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  • Mathijs Pelkmans (a1)


The religious revival that followed the collapse of the USSR provides an excellent opportunity to compare the dynamics of projects of religious freedom with those of religious repression. Based on extensive ethnographic fieldwork in Georgia and Kyrgyzstan, this article documents the contradictory effects that both repressive and liberal policies and laws have on religious expression. Thus, while Soviet anti-religious policies undeniably caused much suffering and hardship, religious repression also contributed to an intensification of religious experience among certain Muslim and evangelical groups. And while religious freedom laws expanded the scope for public religious organization and expression, they also produced new inequalities between religious groups, as the cases of Georgia and Kyrgyzstan demonstrate. Ultimately, the article shows that the effects of liberal and repressive laws are far from straightforward and need to be analyzed in relation to the social context in which they are applied.



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1 See Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, “Believing in Religious Freedom,” The Immanent Frame (blog), March 1, 2012,; Courtney Bender, “The Power of Pluralist Thinking,” The Immanent Frame (blog), April 11, 2012,

2 For a concise discussion of this issue, see Bender, “The Power of Pluralist Thinking.”

3 Talal Asad suggests that affording people “the right to choose their religious beliefs” is in a secular world “everything that the modern state can afford to let go.” Asad, , Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003), 147. For a recent discussion on this topic, see Robert Yelle, “Christian Genealogies of Religious Freedom,” The Immanent Frame (blog), April 6, 2012,

4 See especially Keane, Webb, “Freedom and Blasphemy: On Indonesian Press Bans and Danish Cartoons,” Public Culture 21, no. 1 (2009): 4776.

5 Ethnographic research in Ajara, Georgia, was carried out during eighteen months in the period 1997 to 2001, and ethnographic research in Kyrgyzstan was conducted over twenty months in the period 2003 to 2010. The examples I present have all been drawn from this research. Some have been presented in previously published work, as indicated in the footnotes.

6 Pelkmans, Mathijs, Defending the Border: Identity, Religion, and Modernity in the Republic of Georgia (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2006), 121.

7 Pelkmans, Mathijs, “Asymmetries on the ‘Religious Market’ in Kyrgyzstan,” in The Postsocialist Religious Question: Faith and Power in Central Asia and East-Central Europe, eds. Hann, C. M. et al. (Berlin: Lit Verlag, 2006), 32.

8 Sanikidze, Giorgi, islami da muslimebi tanamedrove sakartveloshi [Islam and Muslims in Modern Georgia] (Tbilisi: International Research Center for East–West Relations, 1999), 1617.

9 Lane, Christel, The Rites of Rulers: Ritual in Industrial Society—The Soviet Case (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1981), 2729; Ro'i, Yaacov, “The Task of Creating the New Soviet Man: ‘Atheistic Propaganda’ in the Soviet Muslim Areas,” Europe-Asia Studies 36, no. 1 (1984): 2644.

10 Domesticated refers both to the state's “taming” or controlling of religious organization and practice, as well as to the shift of religious practice from the public to the domestic sphere. Dragadze, Tamara, “The Domestication of Religion under Soviet Communism,” in Socialism: Ideals, Ideologies, and Local Practice, ed. Hann, C. M. (London: Routledge, 1993), 148–56.

11 Hanks, Reuel, “Repression as Reform: Islam in Uzbekistan during the Early Glasnost Period,” Religion, State & Society 29, no. 3 (2001): 227–39.

12 Ro'i, Yaacov, Islam in the Soviet Union: From the Second World War to Gorbachev (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000), 648–51.

13 Pelkmans, Defending the Border, 128.

14 Ibid., 108.

15 In post-1990 Turkmenistan the government pushed a state-endorsed version of Islam not least to legitimize its rule, but the state-controlled mosques have remained conspicuously empty. Hann, Chris and Pelkmans, Mathijs, “Realigning Religion and Power in Central Asia: Islam, Nation-State and (Post)Socialism,” Europe-Asia Studies 61, no. 9 (2009): 1517–41.

16 Pelkmans, Defending the Border, 123.

17 I have discussed this history more extensively in Pelkmans, Defending the Border, 95–119. See also Thomas Liles, “Islam and Religious Transformation in Adjara,” Working Paper 57 (European Centre for Minority Issues, 2012); Mikadze, Ekatherina Meiering, “L'Islam en Adjarie: Trajectoire historique et implications contemporaines,” CEMOTI. Cahiers d’études sur la Méditerranée orientale et le monde turco-iranien 27 (1999): 241–61.

18 Pelkmans, Defending the Border, 121–41; Khalid, Adeeb, Islam after Communism: Religion and Politics in Central Asia (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007).

19 Lemercier-Quelquejay, Chantal, “From Tribe to Umma,” Central Asian Survey 53, no. 3 (1984): 473–78.

20 Witte, John Jr., “Introduction,” in Proselytism and Orthodoxy in Russia: The New War for Souls, eds. Witte, John Jr. and Bourdeaux, Michael (New York: Orbis, 2009), 127.

21 Agadjanian, Alexander, “Revising Pandora's Gifts: Religious and National Identity in the Post-Soviet Societal Fabric,” Europe-Asia Studies 53, no. 3 (2001): 473–88; see especially ibid., 481–84.

22 An extensive discussion of these issues is found in Hann, Chris and Pelkmans, Mathijs, “Realigning Religion and Power in Central Asia: Islam, Nation-State and (Post)Socialism,” Europe-Asia Studies 61, no. 9 (2009): 1517–41. The most insightful study of how global discourses of (counter)terrorism have affected the politico-religious landscape in Kyrgyzstan is McBrien, Julie, “Extreme Conversations: Secularism, Religious Pluralism, and the Rhetoric of Islamic Extremism in Southern Kyrgyzstan,” in The Postsocialist Religious Question: Faith and Power in Central Asia and East-Central Europe, eds. Hann, C. M. et al. (Berlin: Lit Verlag, 2006), 4774.

23 Law of the Republic of Kyrgyzstan on Religious Freedom and Religious Organization, chap. 1, art. 3, December 16, 1991.

24 A good discussion of the situation in Uzbekistan is Hanks, Reuel, “Religion and Law in Uzbekistan: Renaissance and Repression in an Authoritarian Context,” in Regulating Religion: Case Studies from around the Globe, ed. Richardson, James T. (New York: Kluwer Academic, 2004), 319–30. For Kazakhstan, see Podoprigora, Roman, “Religious Freedom and Human Rights in Kazakhstan,” Religion, State & Society 31, no. 2 (2003): 123–32.

25 Nuria Kutnaeva, “Svoboda veroispovedania v Tsental'noi Azii. Teoria i praktika” [Freedom of Religion in Central Asia. Theory and Practice], n.d. (on file with author); see also Anderson, John, Kyrgyzstan: Central Asia's Island of Democracy? (Amsterdam: Harwood Academic Publishers, 1999), 3233.

26 The US Center for World Mission, located in Pasadena, California, is the central evangelical research centre and think tank committed to missionary work around the world: see the center's website at (accessed August 19, 2014).

27 As mentioned to the author by Mark Palmer, coordinator for the US missionary organization Campus Crusade for Christ in Kyrgyzstan between 1992 and 2004.

28 Mushfig Bayram and John Kinahan, “Kyrgyzstan: Religious Freedom Survey, December 2009,” Forum 18 News Service, December 17, 2009,

29 Abazov, Rafis, “Policy of Economic Transition in Kyrgyzstan,” Central Asian Survey 18, no. 2 (1999): 197223.

30 The Tablighi Jamaat, which nowadays is a global movement, has its origins in 1920s India; it focuses on spiritual reformation at the grassroots level. A good source on the movement's history is Gaborieau, Marc, “The Transformation of Tablighi Jama'at into a Transnational Movement,” in Travellers in Faith: Studies of the Tablighi Jama'at as a Transnational Islamic Movement for Faith Renewal, ed. Masud, Khalid (Leiden: Brill, 2000), 121–38. The expansion of the Tablighi Jamaat into post-Soviet Central Asia is discussed by Balci, Bayram, “The Rise of the Jama'at al Tabligh in Kyrgyzstan: The Revival of Islamic Ties between the Indian Subcontinent and Central Asia?,” Central Asian Survey 31, no. 1 (2012): 6176.

31 See Pelkmans, Mathijs, “Temporary Conversions: Encounters with Pentecostalism in Muslim Kyrgyzstan,” in Conversion after Socialism: Disruptions, Modernisms and Technologies of Faith in the Former Soviet Union, ed. Pelkmans, Mathijs (New York: Berghahn Books, 2009), 143–66; Pelkmans, Mathijs, “‘Culture’ as a Tool and an Obstacle: Missionary Encounters in Post-Soviet Kyrgyzstan,” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 13, no. 4 (2007): 881–99.

32 In 2003, 710 Christian and 232 Muslim missionaries were officially registered, according to Mamaiusupov, O., Voprosy (problemy) religii na perekhodnom periode [Questions (Problems) of Religion in the Transition Period] (Bishkek, 2003). The number of Kyrgyz converts to Evangelical and Pentecostal churches has been estimated at 25,000. Pelkmans, “‘Culture’ as a Tool and an Obstacle,” 883. The Tablighi Jamaat does not have formal membership, but approximately 20,000 to 25,000 people are active in the movement, according to Nasritdinov, Emil, “Spiritual Nomadism and Central Asian Tablighi Travelers,” Ab Imperio 2 (2012): 145–67.

33 See, for example, Vladimir, , “Christianity and Islam in Central Asia,” in Islam and Central Asia: An Enduring Legacy or an Evolving Threat?, eds. Sagdeev, Roald and Eisenhower, Susan (Washington, DC: Center for Political and Strategic Studies, 2000), 95115. Vladimir was Archbishop of the Orthodox Diocese of Bishkek and All Central Asia at the time he authored this chapter.

34 McBrien, Julie and Pelkmans, Mathijs, “Turning Marx on His Head: Missionaries, ‘Extremists,’ and Archaic Secularists in Post-Soviet Kyrgyzstan,” Critique of Anthropology 28, no. 1 (2008): 87103.

35 Murzakhalilov, K., “Proselytism in Kyrgyzstan,” Journal of Social and Political Studies: Central Asia and the Caucasus 31, no. 1 (2004): 8387.

36 Pelkmans, “Asymmetries on the ‘Religious Market’ in Kyrgyzstan.”

37 Sullivan, Winnifred Fallers, The Impossibility of Religious Freedom (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009), 3.

38 McBrien and Pelkmans, “Turning Marx on his Head.”

39 Pelkmans, Mathijs, “The ‘Transparency’ of Christian Proselytizing in Kyrgyzstan,” Anthropological Quarterly 82, no. 2 (2009): 436–46.

40 Anderson, John, Kyrgyzstan: Central Asia's Island of Democracy? (Amsterdam: Harwood Academic Publishers, 1999), 3233, 56–57.

41 “Kyrgyzstan: Human Rights Activists Condemn New Religion Law,”, January 15, 2009,

42 Mushfig Bayram, “Kyrgyzstan: Crackdown Follows New Religion Law,” Forum 18 News Service, May 28, 2009,

43 I refer to the 2005 Tulip Revolution and the 2010 April Revolution, as well as the June 2010 violence between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in Southern Kyrgyzstan.

44 Danchin, Peter, “Who Is the ‘Human’ in Human Rights? The Claims of Culture and Religion,” Maryland Journal of International Law 24 (2009): 112.

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