The model of state-religion relations: what is a choice for the post-Soviet Central Asia?

One of the results of the Soviet atheistic period is a confusing even substitution of concepts pertinent to the state-religion relations. Let alone politicians and journalists, sometimes experts and academicians confuse the concepts such as secularism and laicism, secularism as a constitutional norm and secularist ideology.

It is not only logically incorrect but it is fraught with the danger of violating the basic human rights to interpret secularism as an ideology to be imposed on the citizens. In fact, “secularism as an ideology” imposing a particular kind of life-style and world view neither a constitutional principle nor a political goal in any Central Asian country. However, because of the confusing the secularism as a constitutional norm and secularist ideology (which employed by the ‘secularist state’) and unawareness about the existence of different models of secularism, a number of problems concerning the freedom of conscience and religion may emerge in the region’s countries.

In today’s world the main criterion of determining an appropriate model of state-religion relations ought to be the goal of protection of human rights.

In general, secularism models can be categorized as ‘assertive’ versus ‘passive’ or ‘combative’ versus ‘pluralistic’ secularisms. While ‘assertive’ secularism which, more correctly, can be depicted as ‘laicism’ excludes religion from the public sphere and confines it to the private domain, ‘passive’ secularism allows for the public visibility of religion[1]. Secularism as a constitutional norm governing the state-religion relations obliges the state to be neutral toward religion and secular life-styles, whereas secularism as an ideology which is adopted by ‘secularist state” by its very nature is antireligious. In short, constitutionally secular state cannot impose any secular or any religious view on its citizens. All Central Asian countries are constitutionally ‘secular’ but not ‘secularist.

In today’s world the main criterion of determining an appropriate model of state-religion relations ought to be the goal of protection of human rights. In view of this fact, the post-Soviet Central Asian countries are expected to develophuman rights-friendly’ passive model of secularism while not compromising fighting against religious radicalism.

Passive secularism can be seen, on the one hand, as a way of preventing from imposing any state religion or secularist ideology on citizens, and on the other hand, as a way of guaranteeing the religious freedoms and liberties of believers, including religious minorities, since the state adopted ‘passive secularism’ is not anti-religious but guarantees religious freedoms and liberties both in private and public life.

It is worth to underline, that in stark contrast to the conventional perception of secularism in many Muslim countries (which tend to be perceived as ‘ir-religiosity’) a majority of the people in Central Asia do not regard secularism as ‘anti-religious’.

Public visibility of religion is important for post-Soviet societies as they all abandoned to a great degree the atheism-based ‘code’ of Soviet regime. Second, Islam in Central Asian societies expected to increase its influence as Muslims of the region are eager to repair their identity ‘shaken’ during Soviet period. Consequently, the model of state-religion relations in the region is expected not only guarantee the indispensible rights such as the freedom of conscience and freedom of religion as but also to accept the visibility of religion in public sphere and its role in shaping public morality. It seems important for ruling elites in Central Asian countries to make a ‘civic contract’ with Islam in the public sphere, first, to solve the problem of politicization of religion and radicalism (as the more religion is threatened by hostile secularism and expelled from public sphere the more political religion becomes) and, second, to build stable and inclusive society.

The assertions that the threat of religious radicalism in the region necessitates the imposition of assertive secularism seemed to be orientalistic and devoid of objective research on the nature and reasons of radicalism in the region.



[1] see for example, Ahmet T. Kuru (2007). “Passive and Assertive Secularism. Historical Conditions, Ideological Struggles and State Policies towards Religion,” World Politics, No 59.


Galym Zhussipbek

Independent Scholar, Almaty


PhD in International Relations, Ankara University

Masters and Bachelor degree in International Relations, Ankara University

Research Interests

EU and post-Soviet area

Regional integration

Orientalism, critical approach

Critical theories in IPE

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