Where are the Moderate Protestants? Reimagining Religious Identity in Boston and Bishkek

946524_10151338295621863_820180304_nWhile the debate continues over whether to try Dzhokhar Tsarnaev as an enemy combatant, he and his brother Tamerlan appear to have solidified that status in the American consciousness already, as evidenced by a recent magazine cover in which the Caucasian brothers are depicted with dark skin, thick eyebrows, and narrow, furtive eyes.  The reference to Islamic terrorism in the title apparently necessitated these phenotypic modifications, just as the resulting visages seem to intimate terrorism, even without proof that the Tsarnaevs’ goal in bombing the Boston Marathon was to terrorize as a means to a determinable end. 

Such casual references to Islamic identity have polarized coverage between those commentators who seek the motives in the brothers’ origins, ethnicity, or religion, and those who point to the shooters in Aurora and Connecticut, asking why the Boston bombing alone is presented as terrorism motivated by “primordial” identities.

Having this debate as a nation is important, of course, not least of all because it has clear implications for U.S. security and counter-terrorism policy.  Rather than weigh in with my own position, however, I thought it would be poignant to present a brief portrait of the religious and security policy of Kyrgyzstan, a country which has received attention recently as one stretch in a journey that led the Tsarnaevs to attack innocent people.  If the question, “where are the moderate Muslims,” frequently arises in the West in times like these, however, I hope to demonstrate that similar doubts as to the possibility of “moderate Protestants” clearly hangs over the activities of churches and missions in Kyrgyzstan.

Though the media have generally employed frames that emphasize how ancient, distant and turbulent Central Asia and the Caucasus are when tying the Tsarnaevs to these regions, what may surprise readers most is the familiarity of the dilemmas between rights and security that permeate religious policy in Central Asia.  Through the State Commission for Religious Affairs (SCRA), the government of Kyrgyzstan monitors the activities of religious groups and organizations for signs of extremism, but also limits the harassment of “non-traditional” religious groups by security services, local government, and local populations.  In the context of post-Soviet Central Asia, of course, these “non-traditional” groups are primarily Protestant Christian sects and missionary cells.

I should state from the outset that I am not drawing parallels between Protestant missionaries and the Tsarnaev brothers.  My intention is not to comment on what policies are warranted to curb religious extremism or to draw lines from Protestant or Muslim beliefs to violence.  I only intend to compare the ambiguous position of Islam in America’s public life with that of Protestantism in Kyrgyzstan’s public life.

The rubric of “non-traditional religious groups,” and “groups of Protestant origin” subsume organizations as diverse as Baptists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Scientologists, all of which are seen as offshoots of American denominationalism.  These organizations evoke suspicion from the government and population in part because of their foreign origins, but primarily because of their perpetual recruitment activity.  The individualist and entrepreneurial spirit of these religious movements clashes with local orientations that tie religion to custom and community.  As many scholars have shown, the Soviet policy approach to religion and nationality has bequeathed to its successor states in Central Asia a conviction that ethnicity, nationality, and religion should coincide along clean, mutually-exclusive boundaries.  The very motive for proselytizing evokes deep suspicion, therefore, but even more so the motivation of locals to convert away from their nationality-ordained religion.  As one Imam expressed this sentiment to me, “Kyrgyzstan needs only two religions – [Orthodox] Christianity and [Hanafi] Islam; various sects interfere in politics and interfere in our development.”

Just as with the discussions of moderate vs. radical Islam that inform security policy in the United States, the government of Kyrgyzstan tries to moderate this blanket suspicion of Protestant groups by differentiating legitimate from “destructive” religious groups.  However, such efforts are plagued by conceptual quagmires that parallel the disagreements over racial profiling in the U.S.  A recent treatise on “non-traditional religious groups and possibilities of their development in the Kyrgyz Republic” commissioned by the SCRA defines “destructive sects” as “a variety of cults that subvert the natural, harmonious state of the personality – spiritual, psychological, and physical – as well as the creative traditions prevailing in the social structures, culture, belief system and society as a whole.”  This may seem like an improbable list of qualities and aims for any one religious group to incorporate, let alone an entire category of religious groups, but it can be decoded essentially as articulating one local image of what the “real” Protestant agenda looks like.  In line with discussions of Islam in the West, locals in Kyrgyzstan have difficulty envisaging American Protestantism without imagining that certain imperatives inherent to Protestant pull all sects toward this extreme position.

How is such a contradictory and skewed image of Protestantism maintained, however, if it is so distant from the actual programs of missionaries and churches in the region?  In part, missionaries do provide evidence to corroborate this view.  However, a great amount of conceptual work goes into reimagining Protestants as well.  This effort can be elucidated by referring back to the way that Islam is continually reimagined in the American consciousness.

The claim that terrorists are not representative of all Muslims, or in this case that the Tsarnaev brothers are not representative of all Chechens, often falls on deaf ears in the West for a number of reasons.  “Real” Islam has become synonymous with radical Islam in recent decades, and for many, moderate Muslims are simply the exceptions that prove the rule. Entire nations such as Malaysia that seem to lack the politico-religious fervor attributed to Muslim countries (in the mold of Iran or Egypt) are explained away by the refrain that “they aren’t ‘real’ Muslims.”  Thus extremism, terrorism, misogyny, anti-western and anti-modern fulmination are seized upon as inherent traits of “real” Islam, and any Muslim individuals or nations that do not incorporate such traits into their religious beliefs and practices (or simply do not regard their religious identity as central to their politics) are explained away as being unrepresentative of “real” Islam, leaving our skewed view of the essence of Islam intact.

Viewing Protestantism through the same lens allows us to make sense of the definition of “destructive groups” presented above.  Having derived a series of qualities that some protestant groups may present when viewed through a local prism, both the authorities and regular citizens have come to presume that “destructive” Protestant groups possess all of these qualities in equal measure.  In interviews with officials of the SCRA, I have learned of local complaints against Protestant sects that range from organizing orgies and practicing hypnotism, to inciting social disorder and creating security challenges.  Proselytizing and perpetual recruitment in particular are seen as a premeditated attempt to displace local, traditional beliefs and destroy the social order they buttress, potentially generating social conflict and violence.

“Destructive” religious groups are therefore seen as an assault on both the integrity of society and the psychological well-being of individuals.  While this is clearly a different order of concerns than violent terrorist attacks, there are definite parallels in how the discussions that surround Islam in the United States and Protestantism in Kyrgyzstan reimagine each religion by transforming aberrant traits into categorical imperatives.  As alien as the above definition of “destructive” Protestant groups should be for many readers in the West, so our postulation of a homogenous global Islam is alien to Muslims in lands as diverse as Nigeria, Bangladesh, Chechnya, and Kyrgyzstan.