Kazakhstan’s Senate approved on Thursday tougher laws on religious activity in the Central Asian state, ignoring Western criticism of its response to what it calls the growing threat of extremism. The new law, which will ban prayer rooms in state institutions, will have to be signed into law by President Nursultan Nazarbayev. Kazakhstan’s veteran leader proposed tough new laws to his compliant legislature a month ago.
Kazakhstan, where 70 percent of the 16.5-million population is Muslim, has only recently witnessed outbursts of militant Islam experienced by other former Soviet states in the vast region bordering Afghanistan. Last month’s detention of a group of religious extremists planning “acts of terror” unsettled many in Kazakhstan, an oil-rich country ruled by Nazarbayev for more than two decades.
Kazakhstan also last month temporarily blocked access to a number of foreign Internet sites 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.
The new law, which has stirred debate in officially secular Kazakhstan, stresses “the historic role of the Hanafi school of Islam and of the Christian Orthodox faith in the cultural and spiritual development of the Kazakh nation.” The vast majority of Kazakhstan’s Muslims are followers of the Hanafi school of law, considered to be the oldest and most liberal within the Sunni Muslim tradition.