Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Reading around the world: Kazakhstan

Kazakhstan, for a country the size of the whole of western Europe, is remarkably invisible. It is telling of the level of invisibility that the only reference any Westerners have for it is Borat, a movie so reliant on racist stereotypes that if it had been made about virtually any other country or ethnic minority it would have been completely reviled. We don't even know enough about the Kazakhs to be offended on their behalf.

Our ignorance is, in part, because Kazakhstan as a country simply hasn't existed for long. The Kazakhs negotiated their independence from the USSR only in December of 1991, making it one year older than I am. Since that time it has slowly, and quietly, begun to shrug off a heavy burden of extractionary economic policies and social terror and oppression leftover from communist rule. Kazakhstan is a rich country full of poor people: the ground swells with oil, minerals, and natural gas which the Russians were quick to extract, but ensure that the finished products and the wealth they generated remained in Russia. Meanwhile, they used Kazakhstan as a dumping ground for human and chemical undesirables – poisoning the environment ad thousands of people with nuclear testing, and filled the country with scattered prisons for criminals and political exiles. The indigenous nomadic culture was crushed under soviet rule and impractical (and often impossible) agricultural projects imposed instead.

One of few eagle hunters whose traditions survived the Soviet purge

So, like so many countries on reaching Independence, Kazakhstan found itself penniless, with gutted government institutions, a broken economy, and a defeated spirit. But despite this, this may be one of the few blogs in this series which ends optimistically. Since independence the country has been dominated by President Nursultan Nazarbayev, whom the author of my book seemed a bit star-struck by. He has allowed for little dissent or political opposition, but he has maintained peace in a religiously and ethnically diverse population, and rapid economic growth. Privatization has slowly begun to leak natural resource wealth and a functioning economy to the ordinary person, and the new found wealth built a shining new capitol city, Astana, in just a matter of years. Most impressively, the Kazakhs have embraced their vast array of religious and ethnic diversity. The Kazakh population of 16 million is divided among over 25 ethnic groups, and between two majors religions of Islam and Christianity. But there has been little tension. The new capitol city contains a huge glass pyramid designed to host interfaith dialog and promote religious understanding and equality.

The capitol city Astana, completely rebuilt since 1997

A Kazakh Mosque - the strangest of many beautiful Mosques in the country. 

My past three blogs focused on majority Muslim countries, and critiqued the hypocritical use of faith and extremism by the elite to control and manipulate the masses. Kazakhstan is 70% Muslim, but shows an alternative – an Islam which accepts diversity and encourages peace. An economically successful, peaceful and diverse majority Muslim country hardly fits into the Western dominant narrative around Islam, and I have to wonder if this is part of why Kazakhstan is so invisible to us. We cannot see what we don't expect to find.

While snooping around the internet about Kazakhstan I was enchanted by the pictures I found of natural beauty and strange wildlife, and couldn't resist including a few. 

Kazakhstan is famous for its tulips every spring 

It also has the strange and wonderful Saiga antelope, in the running for my favorite animal. You can learn more about this creature, including why their noses look like that, here 

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