Human Journey

Exploring Identity in Kyrgyzstan

To be 26 years old – an age between young adulthood and actual adulthood and a time when many begin to ask themselves questions like “who am I?” “what defines me?” “where am I going?” more frequently. As a 26-year-old, I ask myself these questions everyday, usually 20 times a day before noon, as does many other 26-year-olds I know. It would also seem that the people of the Kyrgyz Republic – a country which gained independence from the Soviet Union 26 years ago – are asking the same types of questions, replacing “I” with “we” and “me” with “us”: “Who are we as a nation?” “What defines us?” “Where are we going?

Anara outside of Bishkek’s Central Mosque. Photo by Toby A. Cox

The nation of the Kyrgyz Republic, also known as Kyrgyzstan, is, of course, much older than 26. Some sources say its history can be traced back to 1st Century BC; however, it has only been an independent country for 26 years, after centuries of being under the rule of numerous empires with occasional periods of self-governance. This new freedom to define itself has forced the Kyrgyz people to think deeply about what it means to be Kyrgyz.

When I first arrived in Kyrgyzstan in April 2015 as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I admit that I knew nothing of its history, culture, or traditions. However, over the course of 2 years, I learned a great deal about Kyrgyzstan and became fascinated with its history. After seeing Kyrgyz traditions rooted in Tengriism, combined with (and, sometimes, almost blended with) Islamic practices, juxtaposed with traditions remnant of the Soviet Union, I began to wonder how its history and geography has impacted and continues to impact the people’s religious identity.

Ainaz (my host mother) teaching me how to embroider Kyrgyz designs.

When the Kyrgyz people were nomadic, they practiced a form of animism and shamanism known as Tengriism. In the Kyrgyz language, Teng means ‘equal’ and Tengriism is the belief in the importance of balance (or equality) in all things in order to maintain harmony in the universe. Tengriism is based on that idea that there is a natural order which can only be achieved by balancing the good and bad energies found in the universe, the two worlds (material and spiritual), within ourselves, and within all other things – both living and non-living. Everything in Kyrgyz culture, from the traditional designs on textiles, to how yurts are constructed, and to how family structure is perceived, can be traced back to Tengriism and to the ancient generations’ efforts to forge symbiosis between them, the material world, and the spiritual world.

Burning Juniper is a believed to ward off evil spirits and is one of the many Kyrgyz traditions rooted in Tengriism. Photo by Toby A. Cox

Between the 10th-12th centuries the majority of Kyrgyz people converted to Islam, practicing Islam alongside Tengriism. Now, fast forward to 1936 when Kyrgyzstan officially became a republic in the Soviet Union. Under Soviet rule, the open practice of any religion was prohibited; mosques were shut down and information about Islam (and any other religion) was restricted. Those who were religious had to practice in private.

In 1991, Kyrgyzstan became independent. Since independence, Islam has been reintroduced to the public sphere – thousands of mosques have been built, as well as madrassas (religious schools) and more and more people are choosing to express their religious identity through avenues typically associated with Islam, such as hijabs (for women) and long beards (for men). Naturally, this resurgence of Islam has sparked a debate among the people of Kyrgyzstan about how Islam fits into the national and cultural Kyrgyz identity and what role it should play in society.

Central Mosque in Bishkek at Dusk. Photo by Toby A. Cox

This is the story I will explore through the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship. The story of how religious identity has developed in Kyrgyzstan and how the Kyrgyz people are or are not using religion as an indicator of Kyrgyz national identity. I will be traveling around the country to interview people and gather stories relating to the topic of religious identity in Kyrgyzstan. Through this fellowship I aim to not only learn more about the history of religion and religious identity in Kyrgyzstan, but also to show how diverse Islam and Muslim identity is across cultures.

Toby A. Cox is a 2017-2018 Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellow exploring the story of Islam and religious identity in Kyrgyzstan. She will spend the next 9 months conducting interviews in all seven regions of the country, gathering stories on how the Kyrgyz people perceive the role of Islam and Islamic values in Kyrgyz culture. Through this fellowship, Toby aims to learn more about how Kyrgyzstan’s history has impacted the religious identity of individuals and the multidimensional Kyrgyz identity. She will use writing, videos, photos, and maps to offer insight into the religious landscape of Kyrgyzstan, simultaneously shedding light onto the diversity of Muslim identity. Toby studied Foreign Affairs and Middle Eastern Languages at the University of Virginia and is a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer from Jordan and Kyrgyzstan. 
  • Joe McMurry

    Wow! What an awesome post! Frankly, I think NatGeo has been going downhill lately, but glad to see they are doing interesting stuff like this! Really turning the magazine around! Look forward to following along on this adventure and learning lots.

  • Vince Cox

    This was an excellent article about a country that is unfamiliar to most Americans, and by the video, to most of the international community. I look forward to following you through your journey and anxiously await for your next post.

  • Janet amick

    Great piece about a country that still a mystery to me. Can’t wait to read the next article so I can get to know the customs and the people.

  • Eric Herst

    This is great. I look forward to reading and hearing the historical facts and how people are interpreting it to fit the formation of a national identity. Frankly, having been a teacher at the Kyrgyz University level and at the high school level for four years, it is very interesting to hear the different students’ interpretations of this subject. It represents a freal challenge to the forging of a national indentity or a return to regional tribalism.

  • Maria Tanner

    Very good article. Well written and kept my interest. I’m looking forward to following you on your journey.

  • Your post is so informative and interesting. Great piece!

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