Kazakhstan’s security services say they have rounded up 33 members of a religious extremist organization called Takfir Wa Al-Hijra following a sweep started earlier this month.
Operations were reportedly carried out in the Almaty, Aktobe and Atyrau regions and in the city of Almaty.
The National Security Committee, or KNB in its Russian initials, have said all the detainees are citizens of Kazakhstan — from southern and western regions of the country specifically. Religious literature and CDs, as well as large but unspecified sums of money, were found during searches.
The group is suspected of propagating extremist ideology and inciting the creation of a theocratic government in Kazakhstan. The activities of this cell was reputedly coordinated from abroad, although it is not stated from which country in particular.
While there is no evidence any of those detained were intent of traveling to the Middle East to link up with Islamist militants there, security services say they were sympathetic to the cause of groups fighting in Syria and Iraq. The KNB said most of the suspect are cooperating with investigators.
Seven leading figures in the group identified as Takfir Wa Al-Hijra are being held in custody and another has been granted release on their own recognizance. Seventeen people described as rank-and-file members of the group have been qualified as just witnesses.
Takfir Wa Al-Hijra — a group whose Arabic name could be translated as Anathema and Exodus — was designated an extremist organization by an Astana court in August 2014. It is included in lists of proscribed terrorist groups in multiple countries, including the United States, Russia, China, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.
The origins of the dizzying array of radical Islamic sects is frequently hard to trace with any precision and the way in which the ideas and brands then migrate is understood even less. The KNB does not hazard a suggestion as to the progress of Takfir Wa Al-Hijra in Kazakhstan. This particular group is believed to have emerged in the 1970s in Egypt as an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, advancing a case for the relentless repudiation of all those perceived as heretics. Significantly, impious Muslims are as readily tarred with the charge of apostasy as any non-believer by the takfiris, as this current of Salafist ideologues are also known.
The man most readily identified as the founder of Takfir Wa Al-Hijra, an agriculture engineer called Shukri Mustafa who was executed by the Egyptian authorities in 1977, was no theologian. Lacking a coherent or rigorous ideological framework, takfiri beliefs appear subject to swift evolution, easily cross cultural and linguistic borders and are adopted in what more often than not appear to be wholly self-serving ends.
Serik Beissembayev, a Kazakhstani sociologist, argued in his February 2016 paper on radical Islam in Kazakhstan that “criminal groups can easily promote the idea of takfiri.”
“It allows Muslims to rob ‘infidels,’ in that case everyone who does not read namaz, if a share of the profits is directed to support the Islamic cause. This is what the Prosecutor’s office meant when it declared that organized criminal groups found in religion an ideological justification for their crimes,” Beissembayev wrote.
Speaking at conference on religious extremism in April 2015, the head of Kazakhstan’s religious affairs committee, Galym Shoikin, described the goals of takfiris in explicitly political terms.
“Their aims and intentions are not religious, but political, inasmuch as they are directed toward the struggle for power, forcible change of the constitutional order and the formation of theocratic states, which is what we see now in North Africa and the Middle East,” Shoikin said.
In an evident recognition of the need to devote more resources to addressing the perceived problem of extremism in Kazakhstan, President Nursultan Nazarbayev in September created the Ministry for Religious Affairs and Civil Society, under which Shoikin’s committee continues to operate. The ministry was put in charge of Nurlan Yermekbayev, a former aide to Nazarbayev and secretary of the National Security Council — a clear sign that Astana is increasingly viewing Islam as an issue that needs to be “securitized,” in particular following the wave of shootings in the city of Aktobe earlier this year.
The securitization of the radicalism question would be somewhat at odds with the thoughtful approach outlined by Shoikin in 2015, when he spoke about the “need to develop effective mechanisms aimed at identifying and eliminating the causes … of religious extremism and terrorism.”
It may be that there are low-level initiatives in train to pursue goals set forward by Shoikin — such as increasing religious literacy and tapping into the potential of civil society to cultivate anti-extremist sentiments among the population — but it is only security raids and arrests that ever make the headlines.