But, as with every Muslim-majority nation, any sign of political activism has fueled fears about rising “Islamism.”
Ariel Cohen is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, an American think thank a writer described as “the mothership of the Neocon persuasion,” where he specializes in Eurasian affairs.
In an interview pertaining to the ongoing situation in Kazakhstan, he said:
We saw three revolutions/revolts/coups in neighboring Kyrgyzstan. The key question is: To what extent did the victory of Islamists in the fall of Afghanistan energize Islamist forces throughout Central Asia? We might not be aware that we are in a new stage of political reality there. Older, Soviet-era leaders may be rejected by the new generation that grew up under independence and in a much more Islam-infused environment. I did notice the video clips of demonstrators conducting mass prayers in the open air. That’s something I never saw before in Kazakhstan.
There’s much to say about the liberal paranoia about rising Islam, but here we’ll mainly concentrate on Islam in Kazakhstan, if indeed there’s a revival and if all of this could be translated into politics.
The Kazakh-Muslim Genocide
Like pretty much everywhere else, the radical atheist regime of the Soviets attacked Islam in Kazakhstan, where Islam was an identity marker of the Kazakh peoples, a Turkic group and historically nomadic population of Central Asia.
For instance, one author writes:
The Islamic side of Kazakh-ness was similarly undermined by the Stalinist atheistic policy which led to the liquidation, or a drastic reduction, of the number of both ‘official’ Islamic ‘clergy’ and ‘unofficial’ Islamic authorities, including Kazakh qojas. In the mid-1920s the institution of waqf was outlawed, and Islamic education was disrupted and reduced to a few hujras (educational groups) which continued to function illegally only in southern Kazakhstan.
To get the extent of the propaganda, Chantal Quelquejay writes in her article Anti-Islamic Propaganda in Kazakhstan since 1953, where she reviews a dozen of books penned to destroy the faith of the Kazakh-Muslims, that:
It may be said, therefore, that in the last five years one anti-religious publication has been put out for every ten people or, discounting the old illiterates and small children, for each family.
So, each family “benefited” from such anti-Islam propaganda. If the spiritual onslaught wasn’t enough, let’s not forget the physical one: the Soviet-engineered famine of 1930-1933 killed up to 1.5 to 2 million, or one-fourth of the republic’s total population.
They all had to die because Stalin wanted to industrialize rapidly… who said modernism isn’t genocidal?
This is what the radical atheists and secularists did to the Kazakh Muslims, targeting both physically and spiritually. But let’s see if indeed there has been some “Islamic revival” after the demise of the Soviet Union.
The Islamic Revival Is Real
“Islamic revival” is an expression used to characterize the new Islamization among the post-Soviet populations, especially among the youth.
In the case of Kazakhstan, one sign is that even Nursultan Nazarbayev, long-time dedicated communist and a secularist who ruled from 1990 to 2019, had to showcase symbols of Islam because society was getting more Islamic by the day.
We can also see this process of revival through numbers.
Analysts looking at opinion surveys in Kazakhstan (and also neighboring Kyrgyzstan) noted that, between 2007 and 2012, Kazakhs who self-identify as Muslims rose from 79% to 93% (in 5 years only). And while religious identification is not always accompanied with strict religious practice, the analysts do write that:
There is broad consensus that a revival in Islamic practice is currently taking place. Our data, presented in Table 1, generally bear these findings out. If we look at religious self-identification, for example, by 2012 nearly 95 percent of ethnic Muslims in both countries described themselves as Muslim. This high rate clearly confirms the strong salience of Muslim self-identification across the two societies.
Another author gives the following statistics as well, writing in 2012: From 40-60 mosques during the 1975-1989 period, to more than 1400 mosques in 2005.
The same source state that some 10% of Kazakhs now:
…actively “follow the Koran, pray five times a day and wear hijab [Islamic veil].
Despite being predominantly secular, Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev has made numerous concessions to the Islamic identity of the Kazakh people (…) as the Islamic revival is gaining momentum in Kazakhstan, the number of youths attending local mosques and masjids (small mosques) “appears to be growing every year.”
Yet another researcher, this time writing in 2019 (so some 7 years after the previous analyst), said that the number of mosques now stand at more than 2500, having “increased 37-fold in the span of 25 years,” also noting the growth of the halal businesses, the re-Islamization being particularly strong among the urban middle-class:
Today, Kazakhstan has 130 halal slaughterhouses and over 600 halal businesses, which is very high against the eight halal special units in 2002. The halal products (with halal brand logo) are visible in bazaars and shopping malls to attract Muslim customers who prefer to maintain halal standardisation.
So, there’s definitely an Islamic revival, but does that translate into politics?
Is “Islamism” Really Rising?
So, let’s go back to the beginning, with the “specialist” Cohen who expressed fears of rising Islamism in Kazakhstan. Is that happening ?
The recent commentary on the on-going crisis in Kazakhstan doesn’t seem to unveil any particular reference to Islam in the demands of the protesters.
Also, Russians make up some 20% of the country (their mass-migration is another legacy of the Soviets), and Russia itself sees Kazakhstan as a satellite state, sending troops to “calm down” the situation.
It seems Russia is not willing to let Islam rise in Kazakhstan.
We can only pray that Allah gives aid to the Muslims of Kazakhstan and allows them to rule their country according to the laws of Islam.
 G.M. Yemelianova (2014). “Islam, national identity and politics in contemporary Kazakhstan”, Asian Ethnicity, 15:3, p. 289.
 Junisbai, B., Junisbai, A., & Zhussupov, B. (2017). “Two Countries, Five Years: Islam in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan through the Lens of Public Opinion Surveys”, Central Asian Affairs, 4:1, p. 10.
 Achilov, D. (2012). “Islamic Education in Central Asia: Evidence from Kazakhstan”. Asia Policy, 14, pp. 85-86.
 Bilal A. Malik (2019). “Islam in Post-Soviet Kazakhstan: Experiencing Public Revival of Islam through Institutionalisation”, Asian Journal of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies, 13:3, pp. 7-8.