Religious Conversion and the Reconstruction of Ethnic Identity: An Investigation into the Conversion of Muslim Kyrgyz to Protestant Christianity in Kyrgyzstan, Central Asia

Author: David Paul Radford

Radford, David Paul, 2011 Religious Conversion and the Reconstruction of Ethnic Identity: An Investigation into the Conversion of Muslim Kyrgyz to Protestant Christianity in Kyrgyzstan, Central Asia, Flinders University, School of Social and Policy Studies

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Abstract

Social change, including religious conversion, challenges and transforms issues of identity. This thesis examines religious conversion from the perspective of Kyrgyz Christians. Religious conversion to Protestant Christianity challenges the normative Kyrgyz ethnic identity construct summed up in the local expression, 'to be Kyrgyz is to be Muslim'. Faced with accusations of betrayal and rejection from the wider Muslim Kyrgyz community Kyrgyz Christians have responded by challenging both the authenticity of the Kyrgyz identity of their accusers and the accepted and traditional ethnic boundary markers. In this process Kyrgyz Christians have reconstructed Kyrgyz identity in a way that shows that Protestant Christianity is situated within the local community and Kyrgyz identity, rather than on the outside in a marginalised, or ostracised position. The Kyrgyzstan context is striking because of the local circumstances in which conversion takes place. This context includes the collapse of Soviet Union and the revitalisation of religion after seventy years of the implementation of radical and enforced secularisation. From a handful of known Kyrgyz Christians at the time of independence (1991) upwards of 20,000 Muslim Kyrgyz have become Protestant Christians. This is a situation that has few precedents around the Muslim world. The study of Kyrgyz conversion offers special or distinctive insights into how innovation and religious change takes place in communities, especially non-Western communities. To understand conversion from the perspective of Kyrgyz Christians a mixed method approach was utilised including participant observation (the author lived in Kyrgyzstan for over 4 years), in-depth interviews (49 respondents) and a survey (427 respondents). This approach allowed an understanding of the context and people who were the focus of the research, to access individual stories of those who were engaged in the process of conversion, and to gain a sense of the distribution of the phenomena of Kyrgyz Christianity. The unfolding story of Kyrgyz conversion to Protestant Christianity raises significant questions about why people convert and what happens when people do. The approach that most appropriately applies to Kyrgyz conversion is one which recognises the socially constructed nature of identity involving the dynamic interplay between human agency, culture and social networks. Kyrgyz Christians have been active agents in bringing religious and identity transformation building upon the contextual parameters in which they are situated. Kyrgyz Christians are the products of culture and the initiators of cultural and religious change. The process of reconstructing ethnic identity through conversion has taken place as Kyrgyz Christians have creatively adapted, adopted, critiqued and reinterpreted indigenous (Kyrgyz social/cultural context) and exogenous (Protestant Christian) cultural and religious 'tools'. Kyrgyz Christians are transforming this new religious movement into something that affirms their sense of Kyrgyzness, their Kyrgyz identity, and reconstructs the normative ethnic construct to show that 'to be Kyrgyz is to be Christian as well as to be Muslim.'

Keywords: religious conversion,ethnic identity,revitalisation of religion,boundaries,social captial,cultural capital,Kyrgyzstan,Central Asia,post socialist,post communist,secularisation,mixed methods methodology
Subject: Sociology thesis

Thesis type: Doctor of Philosophy
Completed: 2011
School: School of Social and Policy Studies
Supervisor: Prof. Sharyn Roach-Anleu, Emeritus Prof. Riaz Hassan