The Chance for Civil Society in Central Asia or the Role of Islamic Movements in Shaping Political Modernity

By Ban, Ioana | Romanian Journal of Political Science, Winter 2006 | Go to article overview
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The Chance for Civil Society in Central Asia or the Role of Islamic Movements in Shaping Political Modernity


Ban, Ioana, Romanian Journal of Political Science


Abstract:

The aim of this paper is to analyze the theoretical and practical underpinnings for a potentially beneficial role that religion can play in strengthening counter-authoritarian groups and civil society in Central Asian states. Both fundamentalist and moderate standings on compatibility between religious practices, key Islamic sources, and pluralism are assessed. The present political situation in the five Central Asian states constitute a suggestive case study and show the need, as well as the opportunity, for religious channels of expression of dissident and opposition sentiments.

Key words: civil society, secularism, multiple modernities, Islam, Central Asia.

Soon two decades will have passed since the five Central Asian republics (1) gained their formal independence from the Soviet Union, and since they have embarked on the road to redefining or rediscovering their national and religious identities. The aim of this paper is to provide a theoretical analysis of the assumed role that Islam plays in mobilizing citizens across the region, and to point to favoring conditions, as well as obstacles, in assigning a political role for Islam. Therefore, this analysis will proceed from the wider debate on modernity, secularism, and Islam, and move towards the role religion may play in the peaceful mobilization of citizens in the context of an authoritarian past.

Discussing secularization

If viewed as a process, secularization points to a change in society's most basic principles of organization. Secularization can be a possible loss for society as a whole, since religious institutions can lose their social significance, and their role can become either substituted with a modern benchmark or suppressed entirely. As Wilson argues, "Religions ceases to be significant in the working of the social system" (2) in the wider context of a change from a community to association through the process of societalization.

Asad (3), taking this argument further, argues that the basic meaning and consequence of secularism is the transcended mediation it provides. More specifically, in a modern state citizenship is the primary principle that transcends the different identities built around class or religion. As John L. Esposito argues for the case of Turkey, this is not, however, an irreversible process (4). Moreover, it seems that in the 'modern' world secularism is not always the rule, (5) and therefore the entire body of literature written on the link between modernity, (6) the decline of religion in society, and the minds of individuals must me reconsidered. In the present paper, the meaning of secularization is a specific one, in which it means (7) not just that the state should be free from religion, but also that religion should be free from the state.

Central to understanding the role that religion can come to play within a modern democratic framework is the concept discussed by Taylor and Asad (8) of overlapping consensus. This concept allows for different reasons derived from different ethics to become integrated into the political arena. Only in this manner can the background justifications or the core philosophical underpinnings of religions be transcended in a way that would permit consensus across faiths and individuals. The question I ask, and try to answer in this paper, is the following: can Islamic revival in Central Asia be a sustainable way to challenge authoritarianism, (9) and therefore, can it help to reinforce secularism in these countries?

We must also reconsider the place religion is assigned to in these societies, since secularism as a doctrine requires that religion to be reduced to the so-called private sphere. I, however, would adopt the argument expressed by Asad that distinguishes between private space and private reason, where the latter is the "entitlement to difference, the immunity from the force of public reason" (10). The protection of a certain degree of difference can be considered a key ingredient in facilitating democratic debate.

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