November 22, 2001 - Petaluma Press Democrat: Uzbekistan gave meaning to religious freedom to ex-Peace Corps Volunteer

Peace Corps Online: Peace Corps News: Headlines: Peace Corps Headlines - 2001: 11 November 2001 Peace Corps Headlines: November 22, 2001 - Petaluma Press Democrat: Uzbekistan gave meaning to religious freedom to ex-Peace Corps Volunteer

By Admin1 (admin) on Monday, November 26, 2001 - 10:25 am: Edit Post

Read this story from the Petaluma Press Democrat about a returned volunteer from Uzbekistan at:

Uzbekistan gave meaning to religious freedom to ex-Peace Corps Volunteer


Nov 22, 2001 - Press Democrat Author(s): Sam Kennedy The Press Democrat

Marilyn Petersen will sit down for Thanksgiving dinner today with her sister in Petaluma and a newfound thanks for this country's religious freedom.

Her thoughts will turn to Uzbekistan, where she served as a Peace Corps volunteer from 1997 to 2000 and where now no volunteers serve because of the fallout from the Sept. 11 attacks on America.

In Uzbekistan, religious freedom was a foreign concept.

One day, in an English class Petersen taught at Bukhara State University, a discussion on religious freedom turned personal. A student, the only female wearing the traditional veil, found herself on the defensive against classmates who accused her of propagating Islamic extremism.

Petersen, 62, came to the young woman's aid even though the school's dress code banned veils. Women can wear veils in the United States, Petersen explained to students eager to hear more about the distant superpower, because Americans enjoy religious freedom.

In much of Uzbekistan, one of three Afghanistan-neighboring countries from which the Peace Corps evacuated volunteers shortly after Sept. 11, fear of Taliban-style extremism is such that many moderate Muslims scorn the veil and other outward trappings of their faith.

Petersen recoiled from that prejudice. But, during 3 1/2 years in Central Asia, even she felt mixed emotions.

"I can't say they're right, because I really believe in religious freedom, but I could understand their concerns," she said.

Most Uzbeks are moderate Muslims. "They try to follow their religion between drinks," Petersen said.

But that majority lives in fear of Muslims linked to the Taliban. Their fear quickly spiraled into paranoia after six car bombs exploded outside the government's headquarters Feb. 17, 1999, just a day after Petersen traveled through the capital.

Petersen otherwise lived simply in the warmth of her Uzbek host family. She focused on teaching and her secondary project: collecting Uzbek folklore and translating it into English.

The collection was published last year in a book that Uzbek English teachers now use as a teaching aid. "I know that children learn best when it relates to something they already know," said Petersen, now a substitute teacher in Petaluma and Marin.

No wonder, then, that Petersen's university students struggled to grasp religious freedom. They just couldn't relate.

The student Petersen had defended was eventually expelled for wearing her veil to class.

You can reach Staff Writer Sam Kennedy at 521-5312 or

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