Julie McBrien’s “Listening to the Wedding Speaker” provides a fascinating slice of social change in post-Soviet Central Asia (not just Southern Kyrgyzstan)—the transformation of the traditionally secular wedding ceremony into an Islamically framed event. After providing the historical and social context of southern Kyrgyz weddings, McBrien presents a number of her informants’ diverse views about the place of Islam in wedding ceremonies, views ranging from very pious to religiously curious to suspicious of religion. Fortunately, McBrien does not make the mistake of claiming that “new,” or Islamic, weddings as they exist today are necessarily the future model for all Southern Kyrgyzstani weddings. Her more nuanced discussion makes clear that wedding ceremonies in general are very much a post-Soviet work in progress and even implies that a process of diversification of ceremonial forms is underway. In providing a human dimension—encompassing doubt and conviction, motivation and resistance, adaptation and choice—McBrien makes a refreshing contribution to the literature on Islamic religiosity in Central Asia in the post-Soviet period. The article examines a range of both static and dynamic attitudes toward religiously oriented weddings—one of the few public venues in Central Asia where both Muslim males and females can explore religiosity and renegotiate the meaning of formerly rigid Soviet-defined categories of religion and culture.
The decision to attend Islamic weddings, as opposed to the more traditional secular ones, varies from person to person. It is clear, however, that state politics (and much scholarship) categorise Muslims as either mainstream or extremist. Wedding, circumcision, and funereal gatherings constitute one important social form that is open to negotiation, despite the fact that the region’s governments periodically attempt to crack down on these events, ostensibly to alleviate the social pressure Central Asians feel to throw an extravagant party that leaves many families in extreme debt. In fact, the popularity of Islamic weddings is seen by most Central Asian governments as a threat because the weddings are often turned into forums, like Friday prayer at mosques, in which ideas, including those critical of the government, can be propagated to large numbers of people. The article does not address government concerns, but McBrien does show that what people take from these events is more than just the message the religious speaker wishes them to hear. Some Muslims perceive these weddings as the freedom to learn about Islam and even to engage in debates about their religion (e.g., the member of the extremist organisation Hizb al-Tahrir who debates the imam during a question and answer session). Others perceive Islamic weddings negatively as efforts to proselytise and pressure people to be more religious and act in certain ways. The issue of social pressure to conform to some(one’s) construction of what is normative behaviour—e.g., whether weddings should be seen as cultural events or as forums on Islam—is one that needs to be researched further in the Central Asian context and in Islamic societies in general. While oppression often begets oppression, Julie McBrien’s article reminds us that, for some people anyway, there are also spaces of liberation within oppressive societies.