Toby A. Cox
Uniting a Community to Protect, Educate, and Define a Region’s Narrative
In a newly built brown and green building on the outskirts of Bishkek, a team of young professionals are united under a common mission.
Through education, these young professionals fight back against misinformation about Islam and the stereotypes that haunt Muslims across the globe, while also tirelessly advocating for a moderate form of Islam that can exist harmoniously with Kyrgyz culture and tradition.
This team of journalists, photographers, and designers was brought together by a woman named Eliana, who recognized the demand for accessible, factual information about Islam but lack of supply.
She sought to create a source of accurate and accessible information that would reach out to Muslims, especially young Muslims throughout Central Asia but never expected her solution would turn into a community.
Although Eliana Satar was born in Moscow, her earliest childhood memories are from living with her grandfather in a village in Jalalabad. Her grandfather was religious and introduced her to Islam.
“My grandfather was a Muslim man and practiced Islam at home. In the south, people tend to be more religious – they prayed, fasted, and read the Quran. When I was a little girl, my grandfather taught me. He had to hide his religion – he worked as the village’s accountant in the local government.”
During this time, the Soviet Union prohibited the practice of religion, restricting people’s access to information about Islam. When Eliana was 5, her parents returned from Moscow, and they moved to Bishkek.
“I stopped practicing for a while – we moved to Bishkek and the north had no information about Islam. All of the schools and teachers were secular,” Eliana said.
After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, religion returned to Kyrgyzstan and around this time, Eliana found herself drawn to Islam. As she was discovering her own religious identity, however, she noticed something severely lacking in Kyrgyzstan: accessible information about Islam.
“I got inspired traveling in different countries and seeing magazines that were beautiful and easy to understand …I wanted to create this kind of product here,” Eliana said. “People were hungry for this kind of information.”
Thus, Umma magazine was born - a publication that seeks to educate young Muslims and combat extremism.
“The year I was creating the magazine there were terrorist organizations taking hold of young generations looking for information online. The information provided by these terrorist organization was incorrect and made them vulnerable to these types of organizations.”
Eliana was concerned that young Muslims were vulnerable and susceptible to being drawn-in by these organization because of the lack of religious education in Kyrgyzstan. She said that at the time, most of the information they had about Islam were books and academic articles that were difficult for people outside of academia to understand.
Through Umma Magazine, she wanted to make correct information about Islam more accessible.
“I wanted to enlighten young Muslims by giving them access to the ‘right’ information that would help them find the right path, see that Islam is about doing good things, and that it can be both modern and modest.”
So, what is this “right” information? For Eliana, it’s all about moderation, fact-checking, and balance.
“We wanted to encourage Muslims to study Islam but other areas as well – It’s not just about being Muslim – you should know other areas as well,” she said, “I also wanted to unite other nationalities in Kyrgyzstan to motivate youth Muslims to be active members of society.”
Eliana combined this goal and her need for staff by recruiting young Muslim professionals educated in Islam and also journalism, graphic design, photography, and videography.
“The goal was not only to find professionals, but to find young Muslims who had potential so that they could show that young Muslims have potential and can do a lot more than people think they can. The staff is young and are given the opportunity to grow while working with Umma.”
What started as a magazine in 2015, grew into a community.
“I wanted to unite our Muslims and [the word] Umma means global Muslim community – this is why I named it Umma, to unite people,” Eliana said.
Another goal of Umma and the community it grew, is to combat stereotypes of Muslims in the world and region.
“Many people here in Central Asia believe that Muslims are uneducated people who just practice religion and follow foreign rules,” Eliana said. “Through different spiritual and cultural events, we want to show people that Muslims are modern, modest, and do good things.”
Eliana said there is an information war waging – terrorist organizations pose a threat by spreading false information to young generations of Muslims, trying to recruit them. To her, education and making sure accurate information outnumbers the false is key to protecting and empowering Muslim youth. For young Muslims, she said there are three main challenges.
“The biggest challenge is the danger of the terrorist organizations and the information war. The second is Islamophobia and the third is that the Muslim community here wants to be included in society, not divided from those who are not Muslim [but they don’t know how.”
Umma acknowledges these challenges by spreading accurate information about Islam, by being inclusive of not only Muslim, but non-Muslims throughout Kyrgyzstan, and by showing up in society, however needed – in parks cleaning trash, in the elderly homes serving food, and outside of shopping centers giving food to the homeless.
Eliana continues to grow Umma, now having sold 3,000+ copies of the magazine and a huge social media following. Providing accessible and accurate information is still her number one priority.