Islam and Modernity in Kyrgyzstan


A review of The Fruit of Devotion: Islam and Modernity in Kyrgyzstan, by Julie McBrien.

In the growing scholarly and popular literature on Central Asia, new expressions of Islamic piety are often interpreted as a prospective threat to a secular political order and as the product of external influence. Julie McBrien’s carefully researched and subtly argued dissertation questions this perspective by attending ethnographically to the meanings of pietist movements for those who are involved in them. The dissertation draws upon 14 months’ ethnographic fieldwork between 2003 and 2004, which included participant observation, in-depth interviews, eight life history interviews and two surveys.

McBrien’s focus is on the “newly pious” in the small, ethnically-mixed town of Bazaar-Korgon in southern Kyrgyzstan: that is to say, those men and women whose actions, dress and demeanor have challenged locally held conceptions of “Muslimness” as primarily an ethno-national marker. Questioning approaches that would interpret new explorations of piety as the product of external influence, or a straightforward response to Western globalization, McBrien shows that those who become more devout in Bazaar-Korgon and more public in their expressions of piety do so “under the tutelage of local ulama trained during the Soviet period” (p.14).

Two significant arguments are developed in tandem throughout the dissertation, which are introduced in Chapter 1. To understand new explorations of an “authentic” Islam in Bazaar-Korgon, McBrien argues, we need to recognize the modern past of Central Asia, and specifically, the way that expressions of Muslim identity were altered by the Soviet experience. By the end of the Soviet period, national identity in Central Asia was intimately tied to Muslimness, but a Muslimness  “stripped of much of its religious content” so as to be consonant with “Soviet ideals and a political culture of secularism” (p. 14). It was in this context, and in critical conversation with this secularist political culture of late socialism, that concerns to resignify the meanings of Muslim identity emerged.

The second core argument concerns the relationship between Islam and politics: more specifically, the erroneous way that this debate has come to be framed in public discourse about Central Asia, such that new engagements with scripturalist Islam are read as an index of radicalization, and as politically inflected or motivated. Most of the newly pious whom McBrien encountered were not politically minded or anti-government. Their religious transformation was experienced first and foremost as a personal transformation in their relationship with Allah, and secondarily a “source of collective strength needed to confront the morally and economically troubling environment of the post-Soviet era” (p. 16). Yet their religious explorations were politically consequential in the sense that by asserting that to be Muslim was an expression of religious commitment rather than an ethno-national marker, they “undermined local notions of religion and its place in modern social and political life” (p. 22).

In the remainder of the dissertation, McBrien explores various sites where these meanings of Muslimness are being articulated in contemporary Bazaar-Korgon: in the negotiation of local religious authority (Chapter 3); in the conduct of wedding feasts (Chapter 4); in the financing of new mosques (Chapter 5); in experiments in new styles of dress (Chapter 7) and in discussion of alternative Muslim modernities that become imaginable through imported soap operas rebroadcast from Russia (Chapter 6).

Chapter 2, On Being Muslim in Bazaar-Korgon, introduces us to the social and economic setting of Bazaar-Korgon in the early 2000s and the group that McBrien designates the “newly pious.” This was a period of renewed religious expression, as mosques came to be reopened or constructed from scratch with new donor funding, religious literature became available and opportunities for hajj pilgrimage increased. Rather than reading such changes in this Uzbek-majority town as a reflection of Uzbeks’ “natural” religiosity or a simple response to the economic devastation of the 1990s, McBrien situates these changes within a discussion of changing Soviet religious policy and its unintended effects.

Early Soviet attempts to “eradicate” religion in Central Asia relied upon an understanding of how religious life was structured that derived from encounters with Russian Orthodoxy. Accordingly, the institutional and public aspects of Muslim life were subject to severe prohibition, with violent campaigns against the veil and attacks on local religious authorities. At the same time, other practices, including life-cycle ceremonies and domestic rituals, were left alone and indeed became celebrated as part of a “folklorized national identity” (p. 46). By the late Soviet period, McBrien argues, a majority of Bazaar-Korgon’s Kyrgyz and Uzbeks were largely a-religious in public, in the sense that they avoided those public expressions of piety that might be deemed subversive. Nonetheless they remained “self-reflexively Muslim as a result of birth and the observance of domestic rituals and life-cycle events” (p. 48). It is precisely this conflation of religion with ethno-national membership that is being challenged by the newly pious, through their questioning of customary modes of identification (for instance as a Muslim who nonetheless drinks alcohol) and by condemning certain practices and discourses as “un-Islamic.”

Chapter 3, The Structures of Religious Authority—Local Power and Global Systems,argues for the need to focus analytically on the agency of local actors for understanding Central Asian religious landscapes. The chapter traces debates about Bazaar-Korgon’s Friday mosque, which was opened in 2000, and the local actors who were instrumental in its construction. Discussions of Islamic revivalism in Central Asia have often stressed the radicalizing influence of foreign religious movements and the oppressive force of central state authorities. Through a detailed analysis of the actors who were instrumental in fostering construction of the new mosque, and the eventual removal of its lead advocate amid rumors of “Wahhabism”, McBrien draws attention to the agency and influence of the local ulama, and the way that accusations of extremism serve to police the boundaries of acceptable Muslim practice.

Chapter 4, Listening to the Wedding Speaker: Discussing Religion and Culture, focuses on one site where the distinctions between the “new pious” and other town residents are particularly visible: the conduct of new, so-called “Islamic” weddings. These weddings differ from those typically held in the town, which featured alcohol, dancing, the mixing of the sexes and the public displaying of the bride and groom, by eliminating those elements that were deemed objectionable to Muslim sensibilities. In these new weddings, the often-raucous evening wedding parties typical of southern Kyrgyzstan were transformed into religious events, featuring a preacher who answered questions from the gathered audience, calling people to an “authentic” Islam purged of heterodox elements. While such weddings were far from universally embraced, McBrien demonstrates how they could be exciting sites of religious exploration, especially for young people in the town, who could “explore certain Islamic teachings and modes of living without having to necessarily accept them” (p. 104).

Chapter 5, Constructing Mosques, Building Modernities, explores the creation of a new neighborhood mosque in one of Bazaar-Korgon’s newer residential districts. Rather than a sign of a “reversion” to Islam, the mosque construction is interpreted as a project of religious modernity, the success of which depended on the way that the project mobilized notions of progress (through material construction), community participation and state oversight. The district in which the construction occurred, Sai, was a paradigmatically late-Soviet “modern” creation, in which young and often self-consciously secular families lived in Soviet-style apartment blocks with indoor plumbing. As a new district, Sai was often seen as lacking in the social cohesion characteristic of some of Bazaar-Korgon’s older mahalla districts. And yet the mosque project, according to McBrien, was an endeavor that revealed how “various (sometimes competing) communities, the state, and individuals worked together to form not only community cohesion but venues for solidarity in a new political and social environment” (p. 119). The mosque was an explicitly religious undertaking, yet its success was also seen to be consonant with the town’s history of modernization: a “step towards reconstructing the infrastructure of modernity which had broken down following the collapse of the USSR” (p. 122).

In Chapters 6 and 7, Clone: Brazilian Soap Operas and Muslimness and Mukadas’s Struggle, the focus of McBrien’s narrative moves to the domestic sphere, exploring the ways that the visible forms and bodily manifestation of religious modernity are appropriated, debated, and experimented with in Bazaar-Korgon. Chapter 6 focuses on a Brazilian soap opera set between Morocco and Brazil and rebroadcast in Kyrgyzstan from Russia. Chapter 7 focuses on decisions by young women to wear, or not to wear, the hijab (a veil covering the head and neck)in public. Both chapters consider the ways that alternative modes of public dress and public performances of Muslim identity allow young women to imagine ways of expressing religious affiliation that are at once aesthetically beautiful and authentically modern.

The Brazilian soap, Clone, for instance,offered viewers a stylized, exoticized portrait of Muslim modernity that nonetheless presented practices locally associated with “extremist” conceptions of Islam, such as veiling or the gendered segregation of space, in a flattering light. McBrien shows how this TV series, universally watched and commented upon in Bazaar-Korgon, was particularly important in forging a site for discussion about the veil. The spectacular and beautiful hijabs worn outside the house by the Moroccan characters became “as much an item of discussion as the actual story-line” (p. 134). In so doing, Clone provided a site for alternative discussions of modernity, its plotlines and characters invoked “to debate interpretations of proper Muslim behavior, to interrogate the category “Wahhabi,” to reconsider its usage, and to question the validity of an actual Wahhabi threat to the town” (p. 138).

In a beautifully crafted final chapter, previously published in the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, McBrien extends her analysis of the relationship between veiling and modernity to provide a detailed case study of Mukadas, one her key informants, and her decision to veil. McBrien demonstrates how Mukadas’s dilemma over the appropriate mode of public dress should be viewed as a “response to the multiple discourses and political projects of modernity” (p. 141) in the sense that it was shaped both by desires to express an authentically modern identity (Mukadas was young, well-educated, and averse to being seen as “backward”) and was informed by categories of progressive modernity informed by a Soviet past.

Throughout her rich ethnography, McBrien argues for taking the modern past of Soviet Central Asia seriously, and the importance of secular power for the way that “religion” comes to be framed as an object of social knowledge and political intervention. Situating her analysis here in conversation with an anthropological literature on modernity, including contributions by James Ferguson, Eric Wolf, Bruce Knauft, and Talal Asad, McBrien critiques the way that the category of modernity has been invoked in anthropological literature, such that “we still too strongly reflect a forward-looking thinking in our analysis” (p. 158). She also draws attention to the erasure of socialist modernities in comparative analyses of contemporary pietist movements, and the need to attend to the multiple meanings of participation for those newly negotiating scripturalist forms of Islam. The dissertation deserves to be widely read by scholars of Central Asia and anthropologists of contemporary religious practice. In a context where languages of “Wahhabism” and “extremism” are often casually invoked in discussions of Central Asian Islam, the dissertation deftly illuminates the social work that such terms enact in a political field still shaped by secularist assumptions about what religious practice signifies. As such it is a powerful demonstration of the capacity of ethnography to unsettle conventional readings of pietist movements as non- or anti-modern.

Madeleine Reeves
Lecturer in Social Anthropology
Social Anthropology
School of Social Sciences
University of Manchester

Primary Sources

Participant observation over 14 months between 2003 and 2004 in Bazaar-Korgon, Kyrgyzstan.
In-depth ethnographic interviews with members of the “newly pious” in Bazaar-Korgon and other townspeople.
Eight life history interviews
Two surveys with 9th-grade school children and residents of particular residential neighborhoods

Dissertation Information

Martin Luther University, Halle-Wittenberg. 2008. 195 pp. Primary Advisor: Chris Hann.


Image: Lenin Statue, Town Square, Bazaar-Korgon, 2003. Photo by Author.


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