The October 11-31, 2020, trip to Kazakhstan is part of the project grant entitled “Developing Covenantal Pluralism in Modern Kazakhstani Society,” funded by the Templeton Religion Trust. This trip built upon LYNC’s 2019 roundtable series success and aimed to expand its influence, networks and resources among both government and religious organizations in Kazakhstan.
The objectives of this trip were to:
- Educate sectoral leadership about covenantal pluralism and engage them in the projects within the current grant framework.
- Expand the geographical evaluation of national, regional and local government leaderships’ readiness to transition from the traditional approach of strengthening national security through toughening religious laws and controlling the religious communities into achieving security and prosperity by developing covenantal pluralism among religious communities and expanding religious freedom. Key to expanded evaluation is the ongoing deepening of relational trust in the regions through one-on-one meetings with influential leaders and understanding how the Kazakh government’s approach to religious affairs altered following the February 2020 ethnic conflict in the Qordai region.
Perhaps the greatest metric for this trip was that the Kazakhstani government enabled and encouraged LYNC’s visit every step of the way. For example, LYNC was issued special permission and a visa during the national lockdown, which marked an outstanding sign of good relations and high anticipation of the LYNC project’s success.
The central government continues to demonstrate a genuine interest and understanding of LYNC’s project opportunities for de-radicalization in the regions, especially in the rural areas. They believe a sound model for covenantal pluralism might work, and they are willing to engage it. The Vice-Minister of MISD, referring to the first stage of the project, multi-faith relationship-building seminars between Muslims and Christians, said: “Those who graduated from the seminars, can become coaches and continue to hold these seminars in Kazakhstan. These first pairs (imams and pastors) will actually become ambassadors of this model for more distant regions.”
Furthermore, I had the opportunity to personally present the LYNC-Kazakhstan partnership and model to the highest religious leadership in the country, including Supreme Mufti Nauryzbay kazhy Taganuly and Gennady, Bishop Kaskelensky, the Vicar of the Astana Diocese, and the Administrative Manager of the Kazakhstan Metropolitan District. Each of these leaders offered their positive regard and participation in future LYNC-hosted events as well as their personal intent to continuing building a relationship with LYNC.
Over the past ten years, LYNC, together with its coalition of partners, has invested in relationship building as a means to foster cross-cultural understanding across peace-building and religious freedom. Recognizing an increasing openness across the different sectors of the society, LYNC worked alongside government leaders at the highest levels to tap into a pool of international experts to support a deepening conversation about Kazakhstan’s identity, as well as its fight against extremism. Birthed out of the partnership with IGE and its theory of change, LYNC has helped build local capacity—equipping and therefore enabling individuals and institutions, state (top-down) and non-state (bottom-up), to change in a manner consistent with the Golden Rule already present in their context.
LYNC’s long-term goal is to support the incubation of an emerging internally driven movement that practices covenantal pluralism and leads to sustainable liberal reform of religious laws in Kazakhstan. TRT defines “covenantal pluralism” as enabling cooperative, respectful and constructive engagement across differences. More specifically, covenantal pluralism is the commitment to engage, respect and protect the other, without necessarily conceding equal veracity or moral equivalency to the beliefs and behaviors of others.
The foundation of the LYNC model rests on the relational premise of coming “through the front door” by engaging the government first to ensure a sustainable, internally owned result. Through LYNC’s roundtable events, leaders participate in a safe space environment conducive to dialogue and interaction. The highly successful roundtable series held in four Kazakhstan’s cities in 2019 resulted in key officials and influencers asking for additional support in the form of expanded roundtables in all the regions, educational trainings and inclusion into the broader network of religious roundtables.
The conversations catalyzed during and after these roundtables unveiled a number of questions by leaders and officials as to how covenantal pluralism can be materialized successfully in the country. LYNC convened a coalition of leading experts to help answer these questions and respond to needs. Through these conversations, a working consensus resulted: Kazakhstan needed to offer the highest standard of training and education through a Religion and Rule of Law certificate program and expand the roundtables locations within Kazakhstan, even as Kazakhstan actively participated in the international roundtable network. Together, engaging the top peace and reconciliation experts and religious, civic and government leaders, LYNC is providing a structure for ongoing engagement and change and creating a working model of expanding religious freedom. A robust case study, inclusive of best practices that can be implemented in additional Central Asian countries, will ensue.
- Accomplishments to date;
- Concerns that local government and religious community leaders have; and
- Opportunity to advance religious freedom by spreading covenantal pluralism and improving religious literacy, especially in the law enforcement sector
The Kazakhstani government is decidedly active in multi-faith relationship building. Various platforms for such dialogues entitled “multi-faith clubs” or “multi-faith gatherings” exist in all cities. The religious community leaders celebrate country holidays together and frequently acknowledge the religious holidays of each other. In Öskemen, for instance, the local head Imam usually sends a bouquet of roses to the Baptist pastor for Easter, etc. Despite the latest spike of tensions in France and previous conflicts involving Muslims and Christians in other countries, the Kazakhstani stakeholders, media, and ethnic community leaders were not polarized in their statements. As one of the Russian Orthodox Church priests mentioned, “We do not hear any calls from Kazakh national organizations to fight against Russian speakers or Christians”.
Many local religious affairs departments are attempting to implement the best practices. I heard that some department leaders have already started to encourage different faith communities to visit each other’s places of worship. Mr. Alimbek Turaliev, the head of the Religious Affairs Office (RAO) in Aktobe, told me that they already implemented some ideas from our 2019 roundtable discussion. The government initiated the visitations of each other places of worship for the different faith traditions. Mr. Turaliev said that the concept is excellent and works well in their city. This is something they learned specifically how to implement at the 2019 roundtables. The same idea was carried out by the new head of RAO, Mr. Nurlan Kikimov, in Almaty.
Evangelicals from the cities where the 2019 roundtables took place report better communication with the government and a higher level of recognition of their communities from the government and the religious majority. One of the pastors said: “We were invited to the multi-faith events before, but never received the chance to speak and usually sat in the last row. Now, we have a chance to speak on an equal basis with the Imams and Orthodox priests.”
Looking forward with the full support of the Kazakhstani government, LYNC together with its coalition partners Pastor Bob Roberts and Imam Magid will expand the Multi-Faith Relationship Building Seminars first introduced last year in Kazakhstan. The framework will include a larger number of influential participants and will take place in Borovoye (120 miles from Nur-Sultan) on February 21 – March 5. Even if the restrictions are not fully lifted as Covid continues, the government remains committed to providing entry permits and visas for the US coalition members as well as logistical support for the participants from nine cities of Kazakhstan.
The anticipation of the upcoming LYNC projects is high. Even in instances in which the leaders do not see it as far as creating, expanding, and eventually exporting a unique model of developing covenantal pluralism and strengthening religious freedom, they believe that it is precisely what Kazakhstan needs now to take the next steps in a more secure and free society.
When I presented the LYNC’s model of advancing religious freedom through covenantal pluralism and education, I heard many times the question of whether an idea of what to do with the young believers who are still susceptible to radicalization was known. Against the background of religious de- institutionalization, which is the global trend, local Imams sometimes have a hard time to convince their younger generation to follow intellectual, moderate Islam and respect local Muslim institutions.
One of the community leaders shared: “The Western part is another Kazakhstan, it is a different dialect, mentality, etc. There are a lot of aggressive young Muslims here. Even Imams are afraid of them. They sit in close circles during prayers, and when the Imam says something to them, they would reply, ‘We live in the house of Allah, what can you say here, who are you?’.
The Orthodox priests highlighted continuous tension between local people in the rural areas and Russian Orthodox communities. In one of the villages, locals are not allowed to erect the cross on the local Orthodox rehab center because they believe the cross could curse their land. Another Orthodox church at the border with Uzbekistan is a subject of constant attacks from young Muslims. “They throw rotten pumpkins and dead animals into our door and territory,” complained one of the priests. They again highlighted the growing gap between the older the new generation of Muslims who do not want peacefully coexist with other religions as their fathers do.
The February 2020 ethnic conflict in the Qordai region left 11 dead, and many fled through the border with Kyrgyzstan. It caught the central government by surprise and took time and consideration how to respond. Up until now, there are no sustainable solutions the government can offer to prevent/resolve such conflicts.
Law enforcement continues to be at the local intersection of government and community. Uneven interpretation of the laws coming from Nur-Sultan continue to create strained relationships in the regions between law enforcement officials, religious minorities and civil society. Recurrent in my conversations were two key current challenges: illiteracy of the officials and corruption. LYNC’s model emphasizes the development of healthy relationships to promote sustainable and peaceful communities. This relationship-building approach is augmented by LYNC’s Religion and Rule of Law Certificate Course, developed in conjunction with Brigham Young University. Over 80% of anticipated participants are law enforcement members who will graduate with a solid foundation of literacy they can immediately take back to their communities in the official roles.
In the words of Mr. Azilkhanov: “All the good deeds that we do with Committee on Religious Affairs, law enforcement officers can nullify. For this reason, a sense of double standards may arise, although law enforcement officials may be moving in the wrong direction due to their illiteracy. Our interest is in the success of these training [to educate law enforcement to improve the treatment of members of the religious communities.]”
A fear of inter-ethnic and inter-religious conflicts, as well as religious radicalization, is making conversations on religious law liberalization more complex; These two key points were repeatedly emphasized by local government and religious leaders. The current level of tension requires even stronger evidence of success paired with in-country experiential proof that covenantal pluralism and religious freedom leads to de-radicalization and more robust societal elements.
As a response to radicalization, the government offers a traditional response: strict religious law and control over religious affairs. However, the Kazakhstani central and local government understands that it is a short-term solution and is not sustainable. More than ever, during this trip, my lengthy conversations with the government officials and head Imams centered on strengthening religious freedom and addressing radicalization through building covenantal pluralism.
We must help the Kazakhstani government at this critical moment of history by providing resources and encourage them to create a unique model of expanding religious freedom that would bear sustainable results.
Echoing the words of Pauletta Otis, a Strategic Studies Professor at the Joint Military Intelligence College, in 2003, we believe that what needed now is the courage and commitment to press through the complexity and to develop balanced perspectives that work in concert with the different aspects and belief systems rather than simplistically ignoring or condemning either of the actors. We are in a global competition for “hearts and minds”—our own and those who are on the other side of the equation.
During one of the conversations with the head of the religious affairs department, he listened to my presentation and concluded: “We are on the same side of the barricade.”
Wade Kusack, November 12, 2020