Borderland Beliefs

Foreign missionaries and local church members at a circumcision feast (sunnet toi) in southern Kyrgyzstan, 2004.

Religious Conversion at the Frontier

MATHIJS PELKMANS
Frontier Dynamics: Reflections on Evangelical and Tablighi Missions in Central Asia

VLADIMIR HAMED-TROYANSKY
Becoming Armenian: Religious Conversions in the Late Imperial South Caucasus

Why do frontiers attract converts and missionaries? Some produce converts without much missionary effort; others are teeming with missionaries. The concentration of converts and missionaries in a place, or a time, can itself create a sense of marginality and border crossing. But the frontier is always a player in its own right, presenting real constraints and possibilities for religious innovation. 

Two CSSH authors recently explored this range of effects, giving special attention to the Caucasus and Central Asia, where Christian and Muslim societies intersect across the long frontiers of post-Soviet and, in earlier times, Russian imperial systems. Here’s how our editors juxtaposed the essays:

RELIGIOUS CONVERSION AT THE FRONTIER Frontier zones afford special prospects for conversion, both for its successful enactment and its analysis. The reasons are complex, a tangled bank of disruption and aspiration that roots in the imagination to weave a web of affective sensibilities. Danger and hope are equally near. Mathijs Pelkmans’ contribution, “Frontier Dynamics: Reflections on Evangelical and Tablighi Missions in Central Asia,” offers a comparative examination of competing Muslim and Evangelical Christian missionary efforts, by the Tablighi Jamaat and the Church of Jesus Christ, respectively, along the same frontier. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, religious movements dramatically expanded their activities in the Kyrgyz Republic during the 1990s. They found fertile ground with the dissolution of the welfare state and known sources of authority, but this was especially true in zones characterized by what Pelkmans calls “frontier dynamics.” These spaces held special promise for missionaries, not only due to the vulnerability of their populations, offering useful asymmetries of power for missionaries to make use of, but also by generating powerful affective fields of danger, possibility, and adventure. Both Muslim and Christian missionaries are attracted to these frontier dynamics, Pelkmans reveals, but they identify the thrill and danger in different phenomena and affective registers. Frontier situations present irresistible missionary attractions not only due to the harvest of potential conversions that their instability presents, but also for their unique affective force on missionaries themselves.

In “Becoming Armenian: Religious Conversions in the Late Imperial South Caucasus,” Vladimir Hamed-Troyansky explores conversion petitions of Muslim and Jewish peasants to the Russian government between the mid-nineteenth century and the outbreak of World War I. The petitions requested approval and recognition of their true conversion to Armenian Christianity. For Muslim petitioners, a government-sanctioned act of conversion offered a new legal identity that promised social and economic benefits. Russia’s Jews also petitioned to convert to the Armenian Apostolic Church in the twentieth century, to gain protection against discrimination and the right to live outside of designated territories. Crucially, Hamed-Troyansky shows that the arbiter of religious conversion was the Russian government. As judge of the sincerity of faith claims, and referee of the degree of Armenianness deemed necessary for conversion to count as valid, the Tsar (or at least his bureaucrats) played the part of detectives of the soul.

CSSH: You’ve now had a chance to read each other’s essays. What do you think? We wondered how you would assess the huge differences a century can make, but also the very suggestive lines of connection between your papers, especially the problem of how to interpret the authenticity of converts and the motivations of missionaries, clergy, state officials, and other “certifiers” of conversion. Another factor, of course, is the changing nature of the religious frontiers in question, and some pretty radical shifts, then and now, in transregional structures of religious belonging. 

Hamed-Troyansky:  I was thrilled that CSSH paired our articles, and I’m grateful to the editors for the invitation to discuss our work. The historical contexts in our research provide a stunning contrast: my work explores a time when the state mandated and society expected one to belong to a religious community, while Mathijs examines a society emerging from under atheist rule. Our methodological entry points are also different: my article focuses on converts whose voices are filtered through petitions and state correspondence, whereas Mathijs conducts fieldwork with missionaries who are recent converts themselves. Mathijs shows extraordinary parallels in the work of the Tablighi Jamaat and the Church of Jesus Christ in their “mission field” in Kyrgyzstan, where their efforts were relatively unobstructed by the state until the late 2000s. In contrast, while the state is omnipresent in the story of conversions to Armenian Christianity, missionary activity appears absent in the late imperial era. The tsarist government banned proselytization, except by the Russian Orthodox clergy, and even they treaded carefully in Russia’s newly conquered Muslim territories, whether in “Transcaucasia” or “Turkestan.”

The anxiety about conversions is acute in both the late tsarist South Caucasus and post-Soviet Kyrgyzstan. Conversions are associated with a breakdown of the social order and, often, with violence. In the Caucasus, ever since Russia’s annexation of the region by 1864, many Muslims genuinely feared that they might be forcibly converted to Russian Orthodoxy, whereas local Armenians knew of persecution and forcible conversions of their kin into Islam in the neighboring Ottoman Empire. Meanwhile, voluntary conversions, typically into Orthodoxy, were necessarily bound up with imperialism and Russification. Nor do perceptions of conversions seem to be particularly positive in Kyrgyzstan, where proselytization and outward religiosity may appear suspect to generations who grew up under Soviet rule. Popular fears of Islamism, especially in light of the Tajik Civil War and the Chechen Wars, must have hindered the work of the Tablighis.

The notion of sincerity lies at the heart of voluntary conversions and missionary work and yet comes off very different in our research. The dawatchis and their evangelical counterparts in Kyrgyzstan seem to dedicate their lives, at a great cost to their family life and social standing, to “conveying the message.” In imperial Russia, the sincerity of faith became a legal category, which the government employed arbitrarily to approve or deny conversion requests. Ironically, one’s sincerity of faith, which the church sought to cultivate, became a tool by the state to expand its power at the expense of the church. From the perspective of converts, the sincerity of faith, something internal and unique to one’s life experiences, becomes performative when one has to externalize it and argue their case to the state. 

While reading your comparative analysis of the two movements, Mathijs, I wondered about the hierarchy of conversion from the state’s perspective. In the late imperial era, the hierarchy was clear: Russian Orthodoxy at the top, followed by other Christian confessions, then by monotheistic Islam and Judaism, and with polytheistic faiths at the bottom. The state sanctioned a “conversion pyramid,” wherein one’s conversion could only go “up.” The Russian state enshrined Orthodox Christianity as one’s ultimate destination, to be protected by the “confessional state” above all other faiths. Conversions of non-Orthodox faithful into Armenian Christianity were approved because of their position within that hierarchy; they did not threaten the Russian Church’s dominance. Only the decree of 1905 legalizing conversions out of Russian Orthodoxy, arguably, dismantled that order. Did any informal hierarchy appear in post-Soviet Kyrgyzstan? Did local officials treat the Tablighi Jamaat and the Church of Jesus Christ differently? To what extent were official attitudes in the 1990s affected by the foreignness of each movement: popular associations of Pentecostalism with the United States and of Tablighi Jamaat with South Asia?

Pelkmans:  Let me answer indirectly by returning to one of your earlier points. I find myself intrigued by your observation that “the notion of sincerity lies at the heart of voluntary conversions and missionary work.” As your article shows, the Russian and Ottoman authorities had made “sincerity” a requirement for conversion petitions to be approved, a procedure that allowed them to deny conversions that threatened the status quo. By foregrounding the question of sincerity, and by giving clergy, local notables, and villagers a role in its assessment, the authorities fostered a more person-centered understanding of religious affiliation in which the question of individual belief was indeed quite central. 

And so, I am wondering how this observation might apply to the missionary encounters I studied. After all, the Tablighi Jamaat and evangelical-Pentecostalism, both of which gained significant ground in post-Soviet Kyrgyzstan, foster a religious sensibility that places the individual at center stage. Moreover, these movements’ successes produced anxiety within the establishment. In the secular media both movements were presented as “totalitarian cults,” thereby casting doubt on the voluntary nature of conversion and feeding a growing parliamentary call to ban proselytization. But what is interesting is that in Kyrgyzstan the question of sincerity only really featured in the negative. This may in part have been because demonstrating the sincerity of conversion was not a legal requirement; in fact, conversions were not systematically tabulated, and religious affiliation not inscribed in any formal register. But beyond that, there simply appeared to be more interest in denying the sincerity of others than proving it amongst one’s own.

CSSH:  That’s an interesting distinction. How does it work in practice? 

Pelkmans:  Let me illustrate by commenting on a rumor that circulated while I was doing fieldwork. The rumor held that Muslim residents were being paid 50 US dollars each time they attended a church service.[1] This was a clear accusation of insincerity, but intriguingly the rumor operated at several levels, serving different purposes. Although I do not know exactly how widely the “first level” rumor circulated, it was telling that quite a few Kyrgyz young men asked me if it was indeed true that people in these churches were being paid. At a second level, there was a rumor about who spread the rumor. The consensus within the evangelical community was that Islamic leaders were actively spreading the 50-dollar rumor to discredit instances of conversion. This was not surprising, my evangelical interlocutors held, because Islamic leaders had indoctrinated the population for centuries (this counter rumor thus questioned the Islamic leaders’ sincerity, and that of Islamic faith more generally). And then there were theories about the effects of the 50-dollar rumor. In the evangelical community some denounced it as utter rubbish. But one Kyrgyz pastor told me that he cherished the rumor because it had inspired many people to check out what was going on in his church, and some of them had eventually converted.

This last point offers some additional openings as to why establishing the sincerity of one’s own was not so much of a concern. For this pastor, intention should not be transfixed in time, and sincerity should be understood less as impulse than as outcome. This view resonated with that of many evangelicals as well as Tablighis, who acknowledged that secular reasons (such as addiction, health, or economic concerns) played a role in why people joined. But they saw this as a perfectly valid starting point of a spiritual journey.[2] Moreover, in the presence of the higher power of God, in view of an ultimate Truth, the momentary “sincerity” of an individual convert may not be all that relevant. 

All this makes me wonder if concerns about sincerity reflect social anxiety. As you point out, Vladimir, the Russian authorities worried about how the occurrence of conversion might destabilize society, and the forms of governance they produced may have instilled similar anxieties within the relevant religious groups (it is not entirely clear from the article if the clergy were equally concerned with sincerity or were simply performing the legal requirement). But when such anxieties are absent, the question of sincerity may not be pertinent, even if denouncing the insincerity of the other will still be politically and spiritually convenient.

Hamed-Troyansky:  Questioning the sincerity of others while overlooking that of your own was also common in late imperial Russia. The government of the Caucasus Viceroyalty interrogated those who were converting into non-Orthodox faiths, seeking to prevent any Orthodox subjects from being “corrupted.” Those joining the Russian Orthodox Church, whether individually or en masse, faced little scrutiny. Even when the government discovered that some Armenians had converted to Orthodoxy for economic gain, not spiritual beliefs, it judged their return to a non-Orthodox faith to be illegal and undesirable.

I agree with you, Mathijs, that rumors played an important role in conversions on the frontier. Likewise, the borderland between the Russian, Ottoman, and Qajar empires generated many rumors reflecting local anxieties and fears. The circulating rumors of an impending war between the three empires, of forcible conversion of Muslims in the tsar’s domains, and of Russia banning the hajj or any border crossings drove emigration and conversions, especially of Muslims in the Caucasus. Borderland rumors also reinforced the frontier by slowly homogenizing populations and imbuing everyone’s religious identities with new political meanings. 

CSSH: You’ve given each other the gift of several new paper topics. We’re especially intrigued by the contrast between imperial formations with a religious hierarchy built in and those that are less concerned with maintaining such hierarchies, or that put a secular authority on top. The frontier of either system would look very different, as would movement across whatever borders the system recognized. A key issue, across your cases, is the centrality of autonomy and choice. And the realization that, no matter how “true” a conversion might be, something stays the same. The new convert, in a sense, is always living on the frontier. Time and children will wear away the distinctions that tracking “sincerity” among converts tends only to accentuate. The extent to which that claim can be treated as empirical or aspirational, as bad religious doctrine or good folk sociology, is often a vital aspect of frontier politics, and epistemologies. Your papers help us think through that.

Thanks to you both for the additional insights.


Vladimir Hamed-Troyansky is Assistant Professor of Global Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He specializes in late Ottoman and Russian imperial history. He is broadly interested in the evolution of refugee regimes, humanitarianism, and ethnic cleansing in the Middle East and Eastern Europe. He held a postdoctoral fellowship at Columbia University’s Harriman Institute and earned a Ph.D. in history at Stanford University in 2018. His dissertation was awarded the best dissertation prize by the World History Association and an honorable mention for the Malcolm H. Kerr Dissertation Award in the Social Sciences by the Middle East Studies Association. He is currently preparing his first book, which examines the resettlement of about a million Muslim refugees from Russia throughout the Ottoman Balkans, Levant, and Anatolia between the 1850s and World War I.

Mathijs Pelkmans is Professor in Anthropology at the London School of Economics and Political Science. He lived in Georgia for two years and in Kyrgyzstan for three, where he carried out ethnographic research on borders and boundaries, missionary movements, religious change, and political turmoil. His work includes the edited volume Ethnographies of Doubt: Faith and Uncertainty in Contemporary Societies (Bloomsbury, 2013), and the monographs Defending the Border: Identity, Religion, and Modernity in the Republic of Georgia (Cornell University Press, 2006) and Fragile Conviction: Changing Ideological Landscapes in Urban Kyrgyzstan (Cornell University Press, 2017).


[1] The rumour reminded me of one I heard in south-western Georgia which held that Muslim villagers would be given golden crosses if they would convert to Orthodox Christianity (Pelkmans 2006: 142-43).

[2] Comparing once more with religious conversion in post-Soviet Georgia, it is worth noting that Orthodox priests were untroubled by “opportunistic” conversions to Orthodox Christianity, as it would allow these converts’ children to be raised as Christians and thereby complete the conversion process started by their parents.