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SENTENTIA. European Journal of Humanities and Social Sciences

Relevant questions regarding the revival of religiosity in Kazakhstan: state, confessions, society

Sokolovskiy Konstantin

PhD in Law

Docent, the department of General Subjects, Humanitarian-Technical Academy; Member of the Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions of Kazakhstan

010000, Kazakhstan, Astana, Glavpochampt P.O. Box #144






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The rapid modernization of Kazakhstani society at the turn of the XX and XXI centuries became the cause for the unique “religious renaissance”. However, the spiritual resurgence emphasized the issues that Kazakhstan had not faced before. The article examines the peculiarities of the resurgence of religiosity in the Republic of Kazakhstan during the period of 1990-2000’s , attempts to analyze the reasons of extensive desecularization, unprecedented increase in the amount of followers of one or another confessions (including the new religious movements), as well as identify the challenges of statehood in this regard. The use of comparative method alongside the empirical and theoretical analysis, allows clarifying relatively to the phenomenon of high dynamic of the resurgence of religiosity, considering such incidents as the civic religiosity and construction of religiosity. The attention is also given to the problem of impact of the competent government authorities upon the confessions in the context of the declared separation of church and state, as well as measures taken by the government to establish the system of state-confessional relations that is able to counter the current challenges, under the circumstances of growing religiosity of population and broad polycultural field.

Keywords: faith, religious conflicts, religious confessions, state-confessional relations, tolerance, resurgence of religiosity, desecularization, Kazakhstan, interconfessional relations, interfaith dialogue

The political transition, which had been launched by the collapse of the Soviet Union, became one of the reasons of multidimensional transformations within the structure of the society. One of its key features was desecularization, which fundamentally changed the palette of spiritual condition of the society.

Today, 25 years after the formation of post-Soviet democracies, the modernization processes are still ongoing. After 70 years of inculcated atheism, Kazakhstan is experiencing religious renaissance. It’s noteworthy that while during the Soviet period, open expression of faith in God was prohibited for most citizens, nowadays, on the contrary, the social situation has turned out in such a way that unbelief is to some extent reproached by the society.

In fact, this situation is not extraordinary; it is typical for many countries. Moreover, the concept of civil religion often appears in the discussions about the political dimension of religious relations. The first one to attempt defining this phenomenon, was T. Parsons’ pupil, the American sociologist R.N. Bellah, in his article, published in 1967 in the “Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences”. Civil religion (the theory is in the first place applied to multiethnic countries), as it is understood today, is some form of creedless religiosity. It is based on the common set of moral and spiritual grounds proclaimed by all confessions, which is also in line with generally accepted ethical views of atheists.

R.N. Bellah himself describes this phenomenon as follows: “Although matters of personal religious belief, worship, and association are considered to be strictly private affairs, there are, at the same time, certain common elements of religious orientation that the great majority of Americans share. These have played a crucial role in the development of American institutions and still provide a religious dimension for the whole fabric of American life, including the political sphere” [1]. Thus, civil religion, as we can conclude, serves not only to the consolidation of the multicultural society, but, to a certain extent, to the sanctification of power.

However, while in the USA, to be considered a decent member of the society, it is enough to belong to some religious community, declaring its commitment to universal human values (whether it is traditional or belongs to one of the new legal religious societies or sects) [2, p. 154], most citizens of Kazakhstan, as demonstrated by numerous sociological surveys, have conservative views, and feel safe only about the Hanafi School of Sunni Islam and Orthodox Christianity. It can be seen, for example, in the religious conversion study performed by a distinguished sociologist E.E. Burova [3, p. 112].

Surprisingly, in the late 20th century, secularization turned out to be a global trend. Let’s look at the global “Religiosity and Atheism Index” study, performed by Gallup International in 2012, which covered over 50 000 people in 40 countries. It shows that in the early 21st century, supporters of atheism are in the absolute minority: 59% of the respondents claim to be religious, 23% - not religious, 13% - atheists [4].

Undoubtedly, the post-Soviet religiosity boom is a unique phenomenon, which has to be studied individually. At the same time, T.V. Pronina’s argument is quite relevant for the current situation in Kazakhstan: “changes in the attitude towards religion, as compared with the Soviet period, have occurred mainly through the growth of declared religiosity and acknowledgement of religion as an important basis for the new civic identity formation” [5, p. 6]. At the same time, she believes that “mass “religious renaissance” was of a substitutive nature - it was the “authoritarian reflex” in response to the collapse of the total Soviet ideology and the subsequent acute identity crisis” [Ibid., p. 7].

However, ignorance of the elementary basics of religion, typical for the post-Soviet period, has played a negative role: they had been substituted not only with the traditional beliefs of the peoples of Kazakhstan, but also with the new religious movements of both Islamic and Christian nature, which appeared in the early 1990s as a result of an unprecedented missionary activities of their advocates. Together with the interest in such religions and various esoteric practices, a post-Soviet human tried to “adjust” the traditional beliefs to his/her own worldview and attitudes towards the “spiritual”. In other words, not knowing (or not willing to oblige to) the dogmatic and ritual rules, a neophyte performed personal correction of a congenial religious tradition to make it more comfortable for him/her.

We have to note that the present flourishing of neopagan pre Abraham beliefs (for example, Tengriism of the Kazaks, Slavic Native Faith of the Slavs, etc.) has originated from this process. And, with the absence of reliable historical and archaeological data about the mentioned religious systems, the modern adherents “fill in the gaps” often with invented convenient dogmas and practices, adjusting the constructed doctrines to their needs (political, criminal, etc.).

In A.S. Agadzhanian’s work, such adjustment is called “religiosity construction”: “It’s not about the ‘renaissance’ of religion (the post-Soviet one – K.S.) , which has simply been released from under an atheistic press and filled in the conceptual and symbolic lacunas’, he reasons, ‘it is rather about the ‘invention’ of religion, its construction using the set of all old Soviet secular interpretations mixed with new sources” [6, p. 404 - 405].

Simultaneously, secularization was influenced by politics trying to embed such a significant social leverage in the public management system.

As we can see now, the result was two-fold. On the one hand, the control over religious resurgence was inevitable and predetermined by objective reasons, such as: protection of national (public, cultural) security; control over the growth of the number of supporters of non-conventional religious associations; formation of the system of relations between the power and the society, etc. Professor Anthony Gill in his work “The Political Origins of Religious Liberty” substantiates (quite convincingly) the necessity to regulate (i.e. to interfere in, to control – sic!) the religious sphere. We have to note that his ideas derive from the assumption about the exceptional significance of religion as a bearer of cultural identity and about a serious possibility of conflicts between different confessions in a multiethnic society [7, p. 47].

On the other hand, the state should look for the points of contact and the reasons for interaction with confessions, since it is interested in supporting traditional religions, which serve as an alternative to the new religious movements.

For example, it seems indicative that the preamble of the current law of the Republic of Kazakhstan “On religious activities and religious associations”, unlike the previous statutory documents, proclaims “the historic role of the Hanafi School of Islam and Orthodox Christianity in the development of culture and spiritual life of the people (of Kazakhstan – K.S.)[8].

Such active interaction of politics and religion is determined by the reality of the progress of the modern society. In the era of progress and dynamic development of communications and new technologies, it is obvious that far from being weakened, religion is as popular as it has never been before. Though the process of active return to faith, which had started in the late 1980s – the early 1990s, has, according to the Kazakh sociologists, already reached its highest point, undoubtedly, it is still dynamic.

We cannot but refer to Jürgen Habermas (See [10]) to explain that the key reason of this situation is the fact that it is faith that supports a person in a continuously changing and over-rational world. In his “Future Shock”, Alvin Toffler shows [11] that the post-industrial society itself, provoking fear about the future and technological progress, anxiety about adaptation and fear about “tomorrow”, makes people escape to any specific subcultural communities, which protect them within simple, but complete and comprehensive worldviews against the increasing pressure of outside information. Of course, these are primarily religious communities.

The answer to the question, whether the purely rational perception of the world – especially the dynamically changing world – is possible, rather lies within the category of personal attitudes. However, undoubtedly, the present resurgence of religion is also caused by the fact that religion was, perhaps, the only to take on a role of a moral measure of everyday processes of the modern world, to elaborate and apply the moral evaluation criteria to the developments in the political, economic and cultural life of the planet.

At the same time, religious resurgence in Kazakhstan has shown such significant dynamics that, according to the evaluations of Kazakh scholars [12], in the 1990s – the early 2000s the state practically failed to control it due to, among other things, the lack of experience of confessional regulation in the context of democracy and extremely liberal legislation. Consequently, a unique, but an extremely instable multi-religious society has formed, consisting of both traditional religions and non-conventional ones; the share of the latter by the beginning of the 2000s has become critical both in the number of their supporters and influence on the society, and in the level of their efforts to discredit official religious institutions. All the above mentioned speaks for the problems, which the Spiritual Directorate of the Muslims of Kazakhstan had faced by that period, caused by the growth of the number of Muslims rejecting the Hanafi School of Islam, and for the significant successes of the Arab (Salafi) preachers aggressively missionizing in the territory of Kazakhstan.

Undoubtedly, multi-religiousness itself is a natural reason of religious conflicts, but such conflicts (competition of different religious organizations predetermining the diversity of choice in conformity with the spiritual needs of a person) are socially positive in their nature. It is also necessary to understand that any conflict is a potential confrontation, which provokes social tension.

Multi-religiousness in Kazakhstan is believed to be determined by two factors. Firstly, it is quite long-term and, what is important, peaceful coexistence of two different religions – the Hanafi School of Islam and Orthodox Christianity – within one geographical territory. For better understanding of this point, we’ll remind that, for example, the foremost Kazakh historian M.S. Orynbekov dates the origination of both Islam and Christianity (Nestorianism) in the territory of contemporary Kazakhstan back to the first half of the 5th century A.D. [13, p. 146]. Secondly, as we’ve already said, the interference of religious permissiveness of the 1990s had predetermined the appearance and consolidation of various new religious movements (Islamic, Christian, heathen, Eastern, occult, etc.).

They all are absolutely different both in their number and real social influence on the Kazakh society. Nevertheless, the religious resurgence of the late 20th century, which had begotten them, dictated the necessity to elaborate a new system of relations between the state and confessions, which would be able not only to guarantee the national security interests and conflict-free dialogue of religions and formalize the government institutions’ status of a mediator, but also to guarantee the realization of the principle of the freedom of faith, free statement of faith and freedom of religious worship, declared in the Constitution.

The high dynamics of religiosity requires permanent government’s control over the religious sphere, regulation of relations between religious organizations and within the “confession-government body” dyad.

It also dictates the necessity to strengthen the government’s efforts aimed at increasing the believers’ awareness. It is especially important in relation to the supporters of Islam, who are the main recruiting pool for extremist religious and terrorist organizations including Isis (the work of organization in the Republic of Kazakhstan was prohibited by the decision of Esil region court of Astana on 15 October 2015).

In its turn, the interest in religion begets a complicated situation. The lack of elementary knowledge and at least fundamental understanding of religious canons makes young people refer to the Internet for information, where they fall prey to network recruiters. The director of the Kyrgyz analytical center “Religion, law and politics” K.K. Malikov has named Isis a “project-virus” [14], emphasizing the ability of its ideology to spread fast and extensively seize the minds of new adherents, and the complicacy of the struggle against it.

All the above mentioned demonstrates that religion, though being separated from the state, still has direct impact on it. Faith determines the behavior of thousands of citizens, forms their worldview, attitudes, beliefs. One can’t understand current social processes not paying attention to the religious factor.

Thus, the dynamic resurgence of religion dictates the authorities’ need for the consistent state-confessional policy, which would decrease the possibility of the destructive influence of religion on the society and could be used as an unconditional integration resource and a bond for the socio-cultural sphere of the country.

In this case, the religiosity resurgence vector can be directed at the formation of tolerance within the society, regulation of interpersonal and interethnic relations, support and promotion of universal human values, and eventually it will become one of the key factors guaranteeing the stability of the state, while the creative potential of spiritual values will promote its economic and social development.

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