Academic journal article Anthropological Quarterly

The "Transparency" of Christian Proselytizing in Kyrgyzstan

Academic journal article Anthropological Quarterly

The "Transparency" of Christian Proselytizing in Kyrgyzstan

Article excerpt


To make an object transparent implies that its internal features become better visible. It also means that the surface of that same object becomes less discernable. I apply this analogy to argue that the current preoccupation with transparency allows certain ideological movements to hide controversial agendas from public scrutiny. Focusing on evangelical Christian aid to Kyrgyzstan, this article traces how post-Soviet liberalization enabled evangelicals to gain a strong footing in this Muslim-majority society. Their emphasis on religious rights served to legitimize their missionary agendas, while the adoption of development rhetoric allowed evangelicals to present themselves as "transparent" civil society players. As such, this empirical case illuminates the ideological workings of "empty" and ostensibly value-free political imageries. [Keywords: transparency, missionaries, neoliberalism, post-socialism, Central Asia]


Jeff, a Youth With A Mission (YWAM) missionary in the post-Soviet Republic of Kyrgyzstan, voiced his analysis of why foreigners go to Kyrgyzstan as follows: "Typically there are only two reasons why people come here. Either they are here for business or they are missionaries. So basically when you ask someone what he is doing and he says he is a volunteer or English teacher, then you immediately know the category." We were sitting in Jeff and his wife Becky's apartment, together with three (Kyrgyz and US) members of their team. They had been listening to Christian Soft Rock, enjoying Becky's homebaked cookies, and making conversation. Given that Jeff had only mentioned business and evangelization, I asked him how he would categorize development workers. It seemed he had been waiting for that question, and he used the opportunity to argue that foreign led and run organizations are hardly ever motivated by a purely humanitarian stance. Major secular development organizations such as the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Soros Foundation, he pointed out, are about economics, and their employees are driven by career prospects and monetary compensation. By contrast, most small development organizations are connected to churches, Jeff explained. Their humanitarian efforts are part of evangelical missions, and their employees motivated by being in God's service.

Jeff certainly oversimplified the motivations underlying development flows to Kyrgyzstan, but his statements were instructive nonetheless. At the minimum his remarks resonated with ideas of many Kyrgyzstani citizens2 who wondered why Westerners would come to a country in shambles. Financial motives were usually assumed to play a role, and like Jeff, many were suspicious when foreigners provided vague explanations that boiled down to humanitarian idealism. Realistically suspecting that such "noble" (if patronizing) motivations are rarely the whole story, they wondered about the unspoken agendas. While in the 1990s commercial and geopolitical motives were most frequently mentioned, by the early 2000s suspicion that aid was driven by hidden religious agendas became equally widespread. This new suspicion was grounded in experience-it coincided with the emergence of Kyrgyzstan as an important mission field for evangelical Christians.3 Missionaries, mission tourists, and religious NGOs were becoming conspicuous players at a time when many secular development organizations were cutting down their foreign staff as part of their "exit strategies."

The goals and motivations informing secular and spiritual aid may seem incompatible at first sight. Secular development workers in particular stressed the differences. Magnus, a Swedish UNDP officer, for example, told the following story while having drinks with several friends in a bar in Kyrgyzstan's capital Bishkek. He had just returned from a visit to his home country and on his flight back he happened to sit next to a woman who presented herself as a development worker to him. …

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