The early 20th-century Yale geography professor Ellsworth Huntington once said that all of the “evidence points to Central Asia as man’s original home…For the general movement of human migrations [since early modern history] has been outward from that region and not inward” since that time. Bordered by Russia to the north and China to the east, the modern-day states of Central Asia (also sometimes referred to as the “Five-Stans”) include former Muslim-majority Soviet states like Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. Many of these Central Asian nations- which were major players during the “Silk Road” era- were pivotal during that time in helping to shape the economic and cultural ethos of a large swatch of the Asian continent as we now know it today.
Recently, I was given the opportunity to travel to Central Asia for a two-week speaking tour sponsored by the U.S. State Department International Information Program (IIP) in the nations of Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan to speak to diverse audiences on current issues related to Islam, human rights and the global media today.
During my two-week official State Department speaking tour in Central Asia, I had the unique opportunity to meet with government officials, local NGO leaders and thousands of university students in the region to share my professional experiences as an American Muslim journalist and human rights lawyer and answer hundreds of questions about the role of religion in the public square, US relations with Muslim-majority nations and more. The majority of the first week of my State Department trip took place in the capital city of Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan. On my first evening in Central Asia, I joined a group of government officials, NGO heads and representatives of the local Muslim community at the personal residence of United States Ambassador to Kyrgyzstan, Ambassador Pamela Spratlen.
During our dinner conversation at Ambassador Spratlen’s residence, I heard from these government officials and NGO leaders about the role of religion within the public square in Kyrgyzstan. As an international human rights lawyer, I always like to ask foreign government officials about “free exercise of religion” issues and about legal protections for religious minorities within their respective countries. At the ambassador’s house, one of the main recurring themes that I began to hear from most of the (non-governmental) representatives was their concern about the rampant levels of “religious illiteracy” amongst their population; especially in relation to Islam, since the majority of Central Asian citizens would self-identify themselves as “Muslim” when asked about their religious affiliation. This concept of “religious illiteracy” was a major topic of conversation the next morning during my personal meeting with the Grand Mufti of Kyrgyzstan, Mr. Maksat Toktomushev. An interesting fact about the Grand Mufti is that although he was born and raised in Kyrgyzstan, he had spent 10 years of his life studying Islam in Pakistan and actually spoke fluent Urdu. Now because I speak Urdu fluently as well, we spent our entire one-hour meeting speaking in Urdu (so neither my official translator nor the US Embassy staff accompanying me had any clue what the Mufti and I were discussing). By gaining the Mufti’s trust by speaking to him in Urdu, he became very comfortable with me and we openly began discussing the state of Islam and Muslims in Kyrgyzstan. Although he was located in the capital of Bishkek, he told me that he regularly corresponds with the several hundred imams under his directorate throughout the country on a regular basis (via conference calls and regular emails). When I asked him about the “religious illiteracy” that I was beginning to notice amongst the population, the Mufti pointed out that the former Soviet communist empire had basically suppressed all forms of religion for over 70 years and that people only begun revisiting their Islamic heritage after the independence of Kyrgyzstan after August 1991. After our very informative meeting, the Grand Mufti of Kyrgyzstan then proceeded to present me with a beautiful technicolor dreamcoat which basically made me look like a six-foot-four grape popsicle below.
Immediately after my meeting with the Grand Mufti, I headed over to give the first of my nearly dozen university speeches in front of a packed lecture hall full of Muslim theology students at the Kyrgyz-Islamic University on the subject of “Youth and Islam”. Coincidentally, I was told by one of the US Embassy officials accompanying me during the trip that this was a special speaking invitation since Kyrgyz-Islamic University traditionally did not usually invite outside speakers to address their students, but that they had made an exception in my case.
Even though I saw an overall “religious illiteracy” about Islam amongst the people that I met in Central Asia (which was the central substantive takeaway from my entire trip); this first speech at Kyrgyz-Islamic University featured an audience of theology students who were actually quite knowledgeable about basic Islamic normative teachings.
During my speech with the theology department at Kyrgyz-Islamic University, these students asked a wide range of questions about being Muslim in America, Western perceptions of Islam and my understanding of key concepts of human rights and religious freedom around the world.
Looking back now, my favorite speeches during my State Department trip were at libraries around the region known as “American Corners”. An “American Corner” is considered to be an information resource center “modeled in the American style with the purpose of providing comprehensive up-to-date information about the United States and holding regular programs (ESL, talking clubs, movie screenings, etc.), cultural programs (performances, book launches, master classes)” and offering local students free Wi-Fi internet access which might be hard to find for many of these students in their local areas.
These “American Corner” speeches during my Central Asia trip were some of the most well-attended events mainly because of the amazing work of the US Embassy in Kyrgyzstan and their American Corner volunteers around the region. It was great to see a place where young local Central Asian students can get access to free Wi-Fi internet, English classes and watch American speakers to whom they might not have ever been exposed. The first week of my State Department trip in Central Asia was made especially memorable because of the tireless work of US Public Affairs Information Officer Susannah Wood (and my translator Mr. Kanybek) who accompanied me to every speaking event around the country of Kyrgyzstan. After my first week in Kyrgyzstan, it was time for me to drive across the border in a diplomatic car with two USAID workers on a four-hour trek through the snow-capped mountain regions from Kyrgyzstan for the second week of my State Department trip in the oil-rich neighboring country of Kazakhstan.
Although they have similar sounding names, the central Asian countries of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are quite different for major reason: Oil money. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, Kazakhstan has been an oil producer since 1911 and also has the “second largest oil reserves as well as the second largest oil production among the former Soviet republics after Russia.” Because Kazakhstan has significant oil reserves near the Caspian Sea on the western side of the country, you could clearly tell that it was a much richer country than its smaller sibling of Kyrgyzstan; as witnessed by the litany of Prada, Saks Fifth Avenue, Tiffany and Cartier stores scattered throughout the main city of Almaty. Like the first week in Kyrgyzstan, the second week of my State Department trip in Kazakhstan was filled with university speeches, media interviews and official meetings with government/NGO officials. While visiting the capital of Astana, I did get a chance to visit the Hazrat Sultan mosque, which local people claim is the largest mosque in all of Central Asia.
The highlight of my final week in Kazakhstan actually happened on the last night of my entire trip at the home of US Embassy Deputy Chief of Mission Michael Klecheski. Mike was hosting a dinner at his personal residence where I was the guest of honor and also featured prominent imams and government officials from Kazakhstan who deal with religious affairs in the country o an everyday basis. During our group dinner, I told the audience of imams and government officials that I had noticed a great deal of “religious illiteracy” amongst many people in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan who self-identified themselves as Muslim. The vice chairman of Kazakhstan’s government agency for religious affairs (Mr. Shoykin Nurmagambetovich) began asking me about how to improve religious literacy, in light of governmental fear about radicalization. I told him that the internet (particularly social media outlets like YouTube/Facebook/Twitter) could be the equalizing (and neutralizing) factor in helping local Muslim scholars teach their populations about their Islamic heritage and could also help counter extremist ideology found online as well. I continued to tell our dinner guests (including other Kazakh government officials and prominent imams) that online self-radicalization is going to continue and that the only way to neutralize it would be if Islamic scholars around the world kept putting out accurate information about Islam on the Internet for the “religiously illiterate” people in their societies who thirst for more information about their Muslim identity.
As we finished our dinner on my last night in Central Asia, the Kazakh government officials thanked me for my ideas and informed me that they would work with their imams who were present at the dinner to help produce more videos and online resources on hot-button topics affecting their Muslim youth around the country today. So after more than two weeks (and flying over 21,000 miles) along “The Silk Road” in the mountainous Central Asian countries of Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, it was interesting to see the over-arching Soviet/Russian influence on these gorgeous Muslim-majority Central Asian nations who gained their independence from the communist empire over 20 years ago.
Again, because Soviet communist rule had actively suppressed Islam (and all religious expression in general) for over 70 years, this is probably one of the main reasons that I witnessed such rampant “religious illiteracy” amongst the majority of people that I met in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. But the good news is that I also met hundreds of young people during my trip in both countries who told me that they are learning more about their Muslim identity and Islamic heritage. So I look forward to speaking with these young students again the next time that the U.S. State Department brings me back to Central Asia for another official speaking tour on Islam and Muslims.