Islam and the State
In 1990 Nazarbayev, then party first secretary, created a state basis for Islam by removing Kazakstan from the authority of the Muslim Board of Central Asia, the Soviet-approved and politically oriented religious administration for all of Central Asia. Instead, Nazarbayev created a separate muftiate, or religious authority, for Kazak Muslims. However, Nazarbayev's choice of Ratbek hadji Nysanbayev to be the first Kazak mufti proved an unpopular one. Accusing him of financial irregularities, religious mispractice, and collaboration with the Soviet and Kazakstani state security apparatus, a group of believers from the nationalist Alash political party attempted unsuccessfully to replace the mufti in December 1991.
With an eye toward the Islamic governments of nearby Iran and Afghanistan, the writers of the 1993 constitution specifically forbade religious political parties. The 1995 constitution forbids organizations that seek to stimulate racial, political, or religious discord, and imposes strict governmental control on foreign religious organizations. As did its predecessor, the 1995 constitution stipulates that Kazakstan is a secular state; thus, Kazakstan is the only Central Asian state whose constitution does not assign a special status to Islam. This position was based on the Nazarbayev government's foreign policy as much as on domestic considerations. Aware of the potential for investment from the Muslim countries of the Middle East, Nazarbayev visited Iran, Turkey, and Saudia Arabia; at the same time, however, he preferred to cast Kazakstan as a bridge between the Muslim East and the Christian West. For example, he initially accepted only observer status in the Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO), all of whose member nations are predominantly Muslim. The president's first trip to the Muslim holy city of Mecca, which did not occur until 1994, was part of an itinerary that also included a visit to Pope John Paul II in the Vatican.
By the mid-1990s, Nazarbayev had begun occasionally to refer to Allah in his speeches, but he had not permitted any of the Islamic festivals to become public holidays, as they had elsewhere in Central Asia. However, certain pre-Islamic holidays such as the spring festival Navruz and the summer festival Kymyzuryndyk were reintroduced in 1995.
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