Friday, 27 February 2009


This little-known large Muslim nation once threatened Russia forcing them to build frontier towns inside Kazakhstan just to defend themselves’ from the Islamic onslaught that lasted seventy years.

It is ironic now that Kazakhstan, the largest country in Central Asia, is the only place in the World where the natives are a minority (less than 50%) in their own territory. Until recently, Russians outnumbered Kazakhs, but being 46% of the population the Muslims are now the largest minority.

Geographically the country is rich, mountainous and picturesque in variety, being hilly with green pastures and grasslands, countryside’s, large rivers and several deserts. In summer it can be very hot and fiercely cold in the winter. 

Even before the Czarist annexation, Kazakhstan was known for its strong Islamic identity and attachment and cultural simplicity away from the disunity and disfigurement of surrounding nations around it.

The towns of Tatarstan and Bashkortastan were famous for its madrasahs where children would be sent to live as boarders and be taught about Islam as well as other basic educational needs for a certain number of years.

It is still possible to see village life with strict adherence to Islam virtually unchanged after years of Soviet occupation and this has started to have some effect in the cities as well with more and more women adopting headscarves. 

Once under Russian rule, thousands of Kazakh families were forced to leave their homes ‘voluntarily’ to make way for Russian settlers because the area was too ripe for industry and agriculture to allow Muslims to use.

Unlike some states under the imperial rule of the Romanovs, Muslims in Kazakhstan fiercely retained their Islamic identity living up to their name ‘Kazakh’ meaning independent and resisted even minor adjustments to their Islamic lifestyles.

At a time when huge numbers of Imams and scholars were deported to the ice-cold areas of Siberia (where many froze to death) and hundreds of mosques and madrasahs were destroyed, Muslim parents, at great personal risk to themselves, privately assumed their roles.

Without the use of Qur’ans (most of which had been confiscated and burnt publicly by the Russians) children would memorise the Qur’an simply by listening to and repeating Qur’anic ayahs from their parents and other relatives, very similar to the way the Prophet Muhammad and the Sahaba had been taught several centuries earlier.   

After independence, the first Qur’ans’ in book form arrived for over seventy years, but people had got so used to memorising it without looking at them it didn’t make much difference at first and people actually refused to change the pattern and learn from written texts.   

Kazakhstan’s resilient attitude and character in the face of severe opposition has been equally matched historically by its proud legacy and heritage and parts of the country have long been populated. The ancient city of Taraz (now Dhambil) in southeast Kazakhstan was once used on a caravan route between Europe and China since the fifth century.

The Muslim general, Timur, died and is buried here and the city of Aqtobe was a centre of revolutionary action between 1905-1907, even though Kazakhs did not participate in the 1917 Revolution, which overthrew the unpopular Czars.

But it is for their personal strength between 1488-1518 that the Kazakhs as an independent and powerful empire are most remembered. At that time the Russians had only just started to form a loose Confederation of States and in its infancy was still vulnerable as a nation. Weakened only by tribes seceding into smaller groups the Kazakh Empire soon fell prey to foreign attacks and eventually to capitulation.

Russian advances in the 17th Century were at first welcomed by the Muslims to help crush other internal enemies and this led to larger reinforcements being allowed in to spread across the country without too much opposition and suspicion.  

Major Russian offensives however did not start until the 1830s and despite their enormous and overwhelming presence already well placed in strategic cities within Kazakhstan the two sides fought a thirty-six year bitter War lasting until 1866. Once conquered, the Russians unleashed a terrible revenge with the annihilation of thousands of Kazakhs and stripping the Muslims of the best tracts of land.

A new wave of Russian settlers at first harassed and discriminated the Muslims, forcing many to flee to nearby Xinjiang in China where there was still freedom of worship, madrasahs and other religious centres existed.

In 1916, the Czar expelled another 300, 000 Kazakhs and 80, 000 who returned were killed by Russian settlers with the imperial government turning a blind eye. This was nothing new; eleven years earlier there had been a similar massacre of Jews although this time there was no press coverage, international outcry or condemnation at the event, it was Muslims who had now been slaughtered like animals. 

The Muslim population fell once more the following decade despite promises of equality and liberty by the Communists (who had recently assumed office following the fall of the monarchy) and this time by one-fifth with the start of Stalin’s Collectivisation Programme (forced migration to help other workers) between 1926-39.

Although the stated purpose was to generate, forge and instill a sense of brotherhood and unity among all Russians, Muslims were forced to travel, without financial assistance, to areas where there was virtually no economy and no hope of creating one either. With scarce resources and limited capital even to begin with most Muslims starved to death within months.

Stalin feared a potential resurgence of Muslim power and influence throughout his reign and kept changing the country’s borders again and again. This he did just to lower Islamic populations in each region and force permanent residents already happily settled and established to look for other places in empty dry areas to live and work every few years and limit the possibility of unity among other Muslims for too long.   

And those Kazakh Muslims who were lucky enough to stay were at greatest risk from another such health hazard, nuclear tests. Between 1949-1986 the vast majority of nuclear tests at least three hundred in total were carried out in the town of Semiplatinsk (now Semy), and even sixteen years afterwards people still suffer from radiation and polluted food and water.

No compensation or public apology has ever been offered (or given for that matter) for their involuntary exposure to nuclear weapons unlike their black counterparts in some parts of America who equally had to endure the same treatment in the 1930s, though at a reduced level.

Another forced migration followed between 1954-56 soon after Stalin’s death, encouraged by the ‘Virgin and Idle lands Project’ another 400, 000 Russians and 1 million Slavs arrived to assume ownership and residency of lands already inhabited by Muslims making the area overcrowded. Once more the best pastures and land passed to the emigrants and the Muslims had to settle for second best elsewhere.

For most of the time under Communist rule in the 1980s, Kazakhstan’s responsibility was under Dinmukhamed Kunayev, the first Kazakh minister in a Soviet government. As he treated Russians and Kazakhs equally and fairly, he won the affection of both and his untimely dismissal by President Gorbachev in 1986 led to the first serious rioting in the whole Soviet Union.

Since independence in 1991, Kazakhstan under first President Nursultan Nazarbayev, won praise from the international community and even from Russia itself for being one of the most democratic and peaceful societies in the former Soviet Union.

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