) hosted an off-the-record roundtable discussion at the American Foreign Policy Institute on Kazakhstan’s unique form of secular governance among its Central Asian and compared to its Western counterparts. The event was a continuation of CACI’s research on the models of secularism in Central Asia and the Caucasus. The previous discussion unpacked practices of secularism as found in Azerbaijan. This event also follows the release of a Silk Road Paper on Kazakhstan’s relationship with Europe.

As CACI tracks and evaluates the government models in Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan, the intent is to build a larger, more comprehensive image of secularism as experienced and practiced in the entire Central Asian region. Central Asia in general and Kazakhstan in particular have the potential to be an important partner to the United States and Europe in their fight against radical Salafi-jihadism and their defense against Russian aggression. However, Dr. Cornell noted that an understanding between the US and Central Asian states is critical. As of yet, there is a jarring disconnect between Washington and Astana, and that disconnect lies on either country’s understanding of the relationship between politics, religion and their society’s tolerance for extremism.

The mixing of religion and politics in the Islamic world has led to unpleasant and costly experiences, Dr. Cornell said, though it is not for lack of trying. Turkey is one such example. The West once heralded Turkey’s secular model as a prime example of modernization done correctly in the Middle East. Later, this approach changed to a sense that secularism was unnatural and counter-democratic; instead, “moderate Islam” enjoyed American and European support. However, Turkey’s recent rejection of democracy, its embracing of authoritarianism charged with a resurgence of conservative Islamic rhetoric, has left much room for skepticism regarding the relationship between religion and politics. Some even suggest that a moderate model of religious-leaning forms of government in the Middle East is unfeasible, considering that within Muslim-majority states, sharia law is widely supported, according to a Pew study. In any case, the record of “moderate Islamism” is not encouraging and there is a growing realization of this – but not of what western powers should support instead. In this regard, a growing interest in secular governance should not be excluded. Some developments, such as Saudi Arabia’s recent shift, may indicate that change is on the horizon. “There is an appetite for new ideas,” Dr. Cornell said. The challenge is that within the Middle East and North Africa, there are little to no examples of enduring, secular governments. Dr. Cornell suggest that as scholars and policymakers, organizations and governments ought to look further east to the former Soviet sphere of Central Asia for these examples.

It is widely assumed that “secularism” in Central Asia is a form of light atheism, vestigial limbs of the Soviet period. This is not the case, Dr. Cornell points out, and it is this base assumption that erroneously shades the West from fully appreciating the experiment in governance that Kazakhstan, for instance, is attempting to do. Indeed, during the early 1990s, the governments of the Central Asian republics engaged in lively conversation and rigorous debate regarding what type of government they were to pursue in their newfound independence. Overwhelmingly, the consensus was towards a government that kept an arm’s length distance to religion and matters of faith. This was an active decision made by the people who lived and considered Kazakhstan home.

Independence from the Soviet Union meant more than simply a reclaiming of political autonomy. It meant opening up to the broader world of Islam for the first time in decades. Kazakhstan is a  multi-confessional state, in that more faiths than just Islam call the country home. After 1991, missionaries from many directions including Saudi Arabia and South Asia, came to spread their particular interpretation of Islam. Christian missionaries from Europe, America, and South Korea also entered the fray. However, this onslaught of foreign missionaries  led to anxiety from government officials, in particular as well-funded radical groups from the Gulf established a presence in the country. In 2011 and 2016, a series of terror attacks caused Astana to reconsider their approach to religious affairs.

Kazakhstan sought to temper the influence of Salafi-jihadism by actively promoting “indigenous” faiths – Hanafi Sunni Islam and Russian Orthodoxy – and by regulating practices of religion by requiring religious communities to register with the state. It is not the local and old faiths that post a threat to the state, Dr. Cornell said, it is the new wave of new faiths and interpretations, and that is what Astana is trying to stem the tide and influence of.

Actions such as these have drawn ire from organizations and government agencies like the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, which deride Kazakhstan and other states for not creating an open environment of religious freedom. There is a linguistic challenge in describing exactly what Kazakhstan seeks to do, Dr. Cornell explains. The challenge stems from the assumption that secular governance equals the freedom of religion established with the U.S. constitution. But the French model of secular government, laïcité, aims not to create a public space of different religions, but to stem the influence of a dominant religious tradition over public life. There is no English equivalent to the term, and many in the anglophone world conflate French laïcité with their own understanding of secularism.

Dr. Cornell suggested that because of this fundamental difference, Western and Central Asian governments tend to talk over and by one another. He also said that what is needed before anything is an honest dialogue trying to understand and accept the premises of Kazakhstan’s model of secularism and what they are attempting to accomplish.

The questions asked and points raised by members of the audience were thought provoking and facilitated a lively conversation. One member of the audience inquired about the nature of Islam and its relationship with democracy, as is often a point of discussion. Dr. Cornell answered that there is nothing unnatural or un-Islamic about what is happening in Central Asia, and that there is no reason to assume the Muslim world is and should be more akin to Saudi Arabia or even Iran than to Kazakhstan.

Another member of the audience raised the issue of state-building. It was asked what measures Kazakhstan could take to encourage a sense of “state” rather than driving out all of the Salafi-jihadists. Dr. Cornell responded that there must be means and ways of creating a positive content of secularism, strengthening the sense of Kazakhstani identity and filling it with meaning, rather than focusing only on excluding all the elements considered untoward. 

 

Published in Forums & Events

 Secular Governance in Central Asia: the Case of Kazakhstan Roundtable

The Central Asia-Caucasus Institute at the American Foreign Policy Council would like to invite you to a roundtable lunch discussion on “Secular Governance in Central Asia: the Case of Kazakhstan”. Since independence, Kazakhstan has remained faithful to secular statehood. In recent years, Kazakhstan’s leaders have strengthened the secular character of the state’s laws and education system. But what does secularism mean in a Central Asian context? How does the state balance the goal of religious freedom with the need to shield the state from religious influence? What are the implications for the broader Muslim world, and for Western policies?

The discussion forms part of CACI’s ongoing research on the relationship between politics and religion in Central Asia and the Caucasus. The discussion will be led by CACI Director, Dr. Svante Cornell.

The discussion will take place on December 12, at the American Foreign Policy Council, 509 C Street NE, from 12:30 to 2 pm. A light lunch will be served.  

 Please RSVP at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..">This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Seating is limited. We are looking forward to seeing you on December 12. 

Published in Forums & Events

 Read at Diplomat website

 

Both in Europe and the United States, this argument is made with increasing frequency but it doesn’t reflect reality.

On October 31, a citizen of Uzbekistan was arrested for the terrorist attack in New York City that led to the death of eight people. The attack drew parallels to a similar truck attack earlier this year in Stockholm, as well as terrorist deeds in Istanbul and St. Petersburg. In these cases the perpetrators were of Uzbek origin. In addition, over 2,000 Central Asians have taken part in the civil war in Syria, fighting for jihadi organizations like the Islamic State or the Nusra Front. Is Central Asia a breeding ground for extremism?

Published in Staff Publications

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News

  • New Article Series on Changing Geopolitics of Central Asia and the Caucasus
    Wednesday, 24 November 2021 11:53

    Eurasia

  • CACI Initiative on Religion and the Secular State in Central Asia and the Caucasus
    Sunday, 24 January 2021 13:53

    In 2016, the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program launched an initiative on documenting the interrelationship of religion and the secular state in the region. This initiative departed from the fact that little systematic reserch had been undertaken on the subject thus far. While there was and remains much commentary and criticism of religious policy in the region, there was no comprehensive analysis available on the interrelationship of religion and the state in any regional state, let alone the region as a whole. The result of this initiative has been the publication of six Silk Road Papers studying the matter in regional states, with more to come. In addition, work is ongoing on a volume putting the regional situation in the context of the Muslim world as a whole.

     

    Case Studies

    Each study below can be freely downloaded in PDF format.

    az-formula-SRSP

    Azerbaijan's Formula: Secular Governance and Civil Nationhood
    By Svante E. Cornell, Halil Karaveli, and Boris Ajeganov
    November 2016   




    2018-04-Kazakhstan-SecularismReligion and the Secular State in Kazakhstan
    By Svante E. Cornell, S. Frederick Starr and Julian Tucker
    April 2018

     

     

     

    1806-UZ-coverReligion and the Secular State in Uzbekistan
    Svante E. Cornell and Jacob Zenn
    June 2018

     

     

     

    2006-Engvall-coverReligion and the Secular State in Kyrgyzstan
    Johan Engvall
    June 2020

     Event video online

     

    2006-Clement-coverReligion and the Secular State in Turkmenistan
    Victoria Clement
    June 2020

    Event video online

     

     

     

    Articles and Analyses

    Svante E. Cornell, "Religion and the State in Central Asia," in Ilan Berman, ed., Wars of Ideas: Theology, Interpretation and Power in the Muslim World, Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2021.

    Svante E. Cornell, "Central Asia: Where Did Islamic Radicalization Go?" in Religion, Conflict and Stability in the Former Soviet Union, eds. Katya Migacheva and Bryan Frederick, Arlington, VA: RAND Corporation, 2018.

  • Basic Principles for the Rehabilitation of Azerbaijan's Post-Conflict Territories
    Wednesday, 07 October 2020 09:01

    Rehab-coverIn 2010, the CACI-SRSP Joint Center cooperated with Eldar Ismailov and Nazim Muzaffarli of the Institute for Strategic Studies of the Caucasus to produce a study of the methodology and process for the rehabilitation of the occupied territories in Azerbaijan. The study was written in the hope that it would prove useful in the aftermath of a negotiated solution to the conflict.

    Such a resolution nevertheless did not materialize. At present, however, it appears that some of these territories are returning to Azerbaijani control as a result of the military conflict that began in late September, 2020. While it is regrettable that this did not come to pass as a result of negotiations, it is clear that the challenge of rehabilitating territories is as pressing today as it would be in the event of a peaceful resolution - if not more, given the likelihood that such a solution would have included a time-table and provided the Government of Azerbaijan and international institutions time for planning.

    It is clear that the study is a product of a different time, as much has changed since 2010. We fully expcect many updates and revisions to be needed should the recommendations in this study be implemented today. That said, we believe the methodoloy of the study and its conclusions remain relevant and would therefore like to call attention to this important study, published in English, Russian and Azerbaijani versions.

    Click to download:

    BASIC PRINCIPLES FOR THE REHABILITATION OF AZERBAIJAN’S POST-CONFLICT TERRITORIES

     

  • Resources on the Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict
    Monday, 05 October 2020 08:19

    Resources on the Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict

     

    The Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program have a long track record of covering the Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict. This page presents the key resources and most recent analysis. 

    In 2017, Palgrave published the first book-length study of the International Politics of the Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict, edited by Svante Cornell. The book concluded by arguing that if international efforts to resolve the conflict are not stepped up, “the ‘four-day’ war of April 2016 will appear a minor skirmish compared to what is sure to follow”.

    In 2015, CACI & SRSP released the Silk Road Paper  “A Western Strategy for the South Caucasus”, which included a full page of recommendations for the U.S. and EU on the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict. These are reproduced below:

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    Develop a substantial and prolonged Western initiative on the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict.

    o This initiative must be led by the United States, in close consultation with its European partners – primarily the EU Commission and External Action Service, and France. Barring some process to reinvigorate the Minsk Process – a doubtful proposition given Western-Russian relations in the foreseeable future – Western leaders must be prepared to bypass that process, utilizing it where appropriate but focusing their initiative on developing direct negotiations between the Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders.

    o The U.S. and its European partners must abandon the practice of relying solely on the Minsk Group co-chairs to resolve the Karabakh conflict. These diplomats have contributed greatly to formulating a workable framework agreement. However, strong and sustained U.S. Government leadership from the top level is needed to complement or, failing that, to replace the Minsk Process. In practice, this means the expressed support of the President, involvement of the White House, and leadership manifested in the appointment of a distinguished citizen as Special Envoy for the resolution of the conflict.

    o The EU must take a more clearly defined and substantial role in the process, by integrating to the highest degree possible the French co-chairmanship of the Minsk Group with EU institutions. While Washington will need to take the lead on the political side, it would be natural for the EU to take the lead in organizing an international development program for the currently occupied Azerbaijani provinces and Karabakh itself. That effort, too, would need to be led by a senior EU figure.

    --------------------------------------------

    In 2011, CACI & SRSP helped launch an extensive study of the steps needed for the post-conflict rehabilitation of Azerbaijan's occupied territories, in cooperation with Eldar Ismailov and Nazim Muzaffarli of the Institute for Strategic Studies of the Caucasus. The monograph "Basic Principles for the Rehabilitation of Azerbaijan's Post-Conflict Territories" can be accessed here

     

    More background resources:

    Svante E. Cornell, "Can America Stop a Wider War Between Armenia and Azerbaijan?", The National Interest, October 2020

    Brenda Shaffer and Svante E. Cornell, Occupied Elsewhere: Selective Policies on Occupation, Foundation For Defense of Democracies, January 2020. 

    Brenda Shaffer and Svante E. Cornell, "The U.S. Needs to Declare War on Proxies", Foreign Policy, January 27, 2020

    Svante E. Cornell, “The Raucous Caucasus”, American Interest, May 2017

    Svante E. Cornell, Small Nations and Great Powers: A Study of Ethnopolitical Conflict in the Caucasus, RoutledgeCurzon, 2001.

    Svante E. Cornell, The Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict, Uppsala University, 1999

    More recent analysis:

    Turkey Seeks to Counter Russia in the Black Sea-Caucasus Region,” Turkey Analyst, 10/5/20, Emil Avdaliani

    Turkey’s Commitment to Azerbaijan’s Defense Shows the Limits of Ankara’s Tilt to Moscow,” Turkey Analyst, 9/25/20, Turan Suleymanov & Bahruz Babayev

     “Cross-Border Escalation between Armenia and Azerbaijan,” Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 9/25/20, Natalia Konarzewska

    Russia and Turkey: Behind the Armenia-Azerbaijan Clashes?”, Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 8/31/20, Avinoam Idan

    Armenia and the U.S.: Time for New Thinking?”, Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 10/2/19, Eduard Abrahamyan.

    Why Washington Must Re-Engage the CaucasusCentral Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 7/8/19, Stephen Blank

    Azerbaijan’s Defense Industry Reform”, Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 5/7/19, Tamerlan Vahabov.

    Military Procurements on Armenia's and Azerbaijan's Defense Agendas”, Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 3/27/19, Ilgar Gurbanov

    Armenia's New Government Struggles with Domestic and External Opposition,” Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 3/20/19, Armen Grigorian.

    Bolton's Caucasian Tour and Russia's Reaction”, Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 12/17/18, Eduard Abrahamyan.