Discovering a Sense of Well-Being through the Revival of Islam: Profiles of Kazakh Imams in Western Mongolia
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Throughout Central Asia, the end of communism has been marked by a significant change in the management and influence of local mosques. In many rural areas, small underground mosques operated by informally trained, elderly moldadar have been supplanted by newly constructed mosques, led by younger, foreign-educated local imamdar and financed by governmental and private donations from Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and other countries. From several perspectives, this “revival” of Islam is characterized in a way that implies that increased religiosity and piety is somewhat problematic. In this essay, we argue that such an approach prevents an understanding of how religious changes are enhancing the spiritual, social and material well-being of certain actors. We explore the utility of the concept of well-being by focusing on the everyday lives of Kazakh imamdar in western Mongolia. Approximately 100,000 ethnic Kazakhs live in the western Mongolian province of Bayan-Olgii, where they comprise about 80% of the population. Although a significant portion of the population has been migrating to Kazakhstan in the post-socialist period, the Kazakhs who choose to remain in Mongolia have experienced a significant increase in religious freedom. In this context, the new cohort of imamdar are playing an important mediating role as members of the local population reinterpret and renegotiate their identity as Muslims. In addition to finding spiritual well-being through their knowledge of Islam, these imamdar are acquiring social status and economic security from their positions as local religious leaders. This essay is based on six months of ethnographic fieldwork in western Mongolia.