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Repression against a Kazakh Islamic religious movement in Russia

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Falsely labeled as “pagan” by anti-cultists, the group grew out of popular Islam and psychics who claimed to channel Sufi saints.

by Massimo Introvigné

The mausoleum of the founder of Ata Zholy, Kadyrali Tarybaev, in the Zhambyl district of Kazakhstan. Credits.

After Allya Ayat, another new religious movement in Kazakhstan is targeted by the Russian FSB, incited to suppress it by anti-sectarians. On August 10, the Missionary Department of the Russian Orthodox Diocese of Novosibirsk, headed by Archpriest Alexander Novopashin, Alexander Dvorkin’s deputy at the Russian anti-cult umbrella organization Center for Religious Studies, published a document against the Kazakh movement Ata Zholy.

Ata Zholy has been declared an ‘extremist’ and ‘liquidated’ in several Russian cities and territories, but is still active in Russia, as well as in Kazakhstan (despite being banned in 2009) and Kyrgyzstan, where she has also generated some splinter groups.

Interestingly, in a climate where “pagans” are blamed by anti-cultists for anti-Russian sentiments in Ukraine, Ata Zholy is denounced as a “pagan” or “neo-pagan” group. This is a misinterpretation. Although the movement incorporates pre-Islamic and shamanic elements, its origins are clearly in popular Islam. Wendell Schwab of Penn State University, one of the few Western scholars to have studied Ata Zholy, calls it “a new Islamic movement” and is part of “popular Islam”.

FSB raid against Ata Zholy in Orenburg Oblast.  From telegram.
FSB raid against Ata Zholy in Orenburg Oblast. From telegram.

Ata Zholy was founded in Kazakhstan in 1999 by Kadyrali Tarybaev (1961–2009) and registered as a travel agency organizing Islamic pilgrimages to various sites in Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. Its local groups are called “hordes”. The most popular Ata Zholy pilgrimage is to the mausoleums of the five ancestors, religious and national figures who lived between the 18e and the 20e century and gave Kazakhstan its ethnic and religious identity, located in the Zhambyl district of the Almaty region.

Mausoleum of poet Zhambyl Zhabaev (1846-1945), one of the five ancestors, hailed in Soviet times for his pro-Stalinist poems which may however have been apocryphal.
Mausoleum of poet Zhambyl Zhabaev (1846-1945), one of the five ancestors, hailed in Soviet times for his pro-Stalinist poems which may however have been apocryphal. Credits.

Members are also encouraged to visit the graves of their own ancestors and read the Quran there and “The Fortress of the Muslim”, a prayer book drawn from the Quran and hadiths which is the most popular Islamic book in Kazakhstan after the Quran. . himself.

Although these pilgrimages are an integral part of popular Central Asian Islam, what makes Ata Zholy both attractive and controversial is that its leaders, including Tarybaev, were and are spirit mediums and channelers of spirits. Sufi saints and ancestors. Schwab reports that many members of Ata Zholy are simple people, and what they know about Islam they learned from sermons delivered by Sufi ancestors and saints who speak through mediums of the movement.

Ata Zholy mediums are also believed to have healing powers, which has led in Russia and Kazakhstan to the accusation of inducing members to rely on “magical” cures rather than healing and medicine. Anthropologist Eve-Marie Dubuisson carried out fieldwork on Ata Zholy. She reported in a book she published in 2017 that the movement does indeed promise cures for alcoholism, drug addiction, infertility and even blindness, and that psychics have sometimes been sued when they don’t. did not deliver the promised results. The costs charged for Ata Zholy’s “esoteric tourism” have also been denounced as excessive.

Inscription in the mausoleum of Tarybaev.
Inscription in the mausoleum of Tarybaev. Credits.

While some aspects of Ata Zholy can indeed be problematic and have led to infighting and schisms in Kyrgyzstan, Russian anti-cultists rely on the rhetoric of the ‘destructive cult’ and the ‘extremist movement’. (which the group is not, being on the contrary, as its scholars have noted, remarkably tolerant of other religions), ignoring its roots in Central Asian folk Islam.