Religious secularism in central Asia

The article reviews the Western academic literature on the history of development and the modern role of Islam and other religiousand ethnic issues in Central Asia, with a particular emphasis on the Republics of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. A novel concept of ‘religious secularism’ is introduced in application to the role of Islam in Central Asian politics of national identity. The securitization of Islam and threat of fundamentalism is identified as one of the major issues in the region and, in fact, the entire world as the example of the ISIS in the Middle East demonstrates over the past couple of years. 

Today, hardly anyone would dispute that religious and national identity are vital for understanding social phenomena around the world. However, it was not always so, and both concepts were significantly underappreciated by the mainstream studies of International Relations (IR) for a long period of time, especially during the Cold War period when most scholars in the field were exclusively concerned with the security matters of nation-states with the emphasis on ‘state’ part. This is quite peculiar oversight becomes even more puzzling given the evidence of the rise of national movements and religious sentiment in vast areas of the world that have consequently obtained statehood during the process of decolonization. Only by the end of the super-power stand- off, a few scholars have ‘rediscovered’ the importance of nationalism and religion; most notably, Benedict Anderson (1991)1 and Ernest Gellner (1983) for the former and controversial Huntington’s thesis (1993) for the latter.

The above is intended not to argue that there was no discussion of nationalor religious identity; in fact, there were scholars who looked into these issues as early as 19th century – Ernest Renan comes to mind (1996). The trouble is that the mainstream theories of IR mostly assumed or implied existence of nations without questioning the ultimate causes and ways in which such extraordinarily strong feelings of community have emerged. Religion was ignored in a similar fashion, delegated to the private sphere of individual psyche.

This paper aims to introduce the concept of religious secularism in application to the role of Islam in Central Asia. First, a classification of religious studies is offered. Then, it will be applied to analyze the history of evolution of Islam in Central Asia and its current status in the region in order to identity the main issues that these states are facing. The major purpose of this paper is to demonstrate how various approaches and theoretical concepts of the role of religion in politics to discuss the ways to analyze and find possible solutions to issues of identity and religion. Religious secularism is one of the may possible explanations for the processes of identity formation in Central Asia and there many other competing ethnic, national and religious narratives that have a very significant impact on the political, cultural and even economic development of this region.

1. Classifying Approaches to the Study of Religion

A brief classification of the studies of the role of religion in human communities might be useful to understand the breadth and depth of the field. First off, studies of religious identity have a great overlap with those of nationalism: both address the issues of identity on many planes, and yet the two are not necessarily identical, in fact, one frequently competes with another. The latter, for example, is evident in the Irish struggle against British Empire which took on later religious undertones that ultimately split the Irish ethnicity along the religious boundaries which to this day suggesting that religion might become a significant obstacle for creating national unity(Michael Collins, 1996).

Just like in nationalism literature, the studies of religion display the same problem of defining the subject of inquiry. How one approaches this issue fluctuates from one study of religion to another:some studies avoid defining religion altogether and focus instead on how religion is reflected in the society, calling such interaction ‘religiousity’ (Norris & Inglehart, 2004);others offer a very inclusive and wide definition of religion, for example, Williamson suggests that religion is “an explanation of the meaning of life and how to live accordingly” (Williamson, 1990, p. 244).The outcome is again similar: the study of religion is greatly hampered by such ‘terminological chaos,’ not to mention by the traditional marginalization of religion in academic studies.

Furthermore, the classifications of the studies of religion, as scarce as they are, vary as they are developed to augment different approaches to analyzing religion. Norris and Inglehart, for example, define two major schools, the opponents in the secularization debate. On the one side are functionalists, whose school was founded by Weber and Durkheim, predicting an eventual demise of religion due to it being outmoded and replaced by various social institutions of the modern state. On the other – rationalist theory of religious markets, proposed by Finke, Stark, Iannoccone, Bainbridge and Warner, who suggest that while old religious faiths may be eroded, they will not be replaced by secular institutions but by proliferating faiths that compete with each other and other social institutions for the loyalty of the believers(Norris & Inglehart, 2004). In the context of Norris and Inglehart volume, such classification is very convenient, highlighting their core argument of supply- vs demand-side explanations of religious affiliation. However, in other studies, it may not be as suitable due to the fact the two classes Norris and Inglehart identify are too broad, and yet do not include other types of studies of religion that might be important for different research purposes, as they are in this paper.

Therefore, another classification of the academic approaches to understanding religion is needed. The goals in the paper are to examine the interplay between religion and national identity in the newly independent states of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, and just like the classification of nationalism literature, the classification of the studies of religion is designed to focus on these issues, in particular, the focus is on how religion affects communal identity in each of the following schools of thought:

  1. Constructivist. This approach views religion as an essential social construct, designed to fit existing conditions and serve a particular purpose accordingly. The application of intersubjectivity and constructed nature of values and norms to explain the role of religion and culture in international relations by Scott Thomas as well as other authors in the Petito and Hatzopoulos volume is one excellent example of such approach (Thomas, 2003). There are no permanent conceptions of good and bad, in culture or religion or international relations, such things are determined in the process of intersubjective construction on the basis of “the assumptions of liberal modernity” (Thomas, 2003, 40). Thus, even religion and its claim for being the moral ground for all are not based in divine will but in this intersubjective process of constructing such norms and values.
  2. Functionalist. According to this approach, religion has a specific purpose, fulfilling a need of humans for understanding the world and filling in the blanks in human Norris and Inglehart, as mentioned above, identified two major proponents of functionalist understanding of religion - Weber and Durkheim. Both, in essence, argue that religion serves an important role in a community by providing a system of beliefs and ideas (Weber) as well as “a system of actions involving rituals … [that] played essential functions for society as a whole” (Norris & Inglehart, 2004, p. 9). Hence, functionalist theory predicts eventual secularization of human society: as it develops, other social institutions are created to provide the same services that religion once was a sole provider of, thus eliminating the need for religion.
  3. This approach purports that each religion or denomination has a permanent and unalterable core system of beliefs and values of timeless character. Essentialists view religion just like perennialists see nationalism, however, the difference between them is that essentialists do not seek to identify the roots of religion, instead, they essentialize its origins and its message. Huntington’s theory of the Clash of Civilizations treats religion as a fixed element in the international system with clearly defined and essential boundaries that identify each civilization as unique and separate from another one(Huntington, 1993).
  4. Under this approach, religion provides an essential service to society, providing a long established set of rules and norms of behavior that benefit the society as a whole. According to this approach, the functionalist views about religion being outdated or constructivist argument for the intersubjective nature of religious values are vigorously challenged and importance of religion in the modern world is re-asserted as a necessary check against the extreme relativism and lack of moral fiber in the given society. While this is not a school identified in the scholarly debate about the role of religion in the society as a legitimate academic approach, even a part of the study for the academia, fundamentalist are still involved in the debate about the role of religion in society on a very basic level.Juergensmeyer’s volume highlights the desire of fundamentalists to be heard, even through violence (Juergensmeyer, 2000). Maybe the medium they choose is not very academic, but indirectly, fundamentalists are trying to speak to others, maybe not always intentionally, but their actions do communicate a certain message toa large audience, certainly to the scholars who attempt to understand and analyze the causes of such actions.

Perhaps, such a classification stretches the conventional wisdom about what constitutes scholarship and what does not. However, for the purposes of this paper it is important to see what are the major schools of thought about the role of religion in formation of identity, its impact on the society, and as such, all fourapproaches as outlined above are important. Together, the two proposed classifications offer a fairly structured approach to understanding the role of national and religious identity, respectively, and will be helpful to understand the role of both phenomena in nation-building efforts of the newly independent states of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

2.     Religious Identity of Central Asia

As it has been mentioned, Central Asia was the Muslim part of Soviet Union. Most theorists who addressed issues of identity of the region approached the issue of religion there from an essentialist point of view, lumping together the highly diverse ethnically, culturally and even religiously societies into the notion not very different from that of Turkestan. It is true; Islam did arrive into the region a long time ago, becoming a dominant religion 8th century AD with the expansion of Arab caliphates well into what today is Central Asia, making it one of the major centers of Muslim world (Gunn, 2003, p. 390). However, not unlike many other Muslim territories, Islam was ‘localized’ in the region, infusing local culture with elements of religious beliefs and taking on characteristics specific to the people at that locale without necessarily making them connected to the global Muslim community. Many scholars of the region observe that Islam is very much at the core of Central Asian identity (Malik 1992, Gunn 2003, Khalid 2007) but many of them miss the fact that this fact does not necessarily translate into a greater degree of religiosity among the residents, probably due to the obscurity of the region in general and general academic ignorance about such nuances of religious/ethnic identity.Perhaps, that is why essentialist scholars such as Huntington feel safe to assume that Central Asia is a part of the greater Islam world (Huntington, 1993)and as such, will rejoin the global Muslim community soon as the Soviet Union ceased to exist. In reality though, most of political tensions in Central Asia are between the fellow-Muslims rather than between them and non-Muslim states such as China, Russia or United States.

Overall, though, the scholarship approaches the role of Islam in Central Asia from the constructivist or functionalist perspective (or a mixture of both). For most authors, religion is being reinvented in the region to fit the needs of newly independent states: forming national unity and reinforcing regime legitimacy. However, wider and more religious aspects of Islam are barely tolerated by the regimes. One particular telling examination of Central Asian Islam, offered by Ahmed Rashid, illuminates the dangers of such functionalist approach to religion adopted by that the authoritarian regimes that essentially undermine themselves by cracking down on religious opposition while failing to provide broader economic benefits thus creating ample opportunities for the militant Islam to gain ground in their countries. Basically, Rashid argues that without such crackdown, or with better economic policies and greater social mobility in the new states of Central Asia, locals would not be sympathetic to ‘foreign-imported ideologies’ of Islamic extremists (Rashid, 2002). Gunn agrees, and singles out Uzbekistan as the country, where “the conditions favoring a growth in Islamism are greatest because of the relative religiosity of the population and the relative repressiveness of the government” (Gunn, 2003, p. 408).

Indeed, the threat is very real. All authors, concerned in any way about the political stability of Central Asia, note the presence of three major Islamic extremists groups, Islamic Renaissance Party (IRP), Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), and Hizb-ut-Tahrir (Freedom Party), each one of which gain popularity as the time passes by even though none of them is native: the first two have roots and connections to Afghanistan and Taliban movement, while the latter originates from Saudi Arabia and Jordan(Malik, 1992). These movements may be foreign in terms of their origins and ideas but their popularity stems from their reaction to the state policies within Central Asian region, as discussed above. The ideology and goals of these movements fall under the fundamentalist type of religious identity, since they are trying to eliminate corruption of autocratic governments, and instill their vision of traditional Islamic values, which are not approved by the state leadership in Central Asia. In a way, fundamentalists of the regional Islamic movements are communicating with the functionalists of the regional governments, and this communication is not limited to violence, and reprises in kind but it also occurs via other media: information channels, education, and, of course, the print.

The threat of fundamentalism is not evenly spread throughout Central Asia, it varies with the extent of religiousity in each state. Related to that is a debate among scholars about the differences between sedentary and nomadic cultures affecting the degree of penetration of Islamic values in each. On the one side, research demonstrates that sedentary parts of Central Asia, i.e., Uzbeks, have adopted Islam much earlier and to a greater extent than nomads of the great steppes, i.e.,Kazakhs(Sultangalieva, 1998), and this pattern is still evident today with the Muftis (Islamic clerics of Central Asia) being predominantly of ethnic Uzbek origin (Gunn, 2003, p. 399). On the other side, scholars argue that it does not necessarily mean that former nomads are any less devoted believers and Islamic traditions are equally important source of identity for either type of culture (Privatsky, 2001). This demonstrates the rigorousness of re-constructing Islamic identity of these states, Kazakhstan in particular, where the meaning of being Muslim is intersubjectively constituted by the intellectuals who wish to further the national identity of Kazakhstan (Rorlich, 2003). This debate underlines the constructivist nature of Islamic identity throughout Central Asia, but does not appear to address the issue of spreading fundamentalist sentiment among the disadvantaged.

Uzbekistan, naturally, does not have the luxury of questioning its Muslim heritage like Kazakhstan does. Bukhara, Samarkand and Khiva are ancient centers of Islam, where religion, science and art flourished long before this region came into the sphere of influence of Russia. Islamic extremism, whether imported or not, is very much active in the country and beyond, seeking to displace the existing leadership. In fact, Uzbekistan may be the best example of how sacred and secular come head to head in the struggle for the hearts and minds of the population. Although the government supports token Islam institutions, it does not tolerate any strong beliefs, giving preference to secular style of governance and social life. However, government attempts to control the freedom of religious expression, tensions between the leadership and provinces, and general poverty of the nation provides a fertile breeding ground for creating alternative, ‘parallel’ Islam which frequently becomes militant. As a result, it does not really matter, where the ideology for the extremist Islam is coming from, what matters in the end is how it becomes accepted in Uzbek society (Ilkhamov, 2001).

It is clear that Islam in Central Asia is a very controversial topic, frequently presented as a clear and present danger to stability in the region and even the world at larger, particularly in the light of the recent rise of ISIS in the Middle East and its increasingly global reach. Indeed, there is an on-going process of securitization of religion, particularly of Islam in the region (Lenz-Raymann, 2014). For constructivists such as Ahmed Rashid (2002) or Adeeb Khalid (2007), the answer to this question is seemingly simple: Islam performs dual roles of being both secular and religious marker of identity in the region. For essentialist scholars like Huntington, it is yet simpler: inevitably, Islam sooner or later will become a dominant religion in the Central Asia, and will therefore force regional states to declare their allegiance to the Muslim world and their opposition to the West (Huntington, 1993).

As strange as it may sound, Islam in Central Asia appears to be mostly an expression of secular identity rather than a religious one. For one, Islam is one of the key defining characteristics of identity of Central Asia, and it became such during the period of Russian presence in the region when the close encounter between various Central Asian nomadic and sedentary tribes on the one hand, and a unified Christian political, economic and military power on the other highlighted this key characteristic that set Central Asia apart from the rest of the Russian and especially Soviet empire. However, does it mean that Islam as religion is important in the region? Not at all, and this short essay attempts to determine the causes of such a contradiction in terms.

History of Central Asia offers very important insights into how Islam became more of a secular identity marker rather than a religious one. An important first point to be made is about the type of Islam, popular in Central Asia. Researchers distinguish 3 major schools of Islam that dominated the region from the time Islam was introduced there. First is the Sunni Islam of Hanafi school which emphasizes the belief in Islam rather than strict adherence to Islamic practices, elevates participation in community over religion, and demonstrates tolerance in many respects. Second is the tradition of Sufism, which in its turn consists of a multitude of orders, which have in common musical tradition of religious performance, something that is absent from traditional Islam, traditions of asceticism, abstinence and contemplation which eschew traditional religious institutions as a conduit to God. Third is so called ‘popular’ Islam which is most telling in how religion is actually turning into a secular tradition that spread not via sacred texts but rather via familial lines. Last two strands of Islam have a lot of pre-Islamic traditions embedded in them, making them very distinct Central Asian practices of faith. All three share a very loyal and respectful attitude toward political leadership, never seeking to challenge the authority of the state.

At the beginning, it was the encounter between disparate tribes of the region and Russian empire that highlighted the importance of Islam as the key identifier that made them different from that Other. The key insight here is prior to the Russian conquest, Central Asia was a mixture of various principalities that governed people that shared a lot in common between one another: common history of the turbulent region, open to invasions from all sides (e.g., Mongols swept through the region and onto the West in 13th century); common language that still shares a lot in common with that of Turkey, further evidence of the ancient massive movements of people through the region to the West; common culture and traditions that borrowed heavily from one society within the region to another, and from the outside world. Thus, as many researchers argue, before Russia came into the region, the process of nation-formation was essentially retarded, and Central Asia remained a melting pot of various tribal affiliations.

Russian expansion and steady and massive movement of people from European parts of the Russian empire into the region, which accelerated under the Soviet rule, introduced the Other right into the midst of the region, highlighting the role of Islam in the lives of Central Asia natives. Russian empire was fairly tolerant of the religious beliefs, allowing the exercise of traditional Islam in the region. In fact, the colonial process, the introduction of relatively more modern Russian society into the very traditional Central Asia generated a whole Islamic movement that aimed to marry modernism and Islam together. That movement was called Jadidism.

Jadidists were mostly school teachers whose main goal was to reform traditional madrasas (Muslim schools). While they were a part of the wider pan-Islamic movement for reforms, Jadidism was primarily confined to the Russian empire, spreading among the Muslim subjects within its boundaries. However, within the moderate goals of reforming schools, Jadidists were questioning the very foundations of the Islamic traditions in Central Asia. In addition, as Adeeb Khalid, one of the researchers of Jadidism argues, they were also a key component in imagining Central Asian ethnic groups, hitherto too diffuse and unorganized(Khalid, 2007). However, this process was interrupted once again by the Russian revolution and the extreme anti-religious sentiment of the Communist Russia, which initially professed borderline militant secularism.

What is secularism? It is a belief that religious beliefs should be separate from the political process. Moreover, as Hurd argues, secularization at the root is a process of appropriating land and people away from the hold of religion (Hurd, 2004), and that is exactly what happened first under Russian and then Soviet empire. Land and people were appropriated and taken away from their established social norms and rules behavior which were supplanted with those more in line with the centralized policies of Russia. Secularization is also the process when modern social institutions such as sovereign government, NGOs and corporations taking on the functions previously served by religious institution, and that was also one of the major goals that Soviet regime tried to achieve.

However, secularism does not exist in pure form. As Hurdargues, it either delegates religious beliefs into the private sphere (laicism) or integrates them into the political discourse as part of the common ground strategy to insure peaceful interactions and general order within the society (Judeo-Christian secularism) (Hurd, 2004). The latter concept is particularly interesting in the context of Central Asian experience of the relationship between Islam and politics. Judeo-Christian secularism which establishes Christian beliefs as the common denominator, a source of common political culture, according to Hurd, is an essential building block for democracy and indeed for the whole system of states, established at Westphalia (Ibid). This captures the essence of secularism, which is not truly capable of escaping the ‘clutches of religious superstitions’ just because it proves to be superior to religious societies in terms of preventing identity conflicts.

Similarly, Central Asian republics, while being definitely secular in political form and shape, cannot completely avoid Islamic influence on their political culture. True, the belief in the separation of the church and the state became like a dogma during the Soviet period and it still is, despite all the concessions to the faith-based organizations. Moreover, under Stalin, the Soviet empire undertook great efforts to eradicate Islam as a religion in Central Asia, just like it did with Christianity in European part of the country. This involved raising mosques and madrasas (Muslim schools) or converting them for other purposes. The public practice of Islam was all but banned with very few exceptions. Imams (Muslim priests) were arrested and sent to Gulags. The collectivization provided a finishing blow by shaking the foundation of every society in Central Asia, nomadic and settled alike (although, by all accounts, Kazakhs suffered the most, losing almost 1/3 of total ethnic Kazakh population to starvation). Ironically, it was the war between Nazi Germany and Soviet Union that have put an end to religious persecution in Central Asia and elsewhere, but it did not undo the changes to Muslim institutions in the region.

Islam did survive such an onslaught as a parallel, shadow religion rather than in the shape of state-regulated Islamic institutions which were left alive as a token of religious freedoms in the Soviet Union and as such lost any credibility among the true believers. By adapting to the extreme secularism of the Soviet political system, Islam took yet another form that became more of a local custom rather than a religious practice, with family rather than Qur’an being the source of knowledge about what it means to be Muslim. Furthermore, Islam all but disappeared as political and even public discourse delegated to the role of “opium of the masses”. Thus, Islam and being Muslim boiled down to certain set of practices such as celebrations of certain dates that had Muslim name but did not always respect official Muslim calendar or norms of behavior (i.e., consumption of alcohol was not prohibited at these pseudo-Muslim events), certain patterns of behavior such as when people mimicked prayer gestures without actually praying, and so on.

Independence did not bring with it much relief in terms of freedom of religious expression. While it is true that mosques and churches were (re)built en masse throughout the Central Asia, the political regimes that came to power did recognize Muslim legacy of the region, in fact, almost every leader of the newly independent republics made Hajj to Mecca; nonetheless, by virtue of being raised and indoctrinated in the ‘evil’ nature of politicized religion, all of the Central Asian governments were also very quick to prohibit any forms of political religious organizations. Moreover, the absence of Islam in political public rhetoric is still strictly enforced all over the region and even in the traditionally most Islamic of Central Asian republics, Uzbekistan. On the one hand, all of the regional leadership and government bureaucracy, coached in strict anti-religious and secular soviet schools of administration retain strong disdain for the public role of religion and Islam in particular, thus remaining particularly secular. On the other, Islam is widely used in political rhetoric to commemorate historical events of ethnic rather than religious significance.

It does not mean that there is no Islamic challenge to the rule of post-Soviet regimes in Central Asia, indeed, there are several rather significant Islamic political movements all of which are outlawed as illegal and terrorist organizations by every state in the region. Persecution of such movements is very strict and unrelenting, and while they do gain in popularity, they cannot boast a large membership or enough power to actually challenge the regimes in power. Part of the reason for that is not the government suppression but rather the lack of political religious motivation among Central Asian Muslims. Partly due to the Soviet legacy, partly due to the traditions of Islam in the region, but being a Muslim in Central Asia does not necessarily entail such a strong emotion that would make one to go to extremes in order to defend his or her beliefs such as fundamentalists of ISIS ilk are very willing to do.

Obviously, the secular traditions of the Soviet Union are still being strictly adhered to in the independent republics of Central Asia. However, the leadership in these countries also relies heavily on the Islamic traditions that define particularistic secular identity of Central Asian republics in place of weak ethnic identity that had very few chances to develop before Russians arrived in the region due to constant flux of people in and out of it. Non- political traditions of Islam in Central Asia are also a very important contributing factor that diminishes the role of Islam in extreme forms of religious fanaticism. Like Hurd’s concept of Judeo-Christian secularism, one can identify Central Asia as being subject to Soviet-Islamic secularism, the one that seeks to affirm ethnic identities with religious symbolism which lost most of its religious meaning and attained instead ethnic one. The balancing act on the part of the political regimes that tries to affirm secular-ethnic meaning of essentially religious Islamic traditions maybe working for the time being but the fault-lines are developing as militant Islam finds its way to spread in the republics of Central Asia, prompted by poverty and economic hardship.

The above discussion does not suggest that Islam has no religious role to play in Central Asia. Indeed, despite the 70 years of Soviet suppression of religious activities, Islam appears to be alive and well, although in a much different form from what it was prior to the Russian and subsequent Soviet conquest of the region. So the relationship between Islam and local identities in Central Asia appears to be muddled. After the expected re- integration of the region in the Muslim world failed to materialize over the past 24 years, it is clear while Central Asia may Muslim, the faith professed in this region is not the same as it is in other Islamic countries. It goes beyond the basic shi’a/sunni division, and has many shades, but mostly it boils down to a localized form of faith that has little in common with Islam at large. Does it mean Central Asia is not Muslim? Of course not, but one thing is clear –religious identity of this region is a very important component of the political and cultural process of development of this region.

3.     Conclusion

Central Asia states share the same religious and ethnic background and follow down similar paths toward independence and nationhood (granted, politics are very different and occasionally competitive between one another). Islam is obviously important in republics, as are their respective national identities, and all of themare facing significant challenges to their survival. However, how each country chooses to face these challenges, and how successful they will be in doing so, depends a great deal on how they analyze them. This means that the policy makers in each country should gauge the problems of their country on multiple scales, avoiding reductionism and fallacy of oversimplifying the problem. In particular, this means employing careful analysis of religious and national identity, seeing how it is being constructed and who is involved in this process.

In this instance, the concept of religious secularism may prove very useful analytical tool to engage religious (Islamic) sentiments without allowing them to spill over into fundamentalism. Yes, religious extremism is a serious issue but it must not become a hindrance to the development of a well-balanced national identity that must include some religious elements of Islam and other faiths and ultimately contribute to maintaining political stability in the region. Religion has a major role in forming culture and sense of community in any given society.

This does not mean to say that the issues of nationalism and religion are not the main ones that the newly independent states like one in Central Asia should focus on. There are plenty of other issues: nation-state formation, governance, civic society, promoting economic growth and integrating into the global market. However, ignoring the effect of identity construction/development introduces a peril that may one day lead to a total breakdown of the foundations of their respective societies and nullifying any attempts at reforms in other spheres of life.



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Year: 2015
City: Almaty