Friends over fears in Kyrgyzstan

October 12, 2001|By David Huwiler

BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan - Bishkek remains peaceful, but there are moments of tension.

My anxiety increased appreciably at a little past 1 on Monday morning when the U.S. Embassy phoned to tell me that "U.S. and other forces" have begun attacking locations in Afghanistan, the border of which is less than 60 miles from southern Kyrgyzstan (pronounced keer-ghi-STON). I was further advised to "maintain as low a public profile as possible" and to "remain at home for the time being."

There are other signs of worry here.

Significant numbers of Americans have left the country, a former Soviet republic. The Peace Corps has pulled out all of its volunteers. At the American University of Kyrgyzstan, the Civic Education Project, or CEP, a Soros-funded program that provides Western faculty to universities in the former Soviet Union, ordered its six fellows to leave at once.

Little things put one on edge.

At a local English-style pub, armed guards check patrons as they enter. A Russian cab driver asked whether I intended to stay in Bishkek. When I replied that I did, he commented, "Nastoyashi Muzhshina" - "a real man." It is unsettling to know that locals think that it takes unusual courage for an American to remain in Central Asia.

Yet to most people here, the danger seems remote, unreal. Since the breakup of the former Soviet Union, Kyrygzstan has been considered an island of freedom and democracy. The country feels warm, hospitable and open. Most Americans who live here have apparently decided to remain. Four of the six CEP fellows who were ordered to evacuate refused. Terminated by CEP, they stayed as American University employees, and they continue to work for a ridiculously small local salary. It feels safe here in this Central Asian Islamic republic.

The sense of security undoubtedly is due in large part to the overwhelming support of the local population. The Westerners who live here feel safe because they have come to understand that Islam is not a monolith. Many local Muslims consider themselves devout, yet the Islam that is practiced here is tolerant and gentle.

Drinking in moderation is not forbidden, and fermented mare's milk is universally consumed among Kyrgyz. I have never seen a chador in Kyrgyzstan. Female attire is, if anything, less conservative than in the United States. Public displays of affection are not at all uncommon. A stone's throw from the local mosque is the Steinbrau, a popular German pub.

But more to the point, the local Muslim community is appalled by the acts of terror in New York and Washington, and they go out of their way to express support and sympathy to Americans. It was evening here Sept. 11 when the attacks took place.

When I arrived on campus in the morning, I was met by a large group of students who had raised an American flag and who arrived at the university early in order to express condolences to Americans as they came to work. A large placard, signed by individual students, read, "We are mourning with you."

A group of local students watching CNN in our cafeteria spontaneously joined with members of Congress in singing "God Bless America."

For those who don't live here, it must be difficult to imagine a group of Islamic students in a former Soviet republic singing "God Bless America." For those of us who know them, it is not at all surprising.

These kids are part of that shadowy Islamic world that is so misunderstood, feared and sometimes hated in the West.

Even as America and its allies go to war in Afghanistan, there are many in the Islamic world who are doing all they can to support the effort to end terror. They, too, have been victims of this international blight. And there are many Americans, both at home and abroad, who fervently hope that their country conducts its war against terror in a way that will not turn these very good friends into enemies.

David Huwiler, on leave from Champlain College in Burlington, Vt., as vice president for academic affairs, is president of the American University of Kyrgyzstan.

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