ALMATY, KAZAKHSTAN, February 2003
Within the frantic diplomacy over Iraq and the campaign on the War on Terror, one question is being repeatedly asked – to what extent is President George W Bush’s view of the Islamic world driven by his Christian beliefs. The attempt to spread Christianity and Western culture through developing countries has long been an issue of debate.
I was waiting for Doug Boyle to pick me up and had just come off the phone to a series of American evangelical Christian missionaries, all of whom, here in Kazakhstan didn’t want to talk about what they were doing.
‘I’d prefer not,’ a softly spoken pastor had said. ‘It could close me down.’
The guests around me in the hotel lobby were from the shifting populations of the old Soviet Empire, citizens from anywhere between Vladivostok and the Baltic, who once lived under the same system of government, but now, like the American pastor, were feeling their way as new rules emerged.
I picked up snatches of conversations. They were like lines from a black and white movie script about erratic train travel, money exchange and exit visas.
Then Doug Boyle drew up, tires skidding on the snow. He flung open the passenger door, and as soon as I got in showed himself to be from a different world altogether, a driven man with a vision.
‘You’ve heard about the clash of civilizations?’ he said, cutting skillfully through the Almaty traffic to get to the road he needed. ‘Well there is a clash. The Muslims have a different way of thinking. They don’t have the social structures to help people like we do.’
Doug was an Australian, A Queenslander from the beaches around Brisbane, a hippy in his young days, now a reformed heroin addict and born again Christian who runs rehabilitation centers for drug users in Kazakhstan.
Before getting here, I discovered that the world of the evangelical Christian was almost as strange and shadowy as that of the secret agent. Communications are coded. No e-mail, for example, can contain the word ‘missionary’. Telephone conversations are cryptic. I also learnt that Kazakhstan had one of the biggest take-up rates of Christian converts in post Cold War world.
And there lies the friction.
The authoritarian government of Kazakhstan takes a dim view of religious extremism of any kind. Its methods get tacit approval internationally because of the way it goes after Islamic extremism. But the idea of Christian missionaries forging a path through the Muslim world with swathes of converts in their wake is equally unpalatable because it could create a political time-bomb.
We came to a village outside of Almaty and turned into a high-walled compound. ‘The mosque’s just behind here,’ said Doug changing down gear and pointing to his right.
There was a squat, oblong village hall which used to be run by the local Imam, but had been handed over to Doug for a drug rehabilitation centre. Tagged onto the back of it, was the very basic village mosque, barely identifiable from the drab building itself – certainly not a place of gold leaf and minarets.
‘What a mess this was when we got it. All the windows broken,’ said Doug. ‘It had just been left to rot.’
As we went inside, we were met by a burst of singing. A couple of dozen men, swayed from side to side, arms in the air, eyes closed, voices full and smiles stretched across their faces which had been creased and worn by lives of prison, crime and drugs.
Behind them was a row of desks. Pushed up against a wall were their bunk beds and smell of sweet tea came from a kitchen tucked away to one side. At one end of the room, was a writing board from which they were learning English.
Arman, the camp leader, himself a reformed addict, stepped over to shake hands. Doug’s eyes shifted between him and me. Part of Doug wanted to tell all about what he was he doing. Part knew that he had to hold back.
‘My relatives consider themselves Muslims,’ said Arman. ‘But at the same time they are smoking, drinking and doing terrible things. Now, through my life, they can see that Jesus is alive and that God has made me a successful man.’
The door opened and a small figure in a robe and skull cap, back-lit by the sun, stood hesitantly until Arman welcomed him in. He was the village Imam. He looked barely out of his teens, a child when the Soviet Union collapsed, his confidence as precarious as his education. He ran the mosque attached to the back of the building.
‘Could we come and see it,’ I asked.
The Imam turned to Arman for guidance.
‘Best not,’ said Arman, speaking for him. ‘He needs to clean it up.’
‘What do you think of Christianity?’ I asked.
‘I think it’s very good,’ said the Imam. ‘I have a friend who is a Christian.’
He looked at Doug and his converts with a mixture of innocence and awe. Then, he said good-bye and left.
On the way back, Doug told me his long term vision. ‘In the West, the legal system is built on Christian values and the idea of democracy and institutions and universities and Oxford and Cambridge – all of those were started by Christian ministers. And that’s what I plan to do here. It’ll take me another ten years, but it’ll be done. I’ll build a university. You just see.’
He stopped in front of the hotel and crushed my hand in a vice-like grip. ‘Good to meet, you, Humphrey,’ he said and in his expression there was no hesitation at all in who he was and what he would achieve.