Secularism and Religion: Where Is the Borderline?

Christianity, as Robert Kennedy wrote in one of his unpublished papers, resolved the challenge of separating the secular and the religious. By the 17th century, he wrote, Christians basically accepted on a conceptual level the transcending sphere of divine law. However, it is important that they also came to recognize and accept the existence of a sphere of natural law operating within the sphere of divine law. The immediacy of God's existence in medieval theology and canon law was eroded as a result to the following point of view: “The divine right of kings” means that the king is free to do as he wishes. Authority (and thus the concept of the legitimacy of authority) was therefore not focused on the “donor of the authority,” but the representative who has it. This growing division between the spiritual and secular spheres was reinforced by the subsequent secularization of a ruler’s authority. 

The obvious result in the history of Christianity is the destruction of an integral identity with the subsequent invention of a new one within the framework of the ever-widening dichotomy of the secular and religious life of the people and the subsequent “soft” and sometimes “critical” individualization of human interests. The alignment of the hierarchy of individual, group and state interests subsequently began to take place in a different system of political, economic and social coordinates, importantly, now without reference to Higher Reason. The development of states and societies in certain segments of the Christian world was also carried out through a number of system-forming revolutions, as well as in line with particular necessarily irreligious “corridors” that set the stage for the emergence of democracy. 

Was the secularism in Christian countries predetermined by that very “divine law” and does it function within the latter, or does secularism still have to deny religion in favour of atheism? After all, deep down, secularism means a kind of “unequal equality” with religion, but not freedom from religion. Can a secular state be independent of any religious influence? Christian countries, however, recognize that a secular person can be religious. 

Islam took a different road in its development, which is evidenced by non-recognition by Muslims of an alternative, or secular, identification model of the political, economic and social life of the people, not to mention everyday activities, marriage, children rearing, etc. 

“Islam is not only a religious system that concentrates dogmatism and cult, but also represents a set of principles and rules that underlie the organization and activities of the authorities, as well as regulate the behavior of Muslims. The status of a Muslim includes two interrelated parts: his rights and duties as a believer and simultaneously as a participant in worldly relations. The interaction between the religious and the secular, the irrational and the rational, the spiritual and the material, and the internal and the external is a crucial precept in Islamic law (Sharia, fiqh), which is only partially included in Islam as religion and acts primarily as legal standards in the individual’s worldly behaviour.” [1]

But it is also clear that in a number of Muslim states we see a parallel functioning of European (Christian?) law, European (Christian?) culture and public administration systems, and even adherence to certain European (Christian?) values. 

Many political and public figures in Muslim countries lean toward modernist ideas, such as first President of Egypt Gamal Abdel Nasser. “Nasser believed that you needed to “give to God what is God’s, and to Caesar what is Caesar’s.” Opposing the “fundamentalism” of the Muslim Brotherhood, Nasser viewed Islam as an important element in the construction of a new (importantly) secular state in Egypt [2]. I believe that there could be no other way: in this case, I refer to the initial paragraphs of this paper on parallel identification (secular and religious) models, or rather, their absence in Islamic political culture. 

What, in this sense, is happening in the Central Asian states, in particular, in Kyrgyzstan? I believe, first, it is necessary to give assessment to the most important events. Most pundits and experts speak convincingly about the growing “re-Islamization” of the region. We should probably agree with that with certain reservations. I just want to understand: who or what is the source and the driver behind this process? Is it a process launched from outside the region? Or is it a self-initiated autochthonous phenomenon? If the source of this process is outside Central Asia, who is the driving force – the actual carriers or some kind of repeaters? 

Second, the political and socioeconomic situation in Central Asia has a major effect on important processes such as building a national state, forming self-identification and creating national society. In this context, the following is an important matter. Is the re-Islamization of the country a forcible replacement for communism (primarily, in terms of ideology), or is it a separate but long-awaited process? 

In this context, it is important to look at the experience of some of our neighbors, of course, taking into account some ethnic and other features, in particular, within the limits of forming legal, political and economic national spaces, which is one of the foundations for building national statehood. 

Professor Francesco Zannini, who is considered one of the most respected experts in the field of Islamic law, writes: “I often tell my students that there is more than one Sharia in Afghanistan – there are several varieties of Sharia tied to the traditions of various ethnic and tribal groups in Afghanistan.” [3] I offer this text with a request to focus on the role of traditions in forming legal constructs. In this regard, one should recognize that postcommunism – a highly complicated and intricate blend of everything, which also clearly contains relics of Soviet law – is one of the most influential momentum-driven worldview traditions in today's Central Asia, including Kyrgyzstan. The question is whether re-Islamization is going through a sieve of shaky post-Soviet constructs in the process of shaping the worldview of the citizens of the newly independent states, or not? 

We are seeing similar situations in some Central Asian countries, where the matters of “secularity” and “Islamicity” have become more pronounced. The experience of these countries shows that Islam, in general, is slowly “outplaying” secular society in one critically important battle which is socialization. Hence, the impotent and desperate bans on wearing beards, hijabs and niqabs and other supposedly Muslim identifiers. Clearly, a balance of “secularity” and “religiosity” is possible only if the secular and religious benchmarks within the state-civil society-individual trifecta are equal. All three parts are important in shaping the balance of value standards and capacities, as well as in carrying out any related reforms.


1. Leonid Syukiyaynen. On the Legal Nature of the Sharia and its Interaction with European Law // Islam in the post-Soviet space. A look from the inside. Moscow: 2001. p. 15.

2. Aleksei Borisov. The role of Islam in the domestic and foreign policy of Egypt. 20th century. Moscow: 1991. p. 80.

3. CentrAsia [].

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.