Top Kazakh Muslim cleric raps tough new religion law, warns of extremism

Almaty, Kazakhstan - Kazakhstan's top Muslim cleric hit out on Friday at a tough new law on religious activity and warned that the restrictions it imposed on pious Muslims could spur extremism. Article 7 of the bill, which was passed by the Senate on Thursday and has already been approved by the lower house, bans prayer rooms in all state institutions. Both the U.S.-based human rights body Freedom House and the 56-member Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe have criticised the legislation, which has yet to be signed into law by President Nursultan Nazarbayev. "To pray to Allah five times a day is a sacred duty of each Muslim. And it is quite possible that if reading prayers is banned at state institutions, certain groups will appear to voice their discontent with the state," the Supreme Mufti of Kazakhstan, Absattar Derbisali, said in a statement. "Who can guarantee that, choosing between work for the state and worshipping Allah, such people will not join various political forces or extremist groups? Aren't we creating a threat to national security and the calm of the nation with our own hands? This is not the way to fight extremism and terror." Oil-rich Kazakhstan, a majority of whose 16.5 million people are Muslims, has Central Asia's largest economy and is the world's biggest uranium producer, a major grain exporter and the ninth largest country by area. It has recently begun to suffer the kind of outbursts of militant Islam experienced by other former Soviet states in the region. The detention last month of a group of religious extremists planning "acts of terror" unsettled many in Kazakhstan, which Nazarbayev has ruled with a firm hand for more than 20 years. Kazakhstan also temporarily blocked access to a number of foreign Internet sites last month after a court ruled they were propagating terrorism and inciting religious hatred. A suicide bomber blew himself up in the city of Aktobe in May. Nazarbayev, a 71-year-old former steelworker who has put in place rapid market reforms but has little tolerance of dissent, demanded a month ago that the docile parliament should adopt a tougher law on religious activity to nip extremism in the bud. But the new law has provoked heated debate in officially secular Kazakhstan, where Islam of the liberal Hanafi school is viewed by most local Muslims as part of their cultural and historical heritage rather than a cult. Derbisali said he believed that banishing prayer rooms from state institutions, secondary schools and universities would only cause unnecessary tension in Kazakh society. "Taking into account the fact that 72 percent of the population are followers of Islam, it is necessary to allow them to keep prayer rooms without interfering with work or studies," Derbisali said.