After Friday prayers ended recently at Atyrau’s Old Mosque, a crowd of men, most of them younger than 30, poured onto the street. Many were wearing the distinctive shortened trousers and long beards with trimmed mustaches of Muslims who are striving to emulate the Prophet Muhammad. Down the street, a camera on a telephone pole recorded everyone who entered and left the mosque.
In western Kazakhstan’s oil country, intensifying government surveillance is engendering resentment among observant Muslims. Increasingly, they are trying to practice out of sight, which, naturally, just makes officials more suspicious.
Government surveillance expanded significantly in 2011, a year when Kazakhstan experienced a series of terrorist attacks beginning in the western city of Aktobe. Parliament hurriedly adopted legislation in October, that established fresh restrictions on the registration of religious communities, while banning prayer rooms in public institutions. Following unrelated, violent clashes between police and protesters in Zhanaozen in December, government pressure on believers increased, as security forces were deployed in the region.
Many believers are rankled by official scrutiny, but it doesn’t deter them from practicing their faith. In Aktau, one clean-shaven man in his thirties said he felt compelled to live a double-life, hiding his devout beliefs from public view. “I can’t wear a beard because I am a schoolteacher,” he told EurasiaNet.org. “But it’s in my heart, and someday I will be able to.”
Another pious Muslim, a burly ex-boxer with scarred knuckles, claimed that religious-based discrimination had altered his life. He explained he was fired from a foreign operated firm in Aktau after eight years because he and his coworkers had begun to pray regularly during working hours, as Islamic practice requires.
An internal migrant from Taraz, he is now unemployed and supports a wife and two children by working irregular jobs, sharing a two-bedroom apartment with two other families. He, too, would like to wear a beard, but says he cannot because prospective employers would not hire him. “Almost all of us have covered ourselves up,” he says. “A man’s priority has to be feeding his family.”
The ex-boxer is an adherent of Tablighi Jamaat, a Muslim evangelical revivalist movement that is banned in all Central Asian countries except Kyrgyzstan. Members of the movement in Kazakhstan say they engage in proselytizing missions by relying on informal networks of family and friends to visit private homes.
Though the level of government pressure on Tablighi Jamaat appears lighter than on other movements, perhaps due to its staunchly apolitical stance, members still face regular interrogation from police and the Committee on National Security, or KNB, and are subject to administrative fines. “The KNB follows everything you do, and they work very hard to keep an eye on you. They have people everywhere,” said the ex-boxer.
Some Muslims unaffiliated with any movement have grown accustomed to feeling government pressure. Magomet, an ethnic Dagestani who has lived in Atyrau for decades, said his perception was that the religious environment was deteriorating for devout Muslims. But he was nonchalant about his regular summonses to the local KNB office. He assumes his phone is tapped, and that there is a camera trained on the entryway to the Old Mosque. “Things are better here than in Russia,” he said.
Despite the tighter surveillance, the number of those attending Friday prayers continues to grow, Magomet maintained. “Ten years ago there were only five or six people at Friday prayers, and all of them old men,” he said. “Now there is a crowd, many of them young.”
Adherents of the puritanical Salafist Islamic movement reportedly are coming under greater official scrutiny, according to press reports and local observers. Salafis in the west declined repeatedly through intermediaries to meet with EurasiaNet.org, citing safety concerns.
Local experts contend that government efforts to keep a lid on faith can easily backfire. Azamat Maitanov -- deputy editor of the independent Atyrau weekly Aq Zhayik and a local expert on Islamic movements -- cautioned that trying to deny pious Muslims room to express their faith tends to encourage support for jihadist ideology.
According to Maitanov, one factor that catalyzed the spread of radical beliefs in western Kazakhstan was the spread of jihadist ideology via online images from Afghanistan and Iraq. In addition, Atyrau lies only six hours by car from the Russian city of Astrakhan, from which it is easy to reach the North Caucasus, where local and international jihadist movements have clashed with Russian security forces since the mid-1990s. Maitanov alleged some jihadists around Atyrau have direct ties to radicals in the North Caucasus.
Another important factor driving radicalization, Maitanov added, has been government persecution. “Our police and security organs still have a Soviet mindset. They don’t know how to investigate and expose ideological organizations,” he said. “They only know how to use force.”
“If you are a believer, and they attack your faith, your faith grows harder,” Maitanov added.
Nate Schenkkan is a Bishkek-based journalist.