How to be a missionary (or blogger) in Central Asia
Cross-regional and Blogosphere, Culture and HistoryNo Comment
When neweurasia‘s Chris returned from his tour in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, he remarked to me that he was surprised so many people there were curious to know his religion, Bahaiism. Other Westerners have had the same experience and have wondered why.
During the initial thrust of the Russian Empire into Central Asia, the Tsarist army and intelligence personnel used to arrive first and begin collecting census information about the population’s religiosity. Once the military occupation commenced, tax collectors simply followed the army’s route and utilized similar methods. Following on the heels of both came religious missionaries, who used the census and tax data to strategize their proselytizing efforts. By the way, old habits died hard: the Soviets used the exact same methods when they invaded Afghanistan, including their strategy for propagandizing the occupied population.
As my readers know, not all Central Asians were Muslim to begin with, and contention among the missionaries, who themselves belonged to different sects, was fierce. Prior to the Tsarists there had already been a difficult tug-of-war between Tenrgi shamans and the mendicant dervishes; with empire came the Russian Orthodox apparatchik and other imported missionaries,. The fights for the souls of Central Asia often took equally funny and tragic turns.
In short, Central Asians would provide answers according to what they believed was the intent of the new visitor. So, the same man might say he had four wives when speaking to a tax collector, only one wife when speaking to the Christian missionary, or that he believed in the equality of the sexes to the Marxist propagandist. According to Chris, the majority of his listeners seemed to have already heard the name “Bahai” but knew very little else. The questions he received pertained to Bahaiism’s theological views, particularly concerning prophets, since Bahais believe that there have been and shall be more prophets after Muhammad. His audiences were also very curious about how he became a Bahai. That indicates that many of them did not yet know how to “categorize” Chris, and through him, Bahais in general (although I’m curious as to who was previously “educating” them about the religion ;-) ).
Interestingly, this phenomenon seems to have also extended to Chris’ answers to political and journalistic questions. According to him, he was asked several times by journalists, bloggers and general audiences about his views on the Kazakh government and media, and it was his impression that his answers very much surprised his listeners.
Chris explained to me that he began his answers with a rather thorough criticism of the United States: he talked Chomsky-style about the manufacturing of consent by the mass media and the deep, underlying ideological conformity of the two political parties. In other words, Chris’ trick was to criticize Kazakhstan by way of criticizing his own country, implying that both have serious problems with achieving real democracy, problems the structure of which are probably more similar than dissimilar. No wonder his listeners often didn’t know how to respond: they had been expecting him to be a “typical Westerner”, i.e., there to convince them of his own nation as the best standard, and so they had already mentally tailored their answers accordingly. When he tore down his own nation, they no longer knew how to position themselves (according to Chris, one of them sought to test him by comparing his views to those of Ahmedineijad, to which Chris responded very negatively apparently).
What I think is really fascinating in all of this is that today, those classified as Muslim may not even be aware of the foundational precepts of Islam. During the Soviet period, there were only two Islamic seminaries in operation to train Islamic clergy to lead the congregations in what amounted to token show-Mosques. I had a brief chance to chat with a few seminarians in one of these institutions, who proceeded to tell me that the difference between Shiism and Sunnism was negligible (at that point, my KGB “guardians” intervened and the seminarians dispersed instantly). I was struck by how the seminarians seemed to be more familiar with the sayings of Marx than those of the Prophet Muhammad.
It’s also interesting that during the closing days of the Soviet era, so-called “private organizations” had stepped up their efforts to smuggle both Korans and the Bible into Central Asia, and security agents were doing everything they could to clamp down on the opening of minds to Western liberalism. There was and remains a very potent mix of ideological incursions in the region.
Here are some photos of pre-Soviet and Soviet era religious institutions from my own personal collection: