Liberal Islam in Asiatic Dress

It was Kazakhstan's unique nature, says the grand mufti, that made it possible to host a conference that ended with a Jewish-Muslim joint statement calling for peace

A little more than a week ago, on Valentine's Day, the state-run English-language newspaper ran a big, front page headline congratulating lovers on their holiday. The headline looked like another attempt by the distant Muslim state to connect to the West, to be America on the other side of the world. But Id al-Adha, the Muslim Feast of the Sacrifice, which also took place the same week, was not felt in the streets of Almaty, the old capital.

In 1998, Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev moved the country's capital to Astana in the north of the country, where most of the Russian population of the mostly Muslim republic is concentrated. The Kazakhs are only about half of the 15 million people of the huge country, which is four times the size of France. Nazarbayev, who was secretary-general of the Kazakhstan Communist Party in the days of the Soviet empire, wanted to maintain the delicate demographic balance and strengthen his "Russian" flank in the Islamic expanses of Central Asia.

It's the seams between East and West, Islam and Christianity, that make Kazakhstan such a fascinating place. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the country has also been moving along a hidden seam between the past and the future. Along with the new Mercedes sedans on the streets of Almaty, the streets are full of old, battered Ladas left over from the old days. International corporations and fashion brands offer their merchandise to whoever has the money, but the local market still sells old jars for a pittance to package merchandise. A middle class is slowly growing, and that's the great hope for the economy of a country blessed with all the natural resources a country could hope for: water, metals, diamonds, and a massive reserve of oil in the Caspian Sea.

Kazakhstan is also a major hope for the West, and not only because of the oil reserves that could become an alternative to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, but also because of the moderate Islam of the region. Not for nothing did President George Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell send their best wishes, through the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, to the Conference on Peace and Harmony, hosted by Nazarbayev through the mediation of the new Eurasian Jewish Congress. The president of the congress, Alexander Mashkevich, who has a doctorate in philology and has reputedly earned a billion dollars in Kazakhstan since perestroika, is a personal friend of the president, and represents for the president another Jewish route to America. That's certainly why the Jewish delegation at the conference received a king's welcome, with dozens of police blocking the streets of Almaty and saluting in the freezing cold as the convoy of buses with the Jewish delegation made its way through the city.

International Jewry, and also local Jewry, has Kazakhstan's respect. Kazakhstan has always been a moderate country - 200,000 Jews found refuge there during World War II. But things are less obvious nowadays, in this era of extremist Islam, which has so far skipped over Kazakhstan.

A local Jew, accompanying a Jewish delegation as it paid respects at the grave of the Lubavitcher rebbe's father (who died here in 1944 after being exiled by the Soviets to Almaty), wryly noted that "a decade ago, the local police would persecute any Jew who wanted to visit this grave, Now the police accompany delegations of Jews who make pilgrimage to the grave."

A soft Islam

That cultural moderation allows nearly 100 ethnic minority groups to coexist peacefully, and Kazakhstan is most proud of the phenomenon. "The Lubavitcher's father is buried in Almaty, and Zarathustra began here as well," Nazarbayev proudly declared at the opening of the conference. In private conversations he is said to call Israel, "the good neighbor."

His foreign minister, Kasymzhomart Tokayev, emphasized the country's moderate character, during a conversation with Haaretz. "We have no history of extremist Islam. We have a soft version of Sunni Islam," he said. "Islam here is more a code of behavior than a religion."

The Chief Mufti of Kazakhstan, Abkattar Kazhi Derbisalli, agrees wholeheartedly with that definition of Kazakhstan's special character though it's doubtful he would agree with the depiction as only a code of behavior. But it was Kazakhstan's unique nature, he says, that made it possible to host a conference that ended with a Jewish-Muslim joint statement calling for peace and stability and denouncing terror and extremism. The mufti is proud of the enormous growth of Islam in the country, noting that in the last decade, the number of mosques has tripled, from 500, to 1,500.

The interview with him took place in the freezing cold, in the open courtyard of the new Grand Mosque of Almaty. Someone explained to me that since I was a woman, it would be improper for the mufti to meet me in his office. But the office was not physically connected to the mosque, and two other local men sat in on the conversation, so perhaps, despite his openness, it was difficult for the mufti to give a formal interview to an Israeli newspaper. A conversation in the courtyard of the mosque, less formal, was more acceptable.

Dr. Derbisalli, it's said, never wanted to be a mufti. He's has a doctorate in Arabic literature, studied at Cairo's Al-Azhar University, as well as in Morocco and Tunisia. But Nazarbayev decided on Derbisalli as mufti, and in Kazakhstan, where the newsstands overflow with newspapers that are all state-run, people obey the president, even if it means going to an inter-religious conference with Jews and issuing a joint statement at the end.

"That's how things are in Kazakhstan," says the mufti. "Everyone lives here in great harmony. If someone here asks about the ethic origins of someone, the questioner must be a foreigner." He speaks with joy about Islam in Kazakhstan, proud of the new Islamic University in Almaty, where imams are trained over a four-year course. Many religious colleges have opened, he notes, and the Grand Mosque of Almaty can hold 10,000 people at prayer. "During the Soviet era, there was militant atheism," says the mufti. "But the love of religion never left our hearts. Now there is freedom of religion."

That freedom is guaranteed by strict separation of religion and state. For that reason, and perhaps because there are so many ethnic groups in the country, Kazakhstan has no public religious holidays. The only joint holidays are the national ones. The tradition of Soviet-imposed atheism remains the great dam blocking extremist Islam in the Muslim Republics of central Asia. The president, who has been described as a "benevolent dictator" in the Western press, is not relying only on traditions to keep extremists out. His regime is doing everything it can, including using the intelligence services, to prevent extremist Islam from penetrating his country.

The mufti rejects any slanders of religion after the attacks of September 11. "That wasn't religion," he says. "Those were people who used religion as an excuse. We condemn it vehemently. Immediately after the Twin Towers fell, I issued a declaration: `Terrorism has no religion, race or nationality.' I called the terrorists a `gang of bandits.' All the arguments, that the attacks are embedded in Islam, are the result of ignorance. We preach brotherhood in our mosques, about the things common to Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. We share many of the prophets, and we respect the others."

The chief mufti does not appear worried about fundamentalism gaining a foothold in Kazakhstan. "Fundamentalism is a Christian concept from the 19th century. What you call Islamic fundamentalism is the politics of the minority, using religion to achieve political aims. But politics is about change. There is one politics before lunch and another after lunch. Only religion is eternal." Indeed, the distinction appears valid in Kazakhstan, which has managed to preserve a liberal Islam while maintaining good relations with ultra-Orthodox and fundamentalist Iran. "That's our advantage," says the mufti. "Our president has special relations and a special status. The fact is the conference, which was attended by leaders from the entire region and from America, took place in Kazakhstan, not Iran. In general, Kazakhstan is not Iran.

And the reason, he says, is "while there are countries around us with illiteracy rates of 30-40 percent, we don't have any illiterates in our country. Education is the best way to prevent extremism."

Eliminating illiteracy and providing at least basic education for all is indeed the greatest asset left behind by the Soviet system to countries like Kazakhstan. It's because of that foundation that Central Asia's Islam is very different from extremist Islam seemingly rampant everywhere else.

In private, some Kazakhs say they are aware of the fact that the choice facing them is Iran or Turkey. They choose Turkey. Others say the comparison is invalid, unnecessary, because of Kazakhstan's special character.

"This is a very sober country," said a foreigner who has been living in Kazakhstan for a long time and knows it well. "They don't hide their problems, but deal with them. There's no inter-religious strife, nor even intra-religious strife."

As opposed to his effusiveness about Kazakhstan-style Islam, the mufti is very careful when he talks about the expected American attack on Iraq or the Israel-Palestinian conflict. On the Middle East conflict, he says simply he doesn't know enough, but in view of his background, he must surely has views of the conflict.

As for Iraq, he says, "On these matters, one must respect the decisions of the Security Council, but one must remember the Iraqi people are innocents, and they are not guilty. A Russian saying goes, `a bad peace is better than a good war.' That's also my approach," says the mufti.

The spiritual leaders in his country do not have any direct contacts with their colleagues in Iraq, but they do nurture relations with imams across Asia. His representatives recently took part in a pan-Asian Koran-reading contest in India, and the Kazakh delegation came in fourth.

"That was definitely an achievement," he says, because in the Soviet era, "there weren't enough holy books. Only recently was the Koran translated into Kazakh and Russian. The Russian translator even converted to Islam." The whispers in the Jewish community of Kazakhstan, say the translator was a Jewish woman.

Some 20,000 Jews live in Kazakhstan (though there are higher estimates), and they are in the midst of a revival of the community, which once numbered 10 times that. Sometimes help comes through the government, which, for example recently allocated the community land in Almaty for a free meals center for the community. Chabad, of course, is very active and runs a school in Almaty whose Russian teachers wear kippot as they teach a full course of sciences and secular studies to the 153 pupils, some of whom board at the school.

The administrator, a woman, is not Jewish but she dresses as if she lived in Bnei Brak. A job is a job, and in Kazakhstan, nobody makes a big deal about religion. The walls of the classrooms include pictures of both the Lubavitcher Rebbe and the president.

Chabad is flourishing, as it helps build a Jewish community. That doesn't please the Israeli envoys, who would prefer to see all the Jews get on planes and go to Israel.

But Vitaly and Angela Epstein, a young immigrant couple who were on the plane with us coming back from Kazakhstan, had not a single bad word to say about their lives in the Muslim country.

"Islam here never bothered me," said Angela, whose grandmother was Jewish. "The attitude toward Jews was always good. My grandmother simply always wanted someone from the family living in Israel. And now, that can be me."

And so the world turns: While most of the world looks like it's gone crazy, with anti-Semitism breaking out everywhere, a distant Muslim republic suddenly looks like a very safe place for Jews. So safe, that the Muslim translator did not seem to be completely joking when she said, "maybe you'll send us back all the Jews who emigrated to Israel. We need people and good professionals."