Blog: A Glance at Central Asia through Post-Secular Lenses

Henrik Ohlsson Picture

In this contribution, Henrik Ohlsson draws on research conducted in post-Soviet central Asia to clarify what it means to be “post-secular”, arguing that this term is distinct from the idea of a “return to religion”.

Given that debate continues around the much contested terms “secular” and “secularisation”, it is perhaps unsurprising that the “post-secular”, contingent as it is on the former concepts, remains ambiguous. In this article, I argue that the “post-secular” is distinct from a “return to religion”.  Drawing on the work of Mustapha Kamal Pasha (2012), I suggest elements of a framework for studying and thinking about post-secularity, using the post-Soviet states in Central Asia as example cases.

Colonized by Russia in the 18th and 19th centuries, and subsequently part of the Soviet Union, post-Soviet Central Asia shares some historical experiences with other colonized regions. However, the long period of Soviet socialism sets the region apart, and the abrupt break with the Soviet system and its ideology adds another dimension to the region’s unique historical situation.

The term post-secular has mostly been used in relation to Western countries – societies assumed to be quite thoroughly secularized. In that context, the framework of post-secularity was developed as a critique of older theories, which tended to assume that secularization was an inevitable, one-way process. It was used as a framework to understand the continued presence and relevance of religion. However, the post-secular should not be confused with the pre-secular. It is not merely incomplete secularization, nor is it a “return to religion”. The post-secular develops in a landscape already transformed by secularization. Thus, it seems quite pointless to apply this terminology to parts of the world which have not passed through the same historical stages and processes as Western countries.

Mustapha Kamal Pasha (2012) has tried to widen the post-secular framework to include Muslim dominated parts of the world. He criticizes existing secularization narratives for essentializing Islam – portraying a singular Islam that resists modernity and struggles to return to age old customs. Instead of interpreting recent changes as a return to the religious, Pasha points to the rupture and displacement of religion in Muslim dominated countries in late modernity. He uses term rupture to refer to the discontinuity and breakdown in religious practice and tradition. Displacement refers to the ways in which religion is placed in relation to other spheres of life and society. Thus, displacement entails an ontological dislocation – a shift in the meaning of religion.

The post-Soviet territories may constitute a special case of post-secularity, due to the abruptness of the ideological and political changes that took place first in the revolution of 1917 and the following civil war, and later when the Soviet system collapsed. This collapse opened an ideological vacuum which is often described as having enabled a “religious revival”. However, this idea is dangerously close to the problematic idea of a “return to religion”. Using a post-secular framework, where the rupture and displacement of religion are taken into account, we can understand the developments after the collapse of the Soviet Union in a more multidimensional way.

Applying this framework in discourse analysis, we can direct our attention to the meaning, contextual placement, and historical continuities and discontinuities of words like “religion”. The very fact that the concept “religion” is widely used in post-Soviet states, in colloquial as well as official language, is an indication of the secularization process the region has gone through.  Secularization takes place in, and is evidenced by, language.  As the term “religion” is used, the concept becomes distinguished from other spheres of life.  From this perspective, we can talk of a post-secular turn when “religion” has already become a distinct concept, and then we observe significant shifts in its meaning, role and status.

The Russian colonization of Central Asia in the 18th and 19th centuries, and the Soviet era in the 20th, had an enormous impact on religious life in the region – a rupture, in the terminology used here – causing discontinuities in religious practice and religious memory. In the course of the Soviet era, the official strategy changed, ranging from efforts to eradicate religion, to the incorporation of religious structures in the state apparatus on a central as well as on a local level. Thus, the rupture caused a displacement and, through this, a redefinition of religion.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Central Asian governments all had to develop new strategies for coping with religion. On the one hand, these governments had recently been part of the staunchly secular Soviet political culture. On the other, they saw a need for new unifying identity factors in the nation building process. Their strategies ranged from embracing traditional Sunni Islam in an officially approved version (as seen most clearly in Uzbekistan, where the government draws heavily on the country’s past as a centre of Islamic civilization), to assigning cult status to the leader’s person (as in Turkmenistan, where quotes from Saparmurat Niyazov’s own spiritual writings are chiseled on the portal to the capital’s main mosque). Some parts of the region have attempted to rejuvenate pre-Islamic religious traditions, such as Zoroastrianism.

In the course of conducting research for my Master’s thesis, I examined secondary school textbooks in Kazakhstan – officially approved teaching materials. I found attempts to accommodate religion in culture and society, assigning to it a continuously important and positive role in societal and cultural development.

This positive accommodation stands in contrast to the way in which religion is handled by the judicial system:  Kazakhstani courts uphold a strict separation between religion and politics, a pattern inherited from the Soviet Union. This is seen on a constitutional level as well as in criminal law, where restrictions on religious activities are increasingly severe.

A discourse analysis using the post-secular framework, in the way I have sketched it here, means paying attention to the (dis)placement and meaning of the word “religion” in different discourses (e.g. school textbooks, legal texts, and political rhetoric).  A comparative discourse analysis, involving material from different historical periods, could add a temporal dimension by observing ruptures (discontinuities) which have occurred gradually over time, or suddenly at particular historical moments.


Pasha, Mustapha Kamal, 2012. Islam and the postsecular, Review of International Studies, 38(5), pp.1041-1056.

Henrik Ohlsson holds an MA in History of religions from Stockholm University. He specializes in the Central Asian region, and is co-founder of the think-tank Eurasia Forum:


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