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Moderate Islam, Kazakh style.

Summary: Books on current affairs tend to have an irritatingly short shelf-life.

BEIRUT: Books on current affairs tend to have an irritatingly short shelf-life. The urge to publish the first book-length study on a country's spell of momentous change has the downside of making such works quickly anachronistic. This is one of the principle problems of Claude Salhani's third book "Islam without a Veil."

Published by Potomac Books about a year ago, the book focuses on Kazakhstan, specifically its moderation in matters of religion.

"Of the twenty-four Muslim countries I have visited, Kazakhstan is unique in its approach to religion," Salhani writes.

He goes on to ask why the former Soviet republic has chosen to follow such a liberal form of Islam and suggests other Muslim states have a thing or two to learn from what Salhani calls "the Kazakhi way."

Both in its engagement with Islam and its relationship with the West, Salhani writes, "Kazakhstan can be the model for the rest of the Muslim world on the path to moderation."

His 190-page book is the product of interviews conducted with the country's political and religious leaders during a six-month stint in the Kazakh capital Astana in 2010.

Though Salhani says he's identified lessons for the Muslim world, his book is written for a Western audience. He repeatedly writes that the actions of 19 Islamists on Sept. 11, 2001, opened a schism between Muslim world and the West that generated many misconceptions about Islam.

Using both statistics and personal examples, Salhani argues that the version of Islam represented by militant extremists is grossly at odds with that practiced by most Muslims.

Islamophobia, Salhani says, arises from an ignorant fear of the religion. He distinguishes between Takfiri Islamists -- who seek to impose strict Shariah through violence if necessary -- Salafis, whose beliefs he says are incompatible with democracy but who adhere to nonviolence, and moderate Muslims, the majority, for whom the interpretation of the Quran and the application of Islamic law is open to debate.

He singles out Kazakhstan as an exemplar of this moderate consensus -- where women are more likely to announce their religious affiliation by wearing a small Quran around their necks than by wearing a hijab.

Salhani is to be commended for his sympathetic rendering of Khazakhstan, a country that -- insofar as it is recognized by Western readers at all -- may be known as the home of Sasha Baron Cohen's farcical post-Soviet caricature "Borat."

Writing in engaging and accessible prose, Salhani delights in informing his readers of little-known Kazakh facts.

Did you know Kazakhstan was once the world's fourth-largest nuclear power, which surrendered all its nukes upon gaining independence?

Salhani lauds Kazakhstan's handing over of its arsenal, a move that paved the way for cordial relations with the West, specifically the U.S. Indeed, Salhani describes the state as "the most pro-American country I have come across in travels that have spanned 83 countries."

The writer also praises Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who has been in power since independence two decades ago, for his focus on the economy, education and interfaith dialogue.

Nazarbayev's state may not meet some measures of Western democratic standards, but Salhani defends the leadership, contending that, "Democracy, much as any form of government, needs to be shaped and molded to fit the county one is applying it to."

Pragmatism of this nature, Salhani says, appears to have paid dividends to Kazakhstan, where Nazarbayev's policies have led to a regionally prosperous state with an educated population that enjoys considerable religious freedom.

Yet the analysis is not without its shortcomings. Salhani's text never really addresses the international criticisms of the Nazarbayev's regime. Allegations of human rights abuses are mentioned, but not elaborated.

The author lauds Kazakh democracy, especially compared to that of neighboring states, yet he seems fairly uncritical of Nazarbayev's claimed popularity among Kazakhs.

The text never directly discusses the debate surrounding the legitimacy of Nazarbayev's leadership or allegations that his regime has repressed opposition in the country.

Salhani attempts to counter such allegations with an anecdote about how plainclothes policemen took him and other journalists to an opposition news conference, at which they were informed Kazakhstan is a police state.

When challenged that in a police state, such a news conference would hardly be permitted, a member of the opposition is quoted as saying "My dear sir, this is Kazakhstan. This is not Uzbekistan or Turkmenistan."

Such matters aside, "Islam without a Veil" will likely prove an informative read for readers unfamiliar with Central Asia. For those who keep abreast of current affairs, any analytical shortcoming will be exacerbated by an annoying datedness.

The regional context in which "Islam without a Veil" is set is one in which Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden remains at large and the outcomes of free elections in Tunisia and Egypt remain unknown.

In Kazakh terms, Salhani's book predates an October 2011 decision to step up state control over religious groups and restrict public religious expression.

In this edition of his book, the author writes that the triumph of groups like the Muslim Brotherhood would be "disastrous for efforts undertaken by moderate countries such as Kazakhstan."

It would be interesting to read Salhani's revised views now that Islamist-sympathetic groups have come to power in North Africa. In Western political literature on the Middle East, at any rate, "moderate" is rather a loaded term. It would be informative to see whether or not the author believes tighter state control of religion runs contrary to the "moderation" he so admires.

Claude Salhani's "Islam without a Veil" (2011), 190 pages, is published by Potomac Books.

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Publication:The Daily Star (Beirut, Lebanon)
Geographic Code:9KAZA
Date:Aug 14, 2012
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