Crossroads Asia | Society | Central Asia

Understanding Tazabek, a Kazakh Islamic Celebrity

A newly introduced weekly program on a Kazakh state TV channel has sparked sharp public criticism and a campaign against its host – Mukhamedzhan Tazabek.

Understanding Tazabek, a Kazakh Islamic Celebrity
Credit: Screenshot

On October 16, national TV channel Qazaqstan aired the first episode of a new weekly program titled “Talim Trend,” which, according to the description, “addresses important social issues, including people’s lifestyle shaped by the pandemic, family values, old and new traditions, domestic violence, parenting, and children’s safety and rights.” (“Talim” is a Kazakh word for edification, education, upbringing). Long before the 40-minute show reached an audience, it was announced that its host would be Mukhamedzhan Tazabek, a devout Islamic celebrity, known for his controversial comments and extreme loyalty to the state. The news was met with a heavy backlash on the part of Kazakh-speaking audiences. Many label Tazabek a propagandist, seeing him as affiliated with high-profile political figures and benefitting from those ties. 

A Preacher, Poet, and Media Manager

Tazabek comes from an aitys background, an improvised oral poetry sung accompanied by a dombra. He came to prominence in the 1990s after his success in aitys tournaments. The dominant Nur Otan party has long funded aitys and uses the medium to promote the party’s agenda. Tazabek found in the party a safe haven and connections to the political elite.

Tazabek’s regular media appearances and high visibility brought him a massive following on Instagram (1.4 million) and Facebook (48,000). He is the director of Asyl Arna, the only Kazakh TV channel focused on teaching Islam, which he founded in 2007. He maintains a YouTube channel with the same name, launched in late 2019 and containing 268 lectures, in which he appears both individually and on stage before the public (the channel has more than 159,000 subscribers). 

A Scandalist and a “Statesman”

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The topics Tazabek covers in his videos are not only religious, but also include “spiritual” topics: friendship, family values, hard work, how to lead a Kazakh way of life, respect for parents and the elderly, and many others. What makes Tazabek stand out is that not only does his figure overshadow that of other Islamic figures, but as an orator, he speaks in a traditional fashion thanks to his poetic skills and rich vocabulary. Despite the fact that Tazabek prefers casual or classic dress to religious garb, an old image featuring him with a long beard still haunts him.

It is worth noting that he has been involved in multiple scandals that go far beyond social media. Last year, Tazabek was under fire after a compilation of his lectures surfaced on YouTube, where he was running a series of seminars for ordinary people and law enforcement personnel. In the video Tazabek reacts to the wave of protests in 2019: He lashed out at Mukhtar Ablyazov, calling the opposition figure’s activities provocative, advocated a police crackdown, and suggested that Kazakhs and rallies are incompatible. There were also claims made that rallying on the streets had never been the “Kazakh way” of resolving issues; only men should deal with problems, and do so without the need to go to the street or get women and kids involved. 

“God gave us such a wise ruler. We must appreciate him. Running a state with a well-functioning system is easy, but building a country from scratch and at the same time  ensuring its order – this is the ruler any nation can dream of,” he said of Nazarbayev. People viewed the remarks as Tazabek’s attempts to reinforce policemen’s loyalty to the state. He also hinted that people are to blame for what they’ve got themselves into, but not the state, “which only wishes good to its citizens.”

His remarks on women’s dress were another spark for public outrage. Tazabek claimed that half-naked women cause impotence and prostate cancer in men and that women have become more attractive and well-groomed and thus create more problems for men. “Not only do half-naked women ruin their own health, but also destroy men’s. If this keeps going this way, then nations will simply be wiped off as people won’t be able to reproduce; in religion women are prohibited from wearing revealing outfits. But those who gaze at such (naked) women are sinners.” Tazabek suggested that these are scientifically proven facts.

For this he was satirically branded a sexolog-samouchka (a sexologist and a self-educated man), a term coined by Serik Abas-shah, a popular media manager and social media influencer, who is also known for viral memes he makes to mock politicians and other figures, including Tazabek.

Tazabek’s loyalty to the leadership and state institutions, however, is now paying off: In September he met with Nurlan Nigmatullin, the Majilis (lower house of Parliament) chairman. According to Tazabek, they brought up a number of issues, including youth, information policy, spiritual values, modern trends. Shortly after, in mid-October, the official social media accounts of the Senate shared a post featuring Maulen Ashimbayev (the upper house’s chair) who was presenting Tazabek with an appreciation letter in recognition of Tazabek’s efforts “in strengthening interethnic and interreligious harmony, promoting traditional values and preserving unity of Kazakhstani people.”

Tazabek also travels across Kazakhstan, and runs lectures on moral issues at universities, schools, and other organizations. 

Shalkar Nurseitov, an Almaty-based political analyst, regards this as dangerous. In a Facebook post this month, he said Tazabek’s reception by state figures, such as Ashimbayev and Nigmatullin, is beyond comprehension. “When one person explicitly endorses the second (in politics), it means that the former shares the latter’s values. For instance, take the US: Cindy McCain, late John McCain’s widow, along with several fellow Republicans have decided to endorse not Trump, but Democrat Biden. This is a signal for both the GOP and voters. But when politicians in authoritarian Kazakhstan host and thank propagandists like Tazabekov, it means ‘I appreciate your service to the regime’. This is a dangerous signal for the country.”

A Fresh Scandal

So why has the new program on the TV channel generated public discontent? Primarily, anti-Tazabek sentiment is fueled by his murky reputation and the concerns that he may translate dubious ideology through the state TV, let alone other platforms where he managed to attract followers. Qazaqstan is the country’s oldest TV channel and has one of the largest viewerships. It plays a key role in the implementation of the state’s ideological policies. Apart from its news service and programs on current affairs, the TV channel places a huge emphasis on ethnic-centered and patriotic-themed content. In 2011 Qazaqstan started broadcasting only in the Kazakh language and was one of the first to Latinize its logo and the names of its programs in 2017. Kazakhstan Media Corporation, of which the TV channel is a part, is a primary recipient of state money and has a network of branches across Kazakhstan’s regions.

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In response to the news about the new program, Kazakh social media filled with negative comments: “Height of absurdity,” “Utterly unacceptable move,” “Do they even realize the gravity of the situation? Tazabek isn’t supposed to be there,” “This will backfire,” “Tazabek is a threat to our national security,” “He views the world through a religious lens,” “Kazakhstan is a secular country and there should be no room for people like him on a state TV.”

The outcry was broad, with many social media influencers and experts alike posting their dismay.

Aya Begim, a journalist, posted on Facebook calling for the show to be canceled. The post has garnered many likes and comments and been shared nearly 600 times. In her post, Begim attached a photo of herself holding a sign that reads “Talim Trend program must be closed. I’m against!”

“Why wouldn’t he keep doing his toxic preachings on his Instagram? Our TV channels need useful programs on ecology, how to protect nature, human rights, and scientific content! Let’s demand together! Don’t stay silent!” Begim wrote in her post.

Aigul Orynbek, an activist from Shymkent and a NSOD member (National Council of Public Trust, chaired by President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev) is another influencer who has written extensively on the matter. In one of her many posts, the blogger with almost 40,000 followers on Facebook, angrily criticizes the state TV channel’s choice in granting Tazabek a show. Orynbek says that the national TV channel is gradually becoming friendly toward “religious fanatics.” 

“It is no longer the national TV channel but a place for bearded men! No state funding for this channel anymore! National Security Committee should investigate it!” Orynbek wrote. The post also went viral and has accumulated massive support and shares.

A few days ago, popular Kazakh media outlet started an online poll to learn how people felt about the show. So far, the figures seem to indicate massive opposition, with the figure standing at 639 (11 percent) of readers expressing approval, and 5,014 (89 percent) stating the opposite to date. (The poll is still running so those figures may shift).

Aware of the ongoing campaign against him, Tazabek was quick to fire back: He appealed to his viewers, saying that the program is educational and is aimed to show the right path to the people, especially the young generation, that “has lost respect to the elderly and become addicted to YouTube, Instagram and TikTok.”

“Is there something wrong with that? What harm there can be if we introduce our traditional values to the secular society, and discuss the impact of conservative and liberal values?” Tazabek wrote in an Instagram post. “For the past twenty years I’ve been hearing from people that I am a Wahhabi, I get funding from the Arabs and that I succeed because I’m on the authorities’ side,” he added. Tazabek assured that Talim Trend’s aim is not to push a religious agenda, but he will be raising important social issues.

‘Talim Trend’: Don’t Mess With the Police?

The first episode of the show was dedicated to the status of the Kazakh police and people’s treatment of them. The program commences with Tazabek and his colleague introducing two guests, a police chief from Almaty and a poet-aitysker, and inviting the son of Gaziz Baitasov — a police officer killed in the line of duty during an attack in Taraz in 2011 by a suspected Islamic militant to the studio.

One of the main ideas voiced by the host and commentators was that the public treatment of the police is now at its lowest. Discussions on the program mainly revolved around the role of the Kazakh police in maintaining peace and order and their demonization and mocking by people.

Tazabek echoed his previous comments that protests and rallies are not a “Kazakh” thing, saying they go against the nation’s philosophy. According to him, families should foster proper and authentic Kazakh behaviors in bringing up their children: Kazakhs are not Europeans, Kazakhs used to settle arguments without the involvement of law enforcement.

The hosts utilize metaphorical techniques in their speeches and, to sound more compelling, they cite historical figures. For instance, the hosts used quotes from an article by Alash intellectual Mirzhakyp Dulatov, ‘“People without guards are slaves,” published in a Kazakh newspaper in 1918. They said that the Kremlin wanted to exploit police for malicious purposes against non-Russians. According to the hosts, the intellectual claimed that if the police force is comprised of ethnic Kazakhs, they would never harm their own people. “Our discussion today is in line with Dulatov’s viewpoint – we don’t want police to be demonized – instead, if we want our state to be strong – our police should be strong,” suggests Tazabek in the episode.

“Unfortunately, the people who criticize Akorda [the presidential palace] are viewed as heroes, but in reality they have done nothing to change the situation for the better – they are ‘divannye kritiki’ [“sofa critics” or “armchair activists”]. A real heroism is not about sitting at home and cursing the authorities, but proving it with real deeds. Police officers are today’s heroes,” Tazabek’s guest, the poet-aitysker, says.

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In the program, Rakhat Zhaksybai, who runs the show with Tazabek, provides Washington Post data on deaths caused by police in the United States. He says that between 2005 and 2019, only 42 out of 5,000 officers were found guilty, while the rest got away. “That means that American police have an immunity from prosecution,” Zhaksybai says to back up his argument that the majority weren’t charged because they had to do it (kill) to protect themselves. 

“We need to become the nation where every family could settle their issues first before rallying or demanding from the authorities. If we want the state listens to us, we should deserve it.” Tazabek goes on to say that citizens can participate in meetings once the culture of rallying is learned and absorbed properly, but for now Kazakhs are better off if they get along with each other first.

The show culminates with Tazabek quoting Lenin that “under the strong state, the individual’s rights are limited, but when people are given more freedom – the nation is doomed to destruction.”

Issatay Minuarov is an analyst living in the Kazakh capital. He holds an MA degree in Sociology from the University of Manchester, United Kingdom.