Getting the balance right on religion in secular Muslim-majority state

Religious faith has had a hugely positive impact. It helps people make sense of life as well providing comfort at times of distress. Even more importantly, the compassionate values – which the great religions have in common – have shaped for the better our attitude to each other and to society as a whole.

The desire to look after those less fortunate than ourselves is not, of course, restricted to those of faith. But religious beliefs have been and remain a major driver of charitable work as many of the individuals and organisations caring for the victims of humanitarian disasters around the world today underline.

The positive role that religion plays in the lives of billions of people and in strengthening the bonds of community is why a solid and clear relationship between state and religion is essential. We all benefit – whether or not we are religious ourselves – if those with faith have the opportunity to make their full contribution to society.

At the same time, however, we have to recognise that religious belief can be distorted and exploited. It is not something restricted, in any way, to modern times or to one religion. There have been many examples, over the centuries, of the terrible damage caused by the hatred and division unleashed by religious extremism.

But there is also no doubt that warped and violent ideologies based on distortions of religion are among the most serious threats in every continent and region today. We have seen, too, around the world how radical interpretations of religious beliefs are being used to divide communities, foster discrimination and, on occasions, encourage the breaking of the law.

The challenge for all countries is how to strike the balance between nurturing all the good that religious belief brings while protecting ourselves from the way it can be abused to sow division and hatred.  Getting the balance right is critical for the long-term stability of societies and the safety of our citizens.

This is particularly important for a country like Kazakhstan. In a region where, sadly, religious extremism has a strong foothold, we pride ourselves on having built a stable, tolerant and moderate society from a diverse population of many different faiths and backgrounds.

The citizens of Kazakhstan may largely be Muslim but the state is secular and those belonging to all the great religions have the same respect and equality before the law. It is a significant part of Kazakhstan’s identity and success.

But as we have sadly seen throughout the world, no country, no matter how stable, can afford to relax in the face of religious extremism and terrorism. In recent years, Kazakhstan, too, has been the victim of terrorism rooted in twisted versions of religious extremism, including the deadly attack in Aktobe a year ago. As in many other countries, too, small numbers of our young people have been attracted by the savage ideologies of groups like Daesh.

On a broader scale, as well, we have seen in some communities more extreme interpretations of religion take hold, which are entirely alien to the history and traditions of the Kazakh people. They threaten the secular nature of our state, damage our children’s education and promote damaging gender inequality.

It is to counter this threat – particularly to the young – while protecting the right of the overwhelming peaceful majority to worship freely, or not to worship at all, that Kazakhstan has developed a new framework on the relationship between religion and the state, called the Concept of State Policy in the Religious Sphere for 2017-2020. It is a key strand in helping ensure Kazakhstan continues to have a strong modern identity and stable, cohesive society equipped to meet the challenges and opportunities of the coming decades.

It is a framework that draws heavily on Kazakhstan’s national traditions and achievements but also looks at how partners as diverse as America, the European Union, China and Russia have responded to these challenges. It underlines the secular nature of our state – which has been the foundation of our stability – while emphasising the important role that religion plays in our national life and promoting good relations between the 18 faiths followed in our country.

The framework clearly sets out in law respect for religious beliefs and the continued freedom to worship for individuals and the work of over 3,500 faith associations.  As Minister for Religious Affairs Nurlan Yermekbayev has said, it is not the role of the government or state to interfere in the internal workings of religions. But it is its responsibility to ensure support is not being given to those preaching hate or division.

Greater transparency over finances will help prevent any misuse of funding to support religious extremism. It must be right as well to prevent religion being used as an excuse to flout the law. We should expect all marriages, for example, to be registered legally by the state. Nor can religion be used as an excuse not to vaccinate children.

But new rules and regulations to identify and root out abuse can only go so far in tackling this threat. They must be coupled with effective education programmes at the national and local level.

The framework sets out how education will be strengthened to counter the appeal of religious extremism and improve the understanding of different faiths. It is ignorance, which provides fertile ground for the religious extremists. Religious values should help unite people not drive them apart which is why it is so important that faith leaders are fully involved in these educational initiatives.

We now have the chance to put the relations between state and religion on a more solid footing. By enhancing freedom of worship while ensuring the tiny majority of extremists do not abuse religious beliefs, we can protect the stability of our country, enhance the safety of our citizens and build a relationship which is true to the character and history of Kazakhstan.