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Islam in Kazakhstan: A survey of contemporary trends and sources of securitization



This essay examines the nature of Islam in Kazakhstan and its role in contemporary Kazakh society and politics. It highlights the unique place of Islam in the social and individual experiences of Kazakhs who see Islamic religion as a ‘way of life’, and illuminates several interrelated qualities of the Kazakh religion, such as a strong association of religious identity with ethnic identity of Kazakhs, interpenetration of religious canons with indigenous traditions and a growing tendency toward ‘individualization’ and ‘intimization’ of Islam. Another goal of the paper is to shed light on the worrisome process of the securitization of Islam. The latter phenomenon refers to a discursive practice of presenting Islam as a threat to Kazakhstan despite the prevalence of ‘moderate’ and apolitical manifestations of Islam in the republic. The study documents political interests surrounding securitization of Islam and the context which made the invocation of security in relation to Islam possible.
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Islam in Kazakhstan: a survey of contemporary trends and sources of
Mariya Y. Omelichevaa
a Department of Political Science, University of Kansas, Lawrence, USA
Online publication date: 24 May 2011
To cite this Article Omelicheva, Mariya Y.(2011) 'Islam in Kazakhstan: a survey of contemporary trends and sources of
securitization', Central Asian Survey, 30: 2, 243 — 256
To link to this Article: DOI: 10.1080/02634937.2011.567069
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Islam in Kazakhstan: a survey of contemporary trends and
sources of securitization
Mariya Y. Omelicheva
Department of Political Science, University of Kansas, Lawrence, USA
This essay examines the nature of Islam in Kazakhstan and its role in contemporary Kazakh
society and politics. It highlights the unique place of Islam in the social and individual
experiences of Kazakhs who see Islamic religion as a ‘way of life’, and illuminates several
interrelated qualities of the Kazakh religion, such as a strong association of religious
identity with ethnic identity of Kazakhs, interpenetration of religious canons with
indigenous traditions and a growing tendency toward ‘individualization’ and ‘intimization’
of Islam. Another goal of the paper is to shed light on the worrisome process of the
securitization of Islam. The latter phenomenon refers to a discursive practice of presenting
Islam as a threat to Kazakhstan despite the prevalence of ‘moderate’ and apolitical
manifestations of Islam in the republic. The study documents political interests surrounding
securitization of Islam and the context which made the invocation of security in relation to
Islam possible.
Keywords: Islam; Kazakhstan; securitization; security
Islam is a major religion of the republic of Kazakhstan. Its status is attested through the presence
of a large Islamic following and recognition of the important place of Islamic faith in the
history and culture of the Kazakh people. According to different estimates, Muslims constitute
52 65% of all believers in Kazakhstan (Trofimov 2001, Telebaev 2003). The majority of
those identifying with Islam are rather light observers of Islamic laws and prohibitions. Many
Kazakh Muslims do not fulfil the duties associated with canonical Islam. The ‘Muslimness’
of Kazakhs is commonly defined through their participation in an array of life-cycle rituals,
adherence to values and social mores of the Kazakh communities, and celebration of communal
Despite the prevalence of ‘heterodox’ forms of Islam in Kazakhstan developed as a result of
a prolonged and uneven process of Islamicization of local traditions and localization of scriptural
Islam, a worrisome phenomenon of securitization has evolved in recent years. This process
involves the merging of the official discourse on Islam and security and discursive framing of
Islam as a threat to Kazakhstan.
What is the role of Islam in contemporary Kazakhstan’s society and politics? What explains
the securitization of Islam? This study engages with these questions. Much of what has been said
and written about Islam in Central Asia and Kazakhstan has concentrated on radical Islamic
movements and assessments of the level of threat that radical Islam poses to the stability of
Central Asian states. Undeniably, this is an important topic. It is equally important, however,
to examine more prevalent forms of Islamic observance and practice, which constitute the
‘way of life’ of Kazakhs, and inquire into the roots of a dangerous discursive process
whereby certain manifestations of Islam are defined as threats to security.
ISSN 0263-4937 print/ISSN 1465-3354 online
#2011 Southseries Inc
DOI: 10.1080/02634937.2011.567069
Central Asian Survey
Vol. 30, No. 2, June 2011, 243 256
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Kazakhstan presents an interesting case for the study of Islam in post-Communist societies
and politics. It has seen relatively lower levels of radical Islamic movements, such as Hizb ut-
Tahrir, compared to other Central Asian republics. The Kazakh authorities have denied the exist-
ence of home-grown terrorists and religious extremists, and there have been very few reports
concerning activities of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan in the country (Omelicheva
2011). However, the Kazakh leadership chose to securitize Islam and respond to the alleged
threat with disproportionally harsh responses. The goal of this essay, then, is to take stock of
the multifaceted forms of Islamic observance and practice in Kazakhstan and illuminate dom-
estic and international factors affecting official perceptions of Islam and religious policies.
The paper proceeds in three sections. First, I take up the challenge of describing the nature
of Islam in Kazakhstan and its role in the social and individual experiences of the Kazakh
people. I point out several defining and interrelated qualities of the Islamic faith of Kazakhs,
particularly, a strong association of ethnic and religious identities, contextualization or ‘folklor-
ization’ of Islam, and a growing tendency toward ‘individualization’ and ‘intimization’ of
Section two describes the phenomenon of the securitization of Islam. Securitization denotes
a discursive practice of defining a phenomenon that does not necessarily belong to a security
realm as a security threat. The discussion of the securitization of Islam will be followed by
the explanation of securitization using the conceptual lens of the Copenhagen School of security
studies in section three. According to this school, securitization is a historically contingent
product of the competition for power and access to resources between different political interests
within the state and among states. The framework of securitization calls for identifying those
actors who may benefit from the discourse of Islamic danger. I, therefore, review political inter-
ests surrounding securitization of Islam in Kazakhstan, and the context that made the invocation
of security in relation to Islam possible.
Located at the crossroads of several disciplines religious studies, political science and
sociology – this study relies on a diverse toolkit of methods. It provides a critical meta-analysis
of the substantial literature documenting anthropological, historical and ethnographic research
on Islam in Central Asia and Kazakhstan, supported by evidence collected during the author’s
field research in the country, as well as systematic content analysis of political discourse con-
cerning Islam in Kazakhstan.
Islam in contemporary Kazakh society
Like other Central Asian republics, Kazakhstan is a predominantly Muslim society. However,
the size of its Islamic following is smaller due to the presence of a significant Slavic minority,
mainly Russians, but also Ukrainians and Byelorussians. Because the non-titular nationalities are
largely concentrated in certain geographical areas and cities of Kazakhstan, there are important
regional differences in the size of Islamic communities across the country. Islamic religion is
more widespread in the southern and western regions of Kazakhstan. In the north and east of
the country, fewer people identify with the Islamic religion.
During the 1990s, Kazakhstan experienced a revival of Islamic faith. There has been a
marked increase in the number of people practising Islam as well as places for worship since
the republic’s independence in 1991. If in 1989 there were only 46 mosque congregations in
Kazakhstan, by 1998 their number expanded to more than 1000. According to a national refer-
ence book, Kazakhstan had 1652 registered Muslim associations in 2003, and their volume
continued to grow (Dzhalalov 2006, p. 74). Despite the resurgence of interest in Islam, the
degree of religious observance in the strict sense of the word (for instance, the performance
of five duties incumbent on every Muslim) has been rather low (Telebaev 2003).
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For historical reasons, Islam has become inseparable from the traditional life course of the
Kazakhs and from the community in which these traditions prevail. It has evolved into what
some scholars termed the local contextualization of Islam (Privratsky 2001, p. 15). The Islami-
cization of Central Asia began in the seventh century, but the steppe territory populated with
nomadic tribes did not provide a fertile ground for the spread of canonical Islam which is
more prevalent among sedentary populations. The latter is a religion of settled people. It requires
developed urban infrastructure for disseminating scriptural knowledge through madrasas. The
nomadic culture was resistant to any form of theocracy or strict practices of canonical Islam.
According to Khalid (2007, p. 33): ‘Power in nomadic societies was imagined in genealogical
terms, and to the extent that state structures existed they derived their moral authority from
ˆdat, tribal custom and the traditions of the elders (who were Muslims by definition), rather
than through the juridical tradition of the shariat as it was developed in urban societies by
generations of ulama.’
Most of the Kazakhs were converted to the Sunni branch of Islam by the end of nineteenth
century. However, even after adopting a new faith, the nomads continued to rely on their own
socio-cultural values and a
ˆdat, combining their pre-Islamic religious traditions with the precepts
of Islam (Klyashtorny and Sultanov 1992, p. 150). The policies of Tsarist and Soviet Russia only
reinforced the blending of indigenous worldviews with Islam. In nomadic societies, where
Islamic faith was viewed as a small component in the mosaic of local traditions, the Russian
state exhibited a rather lenient approach to Islam. The Bolsheviks, initially, nearly decimated
the main bastions of Islam in Central Asia and elsewhere in Russia. Still, many features of
pre-1917 Islam survived the Soviet assault. Toward the end of the Second World War the
Stalin regime had softened its stance on religion allowing for the establishment of the Spiritual
Administration of the Muslims of Central Asia and Kazakhstan in 1943. As part and parcel of its
nationality politics, the Soviet government permitted religious observance and education in the
post-Second World War USSR. One of the consequences of this policy was strengthening the tie
between ethnic and religious identification. The Muslim identity of the Kazakhs was blended
with their national identity. The traditional practices of Kazakh Muslims became linked with
the Soviet notion of culture, whereas their religious identification became an aspect of their
national cultural heritage. The more public and ‘more religious’ forms of Muslim spiritual
life (according to Soviet logic), such as ritual worships in mosques, were perceived as ‘bad’
and ‘extreme’, and dissociated from the way in which Kazakhs defined their Muslimness
(McBrien 2006, p. 344).
During the Soviet era, those religious practices that existed outside the sanctioned sphere of
the government-controlled spiritual directorates were designated as ‘parallel’ Islam and were
considered as illegal by the Soviet authorities (Privratsky 2001, p. 9, Louw 2007, p. 4). In
modern scholarship, these labels have found expression in a popular dichotomy of scriptural
and ‘popular’ Islam, or ‘great’ and ‘little’ Islamic traditions. After independence, the Kazakh
authorities have appropriated the Soviet-era labels of ‘official’ and ‘unofficial’ Islam. They
have also seized the idea of the ‘little’ tradition as part of the greater ethnic idea (Jessa 2006b).
There have been legitimate criticisms of these simplistic descriptions of Islam in Kazakh-
stan, which trivialize the depth and complexity of the Kazakh religion, and diminish its signifi-
cance as less than ‘real’. The local religious practices of Kazakhs penetrate the ‘official’ space of
mosques, making the ‘official’ and ‘parallel’ dichotomy unfitting (Privratsky 2001). The label of
‘unofficial’ Islam, which the Soviet government used in reference to Sufism, has changed its
meaning and is now deployed in relation to the alleged threat of religious ‘extremism’ and ‘fun-
damentalism’. Sufism, itself, does not represent an opposition to the governing regimes. Neither
does it fit into the ‘folk Islam’ category since some leading Sufi figures hold official oppositions
in the Kazakh muftiate (Jessa 2006b, p. 177). Instead of adopting any simplistic dichotomy or
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label for describing Islam in Kazakhstan, I lay out several defining and interrelated qualities
of the Kazakh religion with an important caveat that those features of Islam in post-Soviet
Kazakhstan are neither static nor internally homogenous.
Being Kazakh is being Muslim: ethnic and religious identification
One of the defining qualities of Islam in Kazakhstan is its association with ethnic identity and
national traditions rather than Islamic theory and praxis (Hann and Pelkmans 2009, p. 1524).
For Kazakhs, ethnic identity is a Muslim one; beingKazakh means being Muslim. This correspon-
dence of ethnic and religious identification developed long before the expansion of the Russian
empire into the steppe. Prior to the Russian conquest, large segments of the Central Asian popu-
lation identified themselves as Muslims, but this religious marker had little to do with the strict
Islamic observance or mastery of Quran and shariat. Instead, being Muslim signified belonging
to a community that perceived itself as Muslim (Khalid 2007, p. 21). The latter claimed its
Muslim identity through elaborate legends of origin narrating the beginnings of a community
and describing the act of founding as well as the evolution of the community by interlacing
elements of Islamic tradition and local norms. One of the most popular myths of origin was
that of Baba Tu
¨kles. In popular memory, he is associated with the role of an Islamic progenitor,
who brought the new religion to the Golden Horde by converting its Genghisid ruler to Islam
(DeWeese 1994). At various stages of the development of the tale, Baba Tu
¨kles was presented
as both the ‘Islamizer’ and a founder of the nation (DeWeese 1994, p. 6).
The Soviet-era nationality policies strengthened this religious and national identification. By
the late Soviet period Muslim identity came to be understood and promoted as an intrinsic part of
the Kazakh nationality. The correspondence of ethnic and religious identities has been sustained
in the post-Soviet context as well. Most Kazakhs do not regard scriptural knowledge and the
practice of the five pillars as the exclusive markers of Muslim identity. Instead, there is a wide-
spread belief that having been born Muslim or being a descendant of communities where Islam
constituted a central component of life are appropriate indicators of the Muslimness of Kazakhs
(Ro’i and Wainer 2009, p. 306).
Being local is being traditional: ‘folklorization’ of Islam
The Soviet encoding of religious identities through nationality policies was an important factor
in fostering and sustaining ‘folklorized’ forms of Islam (Hann and Pelkmans 2009, p. 1524). In
the post-Soviet context, the Kazakh religion has retained a degree of ‘folkorization’ and an
enduring impact of local indigenous traditions on Islam. Islam in Kazakhstan is traditional,
but not in a sense of being ‘scriptural’, ‘essentialist’, and ‘orthodox’. Rather, it is traditional
because religious practices and discourse of Kazakhs have been attuned to their indigenous
values and pre-Islamic traditions. What is presented as religious recasts and reinforces deeply
internalized communal values, practices and beliefs. To borrow Privratsky’s terminology,
Kazakh religion is a ‘local’ contextualization of Islam. However, it is this local way of
knowing and practising Islam, rather than juridical Islam, that is traditional (Privratsky 2001,
p. 238).
Some of the expressions of this Islamic tradition are the cults of saints and holy places. These
rituals go back centuries to the time when institutionalized religious practices were practically
non-existent in the nomadic societies, which defined their Muslim identity by paying allegiance
to individuals with sacred lineages (Khalid 2007, p. 33). In contemporary Kazakhstan, saints
individuals who are trusted as intermediaries between ordinary believers and God act as the
guardians of the traditional way of communal life. The tombs of these individuals became holy
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places of pilgrimage and shrines, which continue to shape and define the Muslim identity of
Kazakh communities. The communal identity, in turn, is made evident through the communal
celebration of annual holidays, performance of life-cycle rituals, and the cult of ancestors
(Khalid 2007, p. 22). In this way, values, traditions, social mores and ethics of the community
became ‘Muslim’ in their own right. This is how an array of household-based life-cycle rituals,
such as those marking the birth of a child, circumcision, marriage, funerals and others, also
became Islamic (Abashin 2006, p. 272). This reciprocal process of indigenization of Islam
and Islamicization of local customs and traditions led Kazakh communities and individual
Kazakhs see themselves as ‘naturally’ Muslims (DeWeese 1994, p. 51, Khalid 2007, p. 22).
Being religious is having an intimate and individual experience of God: ‘intimization’ and
‘individualization’ of Islam
Another contemporary trend characterizing Islam in Kazakhstan is its growing ‘individualiza-
tion’ manifested in the search for more personalized ways of practising the faith and its diversi-
fication (Peyrouse 2007). Placing emphasis on personal ethics and personal fulfilment as well as
having private beliefs in God and searching for true meaning of life follows naturally from a
conception of Muslimness in Kazakhstan as a way of life, rather than strict adherence to
Islamic laws and prohibitions. It is also a reminder of a historically important relationship of
the Kazakhs with the Sufi tradition, particularly its illuminationist dimension of ‘personal
revelation’ (Privratsky 2001, p. 16).
In contemporary Kazakhstan, it is sustained through some
elemental expressions, such as visionary experiences and dreams. The interpretations of these
visionary experiences lead to healing practices and other kinds of religious behaviour in house-
holds and at the holy places (Jessa 2006a, p. 359). It is also manifested in the growing popularity
of religious groups that promise spiritual healing and individual prosperity in Kazakhstan.
One of these groups, known as Aq Jol, or ‘Pure Way’ is illustrative of the growing popularity
of this kind of religious movements. Founded in 1997 after one of the movement’s organizers
experienced an ‘initiatory dream’ calling for commitment to spiritual and healing work, Aq
Jol focuses on the spiritual purification, healing, and education of people as foundational
elements of their ‘Pure Way’ (Jessa 2006a).
The movement integrates tradition with scriptural Islam enriched and augmented through
incorporation and assimilation of Islamic practices with indigenous rituals. The majority of
Aq Jol members and healers characterize themselves as Muslim, but the movement is open to
people from different denominations (Jessa 2006a, 2006b).
‘Foreign’ Islam
After independence, Central Asia saw an influx of foreign Muslim missionaries and religious
groups arriving from Turkey, Pakistan and the Arab states. Although Uzbekistan and Tajikistan
attracted the bulk of Muslim activists from abroad, Kazakhstan, too, has seen its share of foreign
religious movements. Muslim missionaries have rarely been greeted with enthusiasm in
Kazakhstan. Ordinary Muslims perceive foreign teachings and practices as manifestly intolerant
and incompatible with the local Islamic tradition. Nevertheless, the dwindling authority of
the official religious institutions and effective methods of propaganda employed by Muslim
activists created a window of opportunity for a variety of foreign religious organizations.
The Nurcu and Fetullah Gu
¨len movements have the strongest presence in Kazakhstan. With
their origin in Turkey, they unite devout followers of the teachings of Said’Nursi and Fetullah
¨len. The Nurcu movement’s mission in Central Asia is to assist the people in their personal
journey of rediscovery of Islam. The underlying idea is that the revival of faith in society is only
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possible through the resumption of individual faith, and the latter can be achieved through
modern education. Fetullah Gu
¨len, who can be seen as an offshoot of the general Nurcu move-
ment, shares the movement’s commitment to education and believes in the compatibility of
modernity with Islam (Balci 2003, p. 151). The Nurcu and Fetullah Gu
¨len groups have been
engaging with the Central Asian youth, particularly through the Turkish Lyceums established
in all Central Asian republics (with the exception of Uzbekistan where the schools were shut
down). The educational curriculum of the Nurcu schools includes sciences and a variety of
modern disciplines, but also subjects and elements of the classical Islamic school system. The
Nurcu movement has also opened hundreds of businesses in Central Asia and launched the pub-
lication of its newspaper, Zaman.
Despite the establishment of dozens of schools and companies in Kazakhstan, the Nurcu
movement still has a very weak support base among the Kazakhs. The Turkish schools have
been facing resentment by the locals for being elitist. The movement’s religious ideas have
been perceived as inimical to local Islamic tradition. Turkish Nurcus are pious Muslims who
are more devout than Kazakhs. Instead of accepting their moderate Islamic views, Nurcus typi-
cally impose on the Kazakhs their own more purist form of Islam, in this way creating a rift with
the Kazakh Muslims. The Central Asian governments have also been suspicious of the group,
and this explains why the Nurcu movement has never officially and openly stated its religious
Along with more devout, but not necessarily ‘political’ forms of Islam, ‘radical’ Islamic
groups have made inroads into the communities of Muslims in Central Asia. Hizb ut-Tahrir,
for example, a radical Islamic group with a significant and growing presence in Central
Asia, has been reported in Kazakhstan. The group pursues a pan-Islamic goal of establishing
a global Caliphate ruled by sharia, but contrary to other jihadist movements, it eschews vio-
lence as a means toward accomplishing this goal. The first reports about activities of Hizb
ut-Tahrir in the south of Kazakhstan appeared in the early 2000s. There, observers estimated
the movement’s membership in the low hundreds. The most recent publications of the
Kazakh security services allege unprecedented growth in the rank-and-file of this group. The
success of the recruiting efforts of Hizb ut-Tahrir has been attributed to its organizational struc-
ture, ideology and political situation in Central Asia. The Kazakh authorities have recently
announced the presence of another radical group, the Tablighi Jammat, in Kazakhstan. It is
a moderate Salafi movement, which works toward spiritual awakening of the Muslims of
Central Asia. The more radical Salafi movements, with jihad as part of their platform, have
not materialized in Kazakhstan to the same extent they have existed in the neighbouring repub-
lics of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.
Hizb ut-Tahrir, the Tablighi Jammat, the Nurcu movement, and other groups practising their
faith outside of state-sponsored religious institutions are either regarded as pseudo-Muslim by
the Muslim Spiritual Administration of Kazakhstan (DUMK) or designated as terrorist and
extremist by the Kazakh government (Asanbaev 2006). The DUMK is the organization that
leads the Kazakh Muslims adhering to the Hanafi madhab, i.e., a Muslim school of law. This
is the only official madhab in the republic. The DUMK is envisioned as an independent inter-
mediary between the state authorities and the congregation, but in practice it is an arm of the
state, keeping a watchful eye on the Muslim population through the supervision of mosques’ per-
sonnel, rotation of imams and other forms of control (International Crisis Group 2003, p. 31).
The DUMK, however, does not and cannot control all Islamic organizations and associations
in Kazakhstan. There are many mosques, particularly in the southern part of Kazakhstan, that
are not subordinated to the DUMK. There are also local mosques in the countryside that
remain unregistered with the Ministry of Justice. Therefore, they also escape the supervision
of the DUMK. According to experts’ estimates, the numbers of non-registered mosque
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congregations, which hold the DUMK in very low regard and defy its command, is one and a half
to two times greater than the scores of the registered mosques (Asanbaev 2006).
Securitization of Islam in Kazakhstan
As discussed in the previous section, Islam occupies a unique place in the hearts, minds and
lives of the Kazakhs, for whom Islamic faith is a way of life. Being Muslim is part and
parcel of being Kazakh. Despite the ‘moderate’ and largely apolitical manifestations of Islam
in Kazakhstan, the official discourse in the republic has recently moved to present some
forms of Islam as a threat to the stability and security of the nation. These varieties of Islam
have not been clearly defined by the government of Kazakhstan but they are typically associated
with practices of the religious communities unrecognized by the DUMK. The phenomenon of
presenting something as a threat in official discourse has been termed ‘securitization’ of Islam.
Originating in the Copenhagen School of security studies, the notion of securitization refers to
‘the discursive process through which an intersubjective understanding is constructed within a
political community to treat something as an existential threat’. To put it differently, security
and insecurity are not objective facts but social constructs that are written and talked into exist-
ence (Huysmans 2006, p. 7). By invoking ‘security’ in connection with certain issues, such as
diversity within Islam, policy makers frame a particular phenomenon as a security problem
(Wæver 1995, p. 55). When a phenomenon is securitized, that is, defined as belonging to a
domain of security, policy makers can claim a right to apply ‘urgent and exceptional’ measures
that fall outside of the typical political processes to deal with the threat (Buzan and Wæver
2003, p. 491).
The process of securitization of Islam in Kazakhstan began at the turn of the century, when
the country’s leadership, security experts and representatives of main religious confessions
began embracing the rhetoric of Islamic danger. In the 1990s, the Kazakh government exhibited
confidence in the republic’s invulnerability to Islamist threats. The public authorities contended
that their country provided a poor soil for religious radicalization. In the 2000s, the discourse
has noticeably changed. The Kazakh government declared radical Islam as the real threat to
the state (Omelicheva 2011). The Kazakh leadership has become increasingly insecure about
the republic’s burgeoning religious sector. Various humanitarian and missionary groups have
been suspected as cover-ups for radical Islamic groups. It has become common to hear a
viewpoint that in Kazakhstan, too, there are certain conditions and factors that might become
the precursors for politically motivated religious violence (Kurganskaia 2002).
President Nazarbayev has repeatedly warned against religious extremism and fanaticism in
his speeches delivered at the meetings of Central Asian leaders. These statements, portraying
Islam as a national security threat, set the tone for anti-religious policies and stricter measures
against the alleged Islamists (Turakbayev 2003). In his 2005 presidential address to the
people of Kazakhstan, Nazarbayev named terrorism, political instability and religious extremism
as the gravest threats of the twenty-first century and serious obstacles to the economic, social and
political modernization of the country. The following year, the President called on the Kazakh
National Security Committee (KNB) to do its utmost to protect the security of Kazakhstan.
Spurred by this appeal, the KNB published a series of reports discussing what the agency
branded as the ‘burning’ question of terrorism and religious extremism in the country. The
Kazakh military has also been convinced that religious extremism and terrorism pose a real
and serious threat to Kazakhstan. The republic’s Defence Ministry initiated the creation of
Special Forces placed under the supervision of Kazakhstan’s Secret Service with a view
to increasing the army’s preparedness to defend the country from unconventional threats
(Omelicheva 2011).
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There are, however, few objective bases for these fears. Kazakhstan has never been targeted
by Islamic militants. There has barely been any activity that could be defined as ‘terrorist’ in
the state (see, for example, Global Terrorism Database [2009]). The official reports issued
by the government attest that no terrorist attack has been carried out successfully in
Kazakhstan. Due to the unique historical and socio-cultural bases of Islam in the republic,
radical expressions of Islam are inimical to the majority of Kazakh Muslims. Kazakhstan has
been the bastion of moderate and traditional forms of Islam. What, then, explains the securitiza-
tion of religion?
Accounting for the securitization of Islam in Kazakhstan
According to the securitization framework, securitization of social phenomena is a politically
significant act. Security framing provides a powerful political tool for investing security ration-
ality in the policy areas that fall outside of a traditional definition of security. In this way,
political discourse about novel security threats bestows political weight to the newly securitized
areas and confers extraordinary authority upon the institutions that manage issues within
these policy realms. When a phenomenon is securitized, it lends itself to being responded to
in specific ways. By conceptualizing Islam as a security threat, policy makers can resort to
unprecedented state-centred solutions, and use whatever means necessary to protect and
defend the nation from the threat (Wæver 1995, pp. 55 65, Gu
¨z 2007).
An effective securitization is always context-dependent. It succeeds within and as part of the
socio-political and historical circumstances in which the invocation of security makes sense. It
must also resonate with the psycho-cultural disposition of the people (Balzacq 2005). In
addition, securitization is power-laden; it is contingent on the power and resources available
to different political institutions and social groupings within the state and among states.
Below, I examine the main institutions with a vested interest in securitizing Islam in Kazakhstan.
Next, I discuss the context and audience, which made securitization of Islamic religion effective.
Institutions benefiting from securitization of Islam
Islam is not the only religion that made a vigorous comeback in Kazakhstan. Since Russians con-
stitute a considerable portion of the republic’s population, Christian revival took place alongside
the Islamic renaissance. In addition, a great variety of foreign religious groups inundated the
country in the 1990s changing its confessional structure beyond recognition in a very short
period of time. The arrival of new religions has been unsettling for the Orthodox Church and
the Muslim Spiritual Board, which fear losing control over the republic’s religious sector.
The representatives of these religious confessions have been interested in securitizing Islam
and stricter religious laws and regulations (Peyrouse 2008, p. 388).
The Orthodox hierarchy in Kazakhstan faces competition from Catholic and Protestant
churches as well as from the host of new denominations ranging from the Hare Krishna
groups to various evangelical Christian sects. These groups are typically more affluent than
local religious organizations and, therefore, capable of providing various forms of material
support to entice new members (Khalid 2007, p. 137). Kazakhstan’s Muslim Spiritual Board
is challenged by a wide spectrum of alternative Islamic movements perceived as a threat to
the DUMK (Asanbaev 2006). The Spiritual Board adheres to a rather paternalistic conception
of religion that contradicts the contemporary trends of Islam in Kazakhstan. By putting
considerable pressure to conform to its religious views, the Spiritual Board inadvertently
deters the mosque-goers who prefer alternative and more personalized ways of practising
religion (Peyrouse 2007).
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The alliance of Christian Orthodoxy and Islam has been bolstered through the promulgation
of ideas about the similarity of their spiritual and ethical bases and correspondence of those bases
to values shared by the peoples of Kazakhstan. It has been said that both religions integrate
traditional practices and beliefs of the Russians and Kazakhs and, therefore, their religious
elements are intertwined with various aspects of the Russian and Kazakh lifestyles (Peyrouse
2008). Both Orthodox and Muslim authorities have been encouraging the government of
Kazakhstan to support the two main confessions by portraying themselves as important
traditional faiths native to the land, intimately connected to its history, and loyal to the political
regime (Kurganskaia 2002). Theological disputes have been avoided at any cost and represen-
tatives of both religions have stressed the expediency of Christian Islamic inter-faith dialogue.
It has been declared that harmonious relations between Orthodoxy and Islam are the only way to
ensure social order and inter-ethnic accord.
Securitization of Islam has also benefited the state and its governing regime. Kazakhstan’s
constitution enshrines the principle of the separation of state and religion prohibiting the govern-
ment’s interference in the business of religious groups. Kazakhstan has always fancied itself as a
model of spiritual tolerance, inter-faith dialogue, and a meeting place of various religions.
President Nazarbayev engineered a number of projects aimed at fostering religious accord
and inter-ethnic peace. The Assembly of People of Kazakhstan representing nearly 100 ethnic
groups was created in 1995 with the goal of representing the multi-ethnic population of the
republic at national level. The Kazakh President initiated regular meetings with representatives
of religious denominations, and these gatherings evolved into the Congress of World and
Traditional National Religions held in Kazakhstan. Nazarbayev pioneered the idea of the
‘Palace of Nations’ envisioned as a global centre for religious and inter-ethnic dialogue. The
construction of the palace began in 2004 and a new Temple of Peace and Harmony housing a
mosque, an Orthodox church, a synagogue and a Buddhist temple in a single complex was
inaugurated two year later. Recently, the Kazakh authorities launched a new project World
Forum of Spiritual Culture for fostering spirituality and strengthening dialogue between
diverse cultures of the modern world.
In practice, however, the implementation of religious policies has departed from the avowed
commitment to religious freedoms. The Kazakh authorities supervise religious life and exercise
significant influence over the DUMK and other religious institutions. The government has been
narrowing the space for religious pluralism by toughening national legislation. In 2005, for
example, under the guise of combating terrorism and religious extremism, the Kazakh govern-
ment pushed through a series of amendments to religious laws, which established a requirement
for the registration of missionary activities in Kazakhstan. Unregistered missionary work
became illegal in Kazakhstan and unregistered religious activities, including worshipping,
were turned into administrative offences (Human Rights Watch 2008). The law provided
legal grounds for the growing number of arrests of Islamic missionaries and deportation of
the alien Muslims from the republic for illegal missionary work (Interfax 2007).
In 2007, Kazakhstan approved a draft of the law which would have established a licensing
regime for religious organizations. The amendments would have imposed a stringent registration
procedure for the majority of religious groups, while the registered organizations would
have come under the watchful eye of the state and local administrations. Although the draft
law was harshly criticized by religious and human rights activists at home and abroad, it success-
fully passed through both chambers of the Kazakh Parliament in 2008. It was a decision of
Kazakhstan’s Constitutional Council declaring the restrictive provisions of the law unconstitu-
tional that prevented this piece of legislation from coming into force (Bayram 2009).
These policies of Kazakhstan place a big question mark over its acceptance of religious free-
doms. Through the process of securitization of Islam, the government of Kazakhstan was able to
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impart authority and legitimacy to its political decisions. By invoking the threat of religious
extremism and terrorism, it has been able to adopt stricter religious legislation without establish-
ing a logical or empirical connection between Islam and terrorism.
If the ‘cultural’ Islam of the Soviet era provided a handy material for the construction of a
new collective identity of Kazakhstan, the process of securitization of Islam has become a tool
for its strengthening and authentication. National identity is defined through explicit or implicit
rules of membership according to which individuals are included in or excluded from this social
category. It is also expressed through a set of characteristics that are supposedly shared by
members of the group. Both the rules of membership in a social category as well as its
content are highly contested aspects of national identity. The government of Kazakhstan has
appropriated Islam as a national marker and a common trait of the Kazakhs. It has also empha-
sized ‘moderate’ and traditional forms of Islam as defining features of the Kazakh religion.
Instead of searching for and articulating the common cultural bases of a national identity and
traditional Islam, the government has resuscitated a false dichotomy of ‘official’ and ‘unofficial’
or ‘radical’ Islam. It has declared an urgent need to fight the threat of ‘radical’ Islam as a way of
forging unity around some vague and politically constricted notion of ‘official’ Islam without
having to make its content explicit. By asserting the threat of ‘unofficial’ Islam, the government
has been able to nurture an idea of the existence of some core Islamic values that the Kazakh
Muslims share without having to critically and systematically reflect on what constitutes ‘tra-
ditional’ Islam in Kazakhstan.
Context for the securitization of Islam
Securitization of a social phenomenon can only succeed in an appropriate context, which
includes an audience receptive to the claim that a specific development in social life constitutes
a threat, as well as circumstances in which the invocation of security is appropriate and effective
(Balzacq 2005). In Kazakhstan, the historical, ideational and socio-political context for Islam,
including the collective and individual understandings of religion, the Soviet-era politics of
Islam, and religious renaissance accompanying Kazakhstan’s independence, has been amenable
to the securitization of Islam. The people’s identification with localized forms of Islam and coun-
terposition of those forms to universal and ‘normative’ aspects of Islamic religion provided a
context for the creation of various dichotomies, which were reinforced during Soviet times.
Today, many in the Kazakh social and political circles continue to think about Islam in these
simplistic terms. Only now in place of the ‘official’ and ‘parallel’ Islam is an opposition
between ‘traditional’ Islam rooted in the local history and ‘fundamentalist’ Islam that is alien
to the country and its people. The discourse of securitization feeds off these deeply ingrained
dualisms of ‘traditionalism’ and ‘fundamentalism’ and opposition of local and foreign Islam,
and ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Muslims.
The domestic audience has been largely receptive to securitization of religion. On the one
hand, the discourse of securitization resonates with the people’s experiences with ‘local’ and
‘foreign’ Islam (for instance, through their encounters with foreign Islamic missionaries) and
their common knowledge about the religion. On the other hand, there is a degree of expediency
in the dichotomous interpretations of Islam as these interpretations assert and reinforce
national and local identities of the Kazakhs, particularly against the Russians who had long
overshadowed local cultural life (Khalid 2007, p. 119). Because of the close connection
between religious and ethnic national categories, both public authorities and ordinary people
eagerly embraced ‘traditional’ Islam as part of the greater ethnic idea. This local, cultural or
‘traditional’ Islam has become the glue holding the Kazakh people together. Securitization of
252 M.Y. Omelicheva
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‘non-traditional’ forms of Islam, alien to Kazakhs, has served to strengthen the unity of the
Kazakh nation.
Securitization of Islam in Kazakhstan has occurred in a conducive global context, where both
the circumstances and the international audience have been receptive to the invocation of secur-
ity in relation to Islam. Since the early 1990s, the Kazakh government has zealously promoted
the image of the country as a modern democratic state and a bridge between Eastern and Western
civilizations. For representatives from the West, this image and reputation of Kazakhstan has
been contingent on the republic’s commitment to democratic reforms and greater respect for
human rights, including support for religious freedoms.
In light of the strong association of Islam with traditionalism and danger in the West, the
Kazakh authorities faced a dilemma of reconciling the need to accommodate Islam as part of
the greater national idea and positioning their country as a modern secular state. Another quand-
ary revolved around the inconsistency of the state’s practices of religious discrimination with
Kazakhstan’s avowed commitment to religious pluralism. Not only did these debates provide
an appropriate context for securitization of Islam, the latter has also served as an instrument
for resolving these tensions. It has been said that ‘traditional’ Islam appropriated by the state
does not diminish its status of the ‘modern’ nation because Kazakhstan’s Islam has always
been a constitutive element of the national identity and cultural tradition. By accepting the
dichotomous representations of Islam and embracing ‘traditional’ Islamic religion, the political
elite of Kazakhstan have earned sufficient Islamic credentials. Securitization of Islam has
allowed the government to partake in the process of shaping the meaning of ‘official’ and
‘traditional’ Islam. It has also been used for legitimizing the government’s control over the
spread of Islamic religion.
The securitization of Islam would not have succeeded in Kazakhstan had this process taken
place outside of the vigorous discourse over Islam that has raged since the 9/11. In the context of
‘war on terror’, distinctions between the two faces of Islam tolerant and spiritual on the one
hand, and intolerant and fundamentalist on the other, have been popularized and reified. These
binary visions of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Islam and the discourse of Islamic danger provided an impetus
and a lifeblood for the process of securitization of Islam in Kazakhstan.
Since 9/11 Kazakhstan has stepped up cooperation with international organizations,
regional institutions and individual states in the realm of counterterrorism. The intensification
of contact with Russia, China and other Central Asian republics encouraged harmonization of
their understanding of the nature and magnitude of terrorist threat. For instance, all members
of the Collective Security Treaty Organization and Shanghai Cooperation Organization
developed similar rosters of terrorist organizations. In 2004, Kazakhstan’s Supreme Court
issued a ruling in which it recognized al-Qaeda, the East Turkistan Islamic Party, the
Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), and other lesser-known groups, which were
banned as terrorist organizations in Russia, China and other Central Asian states. Six
months later, another Kazakh court outlawed activities of Hizb-ut-Tahrir, pronouncing this
group an extremist organization. A representative of Kazakhstan’s Prosecutor-General’s
Office explained: ‘It does not mean that all these organizations are active in Kazakhstan
[...] The decision to ban them is a preventive measure. These organizations are considered
as terrorist [sic] in the Russian Federation, the United States, Turkey, Uzbekistan, and Paki-
stan’ (Saidazimova 2005). There has also been mounting peer pressure on the republic to
recognize terrorism as a primary security threat. On several occasions, the Uzbek authorities
chastized their counterparts in Kazakhstan for providing a safe haven for militants’ camps,
where some suicide bombers for terrorist attacks in Uzbekistan’s capital were allegedly
trained. Although officially Astana denied these accusations as downright incorrect, it none-
theless took a harsher stance in its counterterrorism measures (Omelicheva 2011).
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President Bush and leaders of the European states have frequently underscored the fact that
their war against terrorism was not tantamount to a fight against Islam. Still, there has been a
flood of speeches, news articles and even academic works demonizing radical Islam or
openly participating in bashing of the Islamic faith (Kaya 2009, pp. 6 7). The reporting
system and the mechanisms of accountability established within regional and global institutions,
particularly the reporting system administered by the United Nations Counterterrorism
Committee created in 2001, compelled the governments to demonstrate the effectiveness of
their counterterrorism policies, thus indirectly encouraging the perceptions of Islam as a threat.
This essay attempted to review the nature of Islam in modern Kazakhstan and examine its role in
contemporary Kazakh society and politics. I highlighted the unique place of Islam in the social
and individual experiences of Kazakhs who see Islamic religion as an integral part of their life.
There is a strong association of religious identity with ethnic identity of Kazakhs, while their
religious beliefs and behaviour interpenetrate with indigenous traditions and spiritual knowl-
edge. This fusion of scriptural Islam with traditional practices and values has given rise to the
so-called ‘folklorized’ forms of Islam. Another remarkable development characterizing Islam
in Kazakhstan is its growing ‘individualization’ manifested in the search for more intimate
and personal experiences of the Divine.
In this essay, I also concurred with critical assessments of dichotomous characterizations of
Islam, such as ‘official’ and ‘unofficial’ or ‘traditional’ and ‘fundamentalist’ Islam. These tota-
lizing statements have become very trendy in and outside Kazakhstan due to their simplicity in
presenting a multifaceted and little-known phenomenon of localized Islam. These descriptors
are, however, misleading. They misrepresent a much more complex reality of Kazakhstan’s
Islam, which is far from being homogenous and immune to historical change, internal and
external challenges, and other socio-political impact. These representations of Islamic religion
are also politically charged and conducive to political discourse about the danger of Islam.
The political life of Kazakhstan has exhibited a different and worrisome trend of the secur-
itization of Islam, which refers to a discursive process of the creation of a new understanding of
certain forms of Islam as existential threats to the state, community and people. According to the
Copenhagen School of security studies, security is a social construct, an idea, which emerges in a
specific historical and socio-political context and arises out of political discourse. Subsequently,
to understand why Islam in Kazakhstan has been securitized, despite the fact that the country’s
Islamic tradition is largely inimical to ‘fundamentalist’ Islam, this paper examined a broader
context, which provided an opportunity for the invocation of security in relation to Islam, as
well as political interests that benefited from the discourse of Islamic danger. This study
showed that securitization of Islam in Kazakhstan was spurred on by both developments in
the global arena and local attempts to control and define Islam.
Securitization of Islam in Kazakhstan is a troublesome phenomenon with potentially nega-
tive consequences for the political stability of the country and socio-economic wellbeing of its
people. The process of securitization is used as an instrument for legitimizing otherwise
illegitimate policies and measures adopted by the governing regime and for justifying the
state’s meddling in religious affairs to the disadvantage of religious pluralism and other civil
and political freedoms. By securitizing Islam, the fear of ‘unofficial’ expressions of this religion
becomes a political currency that the government can use for not only extending its control over
religion, but also for concocting an image of national unity and building national identity without
revisiting and reflecting upon on the sources of unity (Wæver 1995, p. 52).
254 M.Y. Omelicheva
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Oppressive and restrictive measures against the religious sector are counterproductive.
Limiting religious freedoms and curtailing the autonomy of religious associations generates a
further cleavage between the people and the state and turns religion into a counterweight to
authorities. By controlling the diversity and spread of Islam in Kazakhstan, the government,
inadvertently, contributes to the emergence of social forces ready to embrace an alternative
Islam, which may be destined to transform itself into more radical forms (Peyrouse 2007).
The portrayal of ‘unofficial’ Islam as a threat to the state and the adoption of repressive measures
to counter its manifestations results in a paradox: the Kazakh government expresses fears of
‘radical Islam’, yet, at the same time, through its pubic discourse, policies and reactions,
fosters Islamic radicalization. The securitization of Islam impoverishes and threatens the very
survival of Islamic faith inciting pious Muslim to resent the interference of authorities into
the religious sector. In this way, measures that are intended to prevent or deter radicalization
of Islamic groups may actually provoke discontent and induce the transformation of religious
conservatism into fundamentalism (Cesari 2009)
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... Usually, TI does not integrate Islamic values with local traditions. However, this is how Traditional Islam has been recently perceived and introduced by ruling elites in some states, primarily in Central Asia, but also in the Balkans and in Indonesia: as a combination of Islam and local traditions, behavioural norms and even pre-Islamic religions (Khalid 2003;Omelicheva 2011;Edelbay 2012;Fauzi 2012). As for Azerbaijan, Ismayilov, the Deputy Head of the SCWRA, suggested that the values of TI have naturally evolved throughout the history of Azerbaijan. ...
... According to the existing literature, 'Traditional Islam' as a phenomenon exists in all post-Soviet Muslim states: Kazakhstan (Omelicheva 2011(Omelicheva , 2016, Kyrgyzstan (Tromble 2014), Tajikistan (Lenz-Raymann 2014), Turkmenistan (Kuru 2002) and Uzbekistan (Khalid 2003;Omelicheva 2016), as well as in Russia, which has a sizable Muslim population (Dannreuther 2010a(Dannreuther , 2010bDi Puppo 2019;Souleimanov et al. 2019;Müller 2019). As such, TI has a number of common features. ...
... In addition, the persecution of religious leaders and the lack of quality religious education and institutions led to a limited knowledge about Islam among the populations that instead mainly embraced a cultural understanding of it, blurred with home-grown, pagan and other traditions. Therefore, the Traditional Islam currently promoted by these states is blended with local customs (Omelicheva 2011), such as respect for various religious holidays, the turbes (tombs) of owliyas (saints) and family values (Kuru 2002), and is sometimes even linked to certain totemic and shamanistic beliefs (Tromble 2014). In Azerbaijan, TI similarly includes a mix of religious and national traditions. ...
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This work explores contemporary debates on migration and integration, focussing on Euro-Muslims. It critically engages with republicanist and multiculaturalist policies of integration and claims that integration means more than cultural and linguistic assimilation of migrant communities.
The book critically engages with theoretical developments in international relations and security studies to develop a fresh conceptual framework for studying security.Contents 1. Politics of insecurity, technology and the political2. Security framing: the question of the meaning of security3. Displacing the spectre of the state in security studies: From referent objects to techniques of government4. Securitizing migration: Freedom from existential threats and the constitution of insecure communities5. European integration and societal insecurity6. Freedom and security in the EU: A Foucaultian view on spill-over7. Migration, securitization and the question of political community in the EU8. De-securitizing migration: Security knowledge and concepts of the political9. Conclusion: the politics of framing insecurity
This 2003 book develops the idea that since decolonisation, regional patterns of security have become more prominent in international politics. The authors combine an operational theory of regional security with an empirical application across the whole of the international system. Individual chapters cover Africa, the Balkans, CIS Europe, East Asia, EU Europe, the Middle East, North America, South America, and South Asia. The main focus is on the post-Cold War period, but the history of each regional security complex is traced back to its beginnings. By relating the regional dynamics of security to current debates about the global power structure, the authors unfold a distinctive interpretation of post-Cold War international security, avoiding both the extreme oversimplifications of the unipolar view, and the extreme deterritorialisations of many globalist visions of a new world disorder. Their framework brings out the radical diversity of security dynamics in different parts of the world.
Adeeb Khalid combines insights from the study of both Islam and Soviet history in this sophisticated analysis of the ways that Muslim societies in Central Asia have been transformed by the Soviet presence in the region. Arguing that the utopian Bolshevik project of remaking the world featured a sustained assault on Islam that destroyed patterns of Islamic learning and thoroughly de-Islamized public life, Khalid demonstrates that Islam became synonymous with tradition and was subordinated to powerful ethnonational identities that crystallized during the Soviet period. He shows how this legacy endures today and how, for the vast majority of the population, a return to Islam means the recovery of traditions destroyed under Communism. Islam after Communism reasons that the fear of a rampant radical Islam that dominates both Western thought and many of Central Asia's governments should be tempered by an understanding of the politics of antiterrorism, which allows governments to justify their own authoritarian policies by casting all opposition as extremist. Comparing the secularization of Islam in Central Asia to experiences in Turkey, the former Yugoslavia, and other secular Muslim states, the author lays the groundwork for a nuanced and well-informed discussion of the forces at work in this crucial region.
Providing a wealth of empirical research on the everyday practise of Islam in post-Soviet Central Asia, this book gives a detailed account of how Islam is understood and practised among ordinary Muslims in the region, focusing in particular on Uzbekistan. It shows how individuals negotiate understandings of Islam as an important marker for identity, grounding for morality and as a tool for everyday problem-solving in the economically harsh, socially insecure and politically tense atmosphere of present-day Uzbekistan. Presenting a detailed case-study of the city of Bukhara that focuses upon the local forms of Sufism and saint veneration, the book shows how Islam facilitates the pursuit of more modest goals of agency and belonging, as opposed to the utopian illusions of fundamentalist Muslim doctrines.
During the last two decades, Central Asian states have witnessed an intense revival of Islamic faith. Along with its moderate and traditional forms, radical and militant Islam has infiltrated communities of Muslims in Central Asia. Alarmed by the border incursions, sporadic terrorist violence and religious anti-governmental campaigns, the leadership of all Central Asian states adopted extensive measures against radical Islam and intensified counterterrorism policies. This book examines the dangerous tendency of counterterrorism policies of the Central Asian states to grow more alike amid propensities for divergence and attributes this trend to the impact of the social context in which these states operate. It underscores the importance of international setting that shapes governments’ perceptions of terrorism and their counterterrorism policies. Applying a comprehensive theoretical framework, which integrates different mechanisms of international influences on state behaviour, the author explains the Central Asian states’ perceptions of terrorist threat and their counterterrorism responses. The book analyses the counterterrorism policies of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, the two Central Asian states that have been least affected by terrorist violence and Islamism but chose to combat those threats vigorously. Using materials derived from a wide range of sources, including legal documents, officials’ memoirs and fieldwork, this research will contribute to studies in Asian politics and national security, and international relations.