On the Radicalization of Islamists

A confrontation on religious grounds has occurred between a prisoner and the jail administration in the Arshala village of the Akmola region in Kazakhstan. The incident that had caused much downward thinking was discussed by American website of the Azattyk Radio in the publication «Религиозный обряд в тюрьме как нарушение режима содержания”.

 First, the disturber is a person with a criminal past.

Here is a quote.

“Madan Mukhlisov, 56, was sentenced to 23 years in prison for assaulting some Almaty cash-in-transit couriers in 2001. Since 2009, he has been serving his sentence in the Arshaly prison (a village in the Akmola region).

Second, Mukhlisov, judging from his perseverance in the religious practices and the readiness to endure hardships to uphold the religious canon, is indeed a faithful Muslim.

“Mukhlisov’s first criminal penalty – the transfer to a prison with harsher confinement conditions – was imposed because he used to perform namaz in his free time. During his prayer, a guard would appear demanding something from him. He, however, would not complete the assignments until the payer would have ended. So, his was first given a disciplinary warning and then received a criminal punishment.

Third, Mukhlisov has been fighting for his civil rights during the confrontation with the prison administration using the legal means.

“In his complaint addressed to the Arshalyn district court, Madan Mukhlisov writes that, during the month of Ramadam, he was denied the right to perform religious ceremonies in the night-time.

I would have my meal and morning prayer at 2.40 – 3.40 a.m. The prison administration regards any prisoners’ activity from 10.00 p.m. to 6.00 a.m. as the “confinement regime violation”, writes Mukhlisov”.

“Lawyer Zhangazy Kunserkin says that Mukhlisov had been penalized for reading namaz and performing religious ceremonies more than a few times. Consequently, he was transferred to a prison with a harsher regime. For this reason, he filed a complaint to the UN Human Rights Committee two years ago. No reply has been received so far”.

Fourth, Mukhlisov has received support outside of prison such as the lawyer who could appeal to the UN Human Rights Court.

Fifths, not only does Mukhlishov know his rights, he is also capable of fighting for them, even in the harsh conditions, paying for it a very high price by the popular standards.

“Carrying out the religious ceremonies is a part of my life, a part of my being, it is my Constitutional right – the “essential” right as they say it in the Constitution”, writes Mukhlisov in his complaint”.

“Madan Mukhlisov received two disciplinary warnings for performing religious ceremonies during the night-time. The prison administration accused him of violating the confinement regime. The prisoner himself is certain that his Constitutional rights have been violated”.

Analyzing the article, we can draw two conclusions (both unfortunate for Akorda).

  1. The people serving their sentences in the prisons of Kazakhstan are being turned into the hard-core Islamists who know their civil rights and are capable of defending them (among other things, by the legal means) despite the fact that it worsens the condition of their confinement.
  2. To resolve the situation, the state agencies including the Committee of the Criminal and Executive System and the Ministry of the Interior can offer nothing except the administrative violence and legal coercion which is useless when it is confronted by the human stamina and the fidelity to one’ principles (in this case, on the religious grounds).
  3. The behavior of hard-core Islamists inevitably makes them jail leaders. Not only does is unite the prisoners, it encourages their Islamization (at a minimum) or even forces them to assume the radical views on Islam.

The Kazakhstan press has already noted that the Islamization of the radical nature in prisons is affecting not only the jailed but those who guards them as well, namely the employees of the Committee of the Criminal and Executive System. Here is a quote from the Zakon.kz website.

“Prisons are the places where the people serving sentences for religious extremism and terrorism are concentrated. A certain influence on the imprisoned also comes from the outside. Prisons are the hospitable recruiting ground for the adherents of violent extremism. Therefore, the employees of the law-enforcement agencies must have enough professional knowledge and skills to be able to work in this field, says Azamat Shambilov, the regional director of the Representative Body of the Penal Reform International in Central Asia.

“The problem is so big that it puts in danger the employees of the law enforcement agencies, especially those who work in penitentiaries”, he says. “There are instances of recruiting the employees of different departments and agencies by the most talented recruiters of the radical groups”.

According to Azamat Shambilov, “Today, the country has more than 400 in prison for extremism and terrorism. In 2015, this number was 30% higher (600 sentenced and arrested for the direct involvement in religious extremism)”.


Note that most of these prisoners are Kazakhs. Again, we quote Azamat Shamlilov. “Based on the nationality, 344 are Kazakhs, 14 are Russians, 6 are Chechens, 8 are Uzbeks, 7 are Uyghurs, and 23 are of other nationalities. 11 of the prisoners are women”. Note that many of them have college degree (81 persons).

All this means that, for Kazakhstan, the politicization of radical Islamists and the appearance of their self-managing organizations are inevitable. Moreover, this may happen in the nearest future. There is but one step from defending one’s civil rights to perform religious ceremonies in prison to fighting for one’s vision of the political order in the country.

And this step will, undoubtedly, be taken. The fact that Akorda will try to fight it with its standard heavy-handed methods is another matter. However, the repressions that helped the authorities to achieve their Pyrrhic victory in their fight against the civic society and democratic opposition will be of no use this time, not least because the number of the true Islamists in the country already exceeds by far the number of the democratic oppositionists.

Besides, it is those in Kazakhstan who feel impoverished, socially and morally discriminated that try to find consolation in Islam today. The spiritual governance of the Muslims in Kazakhstan with its de-facto bureaucratic apparatus will hardly be able to help Akorda, simply because of the human factor.

Here is a quote from the Matritsa website. “Nonetheless, only 15% of all the 3611 imams of Kazakhstan have college degree, 22% have high school degree, and 63% have completed short-term courses”. So, here is a question, can they prevail in the ideological fight with the radical Islamists who survived prison and war with siloviki? Obviously, they cannot.

Therefore, we can only lift our hands in dismay when Minister of Religious Affairs and Civil Society Nurlan Ermekbayev reports on the state’s successes in reforming radical Islamists. According to him, this year, the Ministry has managed to convert about 300 radicals into the traditional Islam. But nothing was said on how many joined those who proved to be “unreformable”.


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