Kazakh Atheist May Face Seven-Year Sentence

Euasianet draws attention to the predicament of Kazakh atheist Aleksandr Kharlamov, currently living on bail in the town of Ridder:

…Kharlamov, a staunch atheist, is accused of stoking religious tensions in a Kafkaesque case which could see him jailed for seven years.

Kharlamov has already spent six months behind bars, some of it in a psychiatric ward, broadening the controversy over religious freedom into a row over the alleged misuse of psychiatry.

“My criticism of religion was interpreted as incitement of religious enmity and strife,” said Kharlamov… “There’s no crime. There’s no incitement of religious enmity. I criticized all religions – I didn’t choose just one.”

…The chairman of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, Robert George, cited Kharlamov’s case last year as grounds for believing that “Kazakhstan, once a leader in Central Asia on freedom of religion or belief, is a leader no more.”

George’s comment suggests decline; but Kazakhstan as a “leader… on freedom of religion or belief” was always a con. Certainly, President Nursultan Nazarbayev has promoted inter-religious dialogue, both within Kazakhstan and internationally, but his purpose has always been to strengthen his domestic position and international reputation: in 2006, then-Chief Rabbi of Israel Yona Metzer gushed that the autocrat is following “in the footsteps of Abraham”, while the former President of the International Islamic University of Pakistan opined that he should receive a Nobel Prize. However, religious groups that seek converts – such as the Hare Krishna movement or the Jehovah’s Witnesses - have suffered repression.

The justification for Nazarbayev’s restrictions on religious freedom is that they help prevent the rise of inter-religious strife and extremism: but that’s the perennial apology for “necessary” authoritarian measures, and difficult to take seriously given that Nazarbayev has been in charge since 1989. I’m sure the aim keeping good order in the country was also served at the end of  2011, when unarmed protesters were massacred by armed police in Zhanaozen.

Nazarbayev expressed his personal opposition to atheism, termed as “militant godlessness”, in 2012; of course, it’s not surprising he would react against the anti-religious indoctrination that was formerly imposed on his homeland when it was part of the USSR, but his claims verged on hysteria:

Nazarbayev believes the increase of moral crises in the world is indicated by “instances of aggressive campaigns against clergymen and attempts to remove religion from social processes.”

“Facts of blasphemous treatment of religious holy things are observed in many countries in virtually all religions. This involves public burning of holy books, desecration and arsons of mosques, synagogues, and other religious buildings, discreditation of the clergy, and beatings and killings of the flock,” he said.

“We condemn such things and express our support for all religious leaders and all religious in their resistance of the outbreak of militant godlessness,” Nazarbayev said.

Nazarbayev famously employs Tony Blair as a consultant, and Blair in turn has arranged for Alastair Campbell to work with the dictator. Another western adviser is Alfred Gusenbauer, the former Chancellor of Austria; Gusenbauer is also involved with a Russian initiative called the World Public Forum. The head of the WPF, a Putin confidant and Orthodox activist named Vladimir Yakunin (who featured on the blog just yesterday), presented Nazarbayev with a WPF award just before elections in 2011, for “outstanding achievements in the preservation of historical and cultural heritage in Eurasia and for the implementation of the principles of dialogue of civilizations into practice.”

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