From Belonging to Belief

Modern Secularisms and the Construction of Religion in Kyrgyzstan

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Julie McBrien
Central Eurasia in Context
  • Pittsburgh, PA: 
    University of Pittsburgh Press
    , November
     240 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In From Belonging to Belief, Julie McBrien provides an insightful reflection of the ways in which religion, ethnicity, and national identity are lived out in Post-Soviet Central Asia, illustrated through an in-depth ethnographic study of a small town, Bazaar-Korgon, in southern Kyrgyzstan. 

McBrien engages with the work of several important sociologists and anthologists arguingthat ideas regarding religion and secularism have developed in modern states in different contexts and that this is vital to understanding the experiences of the Kyrgyz in town of Bazaar-Korgon. McBrien states that in much of the Western world a liberal secularism prevails which has emphasized a toleration of religion but where religion is largely represented by internal, personal, individualized belief. For example, Grace Davie, in her well known book, Religion in Britain since 1945: Believing without Belonging(Wiley-Blackwell,1994), describes how contemporary British society now better reflects a condition whereby an increasing number of people hold some form of religious or spiritual belief but have distanced themselves from association with religious organizations or institutions of belonging. In contrast McBrien suggests that the Soviet Union exhibited a non-liberal “virulent” secularism, and describes how religion was viewed either something to either be eliminated, or to be transformed into a collective “benign” national/ethnic identity marker—simply the group that you belong to. McBrien states that this was the case in Bazaar-Korgon. From a sense of belonging to the Muslim Kyrgyz community in a relational and cultural sense, residents now believe [and practice] the religious tenets of Islamic faith; hence the title of McBrien’s book, From Belonging to Belief.

McBrien reminds the reader that Islam and religion have particular contextual meanings in light of their historical relationship with Tsarist Russia and especially the policies and actions of the former Soviet Union. While the Soviet Union’s effort to eradicate religion was ultimately a failed project, these policies significantly influenced the way Central Asians understood the role of religion—in this case, Islam. Islam and religion came to be associated with a political and community project, becoming a marker of cultural and ethnic identity: for example, to be Kyrgyz or to be Uzbek was to be Muslim. This was not necessarily a category of personal piety or devotion evidenced by holding to orthodox religious knowledge and practices, but rather of adherence to specific cultural norms and traditionssuch as home-based practices and life-cycle eventsassociated with belonging to a national community—the Kyrgyz people.

The collapse of the Soviet Union transformed Kyrgyzstan socially, economically, politically and religiously. Gone were restrictions on religious freedom: now there was the opportunity to explore, interact and experiment with a marketplace of options. Options were strengthened by the ability to engage with external and internal dynamics associated with new access to the world beyond Central Asia and the Soviet Union, heightened by global processes of technology, transportation, and information dissemination. One of the major changes was the increasing public role and place of Islam in daily and political life. In From Belonging to Belief,McBrientakes the reader beyond political discourses around religion into the world of a small Kyrgyz town and investigates how these changes have impacted the daily lives and experiences of individuals and of the local community. McBrien does this by drawing the reader into the narratives of several individuals and families and their experiences in everyday life situations including wedding celebrations, Brazilian soap operas, the building of a new mosque, and challenging fashion trends. While McBrien’s emphasis is on the changing understanding and experience of Muslimness, of what it means to be Muslim in contemporary Kyrgzstan as both belonging and/or believing, she also describes the fascinating ways in which some individuals and families are drawn into public and overt religious practice and belief, while others are not. At the same time McBrien highlights the tensions, struggles, and uncertainties that these developments have encountered as they exasperate associations of overt religious activity/symbolic presentation with discourses and accusations of difference, of threat and fear, of “extremism” and of being, “not Kyrgyz.”

From Belonging to Belief is a well written book that successfully draws on both the broader literature on religion, secularization, and the Soviet/post-Soviet context as well as the colorful, lived experiences of individuals, and of a small community, that is undergoing significant social and religious change. McBrien has been able to draw on her years of professional and academic experience living and working among the people richly described in her book which has added to the authenticity and authority of her descriptions and conclusions. The narrow focus of her study, a “small town in southern Kyrgyzstan,” has allowed McBrien to qualitatively explore in-depth the challenges and changes over time in the community. However, it does leave some questions unanswered. How representative is Baazar-Korgon for the rest of Kyrgyzstan? Is the growing religiousness of Baazar-Korgon something unique to this small town, or to southern Kyrgyzstan, or to a rural location? Are there differences in the experiences of those in the major city of Bishkek, for example? McBrien focuses on the issue of secularization and religion in relation to understanding Muslimness and makes a convincing argument of the role that the Soviet Union played in that process. However, equally important, and missing, is discussion of the place of “ Kyrgyzness” (kyrgyzchylych): what it means to be Kyrgyz. The socially constructed nature and salience of perceptions of “Muslimness” and “Kyrgyzness” play out in complex ways. Certainly, this has been a major issue for other segments of the Kyrgyz population, who, facing similar challenges in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, turned not to increasing expressions of Islamic religious belief and expression, but rather to religious expressions very different from Islam, such as Protestant Christianity.

About the Reviewer(s): 

David Radford is Lecturer in Sociology at the School of Creative Industries, University of South Australia.

Date of Review: 
April 11, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Julie McBrien is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Amsterdam.


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