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Rasim Chelidze: State May Be Secular, Human Doesn’t Need To

“First of all, secularism means equal attitude towards all faiths, religions, and beliefs existing in the territory of residence. So, the state may be secular, but human living in this state doesn’t need to be. A man may be a believer, an atheist, gnostic, agnostic, or deist, or anything else. It is their choice. They may believe even in a spaghetti monster or be a Pastafarian. Belief is their personal choice,” said Rasim Chelidze, a Kazakhstan-based theologian, in the interview to CABAR.asia.


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CABAR.asia: In an interview you’ve told about the revival of Central Asian theological school, school of rationalistic theology. What are its peculiarities and what is a rationalistic theology?

Rasim Chelidze. Photo: CABAR.asia

Rasim Chelidze: I cannot explain it briefly, but I’ll try to. The science of kalam, or «rationalistic theology” as it is called in religious studies appeared in the second half of the seventh century. The founders have been Mutazilites, who, in turn, preceded the appearance of the Sunni Kalam in the tenth century.

The rationalism of Kalam should not be taken as mathematical rationalism, where reasoning prevails. The widespread Sunni version of Kalam involves the Holy Scriptures and partly absolutely reliable stories. According to Fakhruddin Razi (Ashari scholar, died in 1210), the principles of wisdom should be followed only in case of discrepancy between the key principles of the Scriptures and the principles of wisdom. Basically, Kalam, or Usul Al Din, shapes the beliefs of the Muslims.

Today, the Central Asian states acknowledge only the Maturidi creed of Sunni Islam.  Maturidism appeared about a thousand years ago and central Asia is the centre of this creed, wherefrom it further spread to the territories of the Middle East, Asia Minor, Russia and the Balkans.

This belief is the second most important and largest religion by the number of followers in the Sunni world. To be clear, I’ll give you an example of difference between the Maturidis and Asharis. According to the Maturidis, quality of things is perceived through reason; according to the Asharis, quality of things is perceived through the Holy Scriptures. Maturidis say that Quran bans things based on their quality, i.e. Quran bans “bad” things because they are “bad” for people; Asharis say, in turn, that quality of things is directly contingent on the Quran decision, i.e. “bad” things are banned because Quran bans them.

Over time, Maturidism, in particular, the teaching of Abu Mansur, was lost and forgotten in the twists and turns of the history, and was replaced by the Ashari Middle East rationalism. Since Central Asian madrasahs have taught Maturidism in the last 300-400 years at the behest of Ashari religious scholars, we have only two manuscript writings of imam Maturidi that have reached us – the Book of Monotheism and the Book of the Interpretations of the Quran, which, curiously enough, were published only at the end of 20th – early 21st century. And this is an ignorance of our own history and own cultural heritage.

The revival of the approach traditional for Central Asian theological school will contribute to development of theology, development of critical thinking in people. Theology stopped developing and somewhat ossified in the last five hundred years, and Maturidism or Asharism became orthodoxy, and cannot respond to modern challenges any more. The issues of theology that occurred in the history were resolved due to the development of theological rational thought, not ossified dogma. The Islamic world needs modern Kalam, which, I suppose, can be well provided by Central Asia, which has almost all historical, scientific and theological backgrounds.

Many experts say about the growing Islamic radicalisation in Central Asia. In your opinion, is it objective perspective for the region?

From the point of view of people who study Islam from outside, such phrases as Islamic radicalism and Islamic extremism are quite possible because they don’t differentiate between Islam and Muslims. Is it true? Let’s see.

In fact, today we don’t deal with Islam as such. Today we see only the interpretations of the religion in the form of religious doctrines, groups, movements, schools.  Therefore, any manifestation of radicalism or extremism is not a religious but political factor. And the grievances against the system that prohibits the exercise of your religion within state institutions is a protest action intended to protect the values planted by their leaders.

For example, let’s take a prohibition on wearing hijabs in school. There are groups that call hijabs a religion, although hijabs are an ethic tradition. But when the adepts of religion believe that a hijab is a religious obligation and mention some divine retribution, the state system automatically takes hijabs as a religious attribute and bans them in state institutions.

Therefore, a conflict, which we observe in the beginning of every academic year, arises. Hence, it’s not the radicalisation of Islam, but its politicisation through a prism of doctrines of movements, schools, jamaats, etc.

Rasim Chelidze. Photo: CABAR.asia

Speaking about the ban on hijabs. We see that Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan are trying to get rid of any religious attributes by banning hijabs, beards.  How efficient are all these measures or do they lead to even more radicalisation?

I say, the state will never give up its stance. All Central Asian states consider themselves secular. For a start, we should understand what “secularism” is because the majority of people, even state officials, don’t know what it is. Sometimes, secularism is associated with atheism, which is wrong. Even if the state is atheistic, it is not secular.

First of all, secularism means equal attitude towards all faiths, religions, and beliefs existing in the territory of residence. So, the state may be secular, but human living in this state doesn’t need to be. A man may be a believer, an atheist, gnostic, agnostic, or deist, or anything else. It is their choice. They may believe even in a spaghetti monster or be a Pastafarian. Belief is their personal choice.

But when a person starts practising their belief and claims their position is superior to others, and this practice becomes contrary to the basic laws of the state, the state will surely take measures and the person will be held liable. Because the most important thing for the state is its domestic political and spiritual stability.

The same is true about religious attributes. They are lawfully banned from state institutions, and you can do nothing about it. A state institution cannot be turned into a prayer hall; otherwise the state should do a favour to other religions existing in its territory. It’s easier for the state to ban and thus handle the situation, rather than follow the society.

Today we deal not with religion, but with its interpretation by jamaats, movements, schools, etc.

In your opinion, which factors may influence the separation of politics and religion?

Many people would disagree with me and say that religion is politics. However, its perception in terms of politics points at the existing stereotypes in the society and the level of attitude towards religion.

And when I say that we should revive our Central Asian school of Kalam, I also mean the factor of separation of religion and politics, religion and state. This was the opinion of many thinkers of Central Asia. Critical thinking, ability to ask questions, knowledge of one’s history will let the human to separate the wheat from the chaff.

In case of confusion, the concept of personal freedom in religion will be lost.  A similar society will coerce a person morally to follow the doctrine. However, religion is not about the lack of freedom; there’s no coercion in religion.

Therefore, the state, in context of separation of religion and politics, is much closer to god than people who take religion as some divine ideology.  You should understand that such people are unpredictable because their interests are disguised by religion.

Don’t you think that authorities pay less attention to interfaith peace-making in their fight against extremism and terrorism?

There’s no interfaith peace, just like there’s no war between religions. Faiths are the branches of teachings in various religious directions. The ideas, political and theological views are all different.  The percentage of loudmouths claiming their superiority to others is very low.

Here, in Kazakhstan, we hold a Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions once in a few years with participation of representatives of different religions from all over the world. Representatives of Sunnism and Shiism, Catholicism and Protestantism sit at one table and communicate well with each other.

You know, it’s not religions that should be on good terms with each other, but people who live in one house called a country, a state. People together can counter evil and help each other.

It is commonly supposed here that Kyrgyz means a Muslim. So there’s some negative attitude towards the Kyrgyz that convert to a different religion. What do you think is the reasons for that?

When we say “Kyrgyz”, “Kazakh”, “Turk”, “Arab”, we somehow mean Islam, although there are Kyrgyz, Kazakhs, Turks and Arabs who practise other religions. Also, a Russian or a Slav must be an orthodox. But the most terrible thing happens when a person converts to a different religion.

Today, it’s more scandalous to convert to a different religion in society than to become an atheist. Negative attitude is based on two reasons.

Internal reason is the doctrine itself, which dictates how to treat those who convert to a different religion – they are called renegades, they cannot be buried at the cemetery, they are made outcasts, a shame. In the Middle Ages, apostacy was punished.

The second reason is the external factor. It means preservation of own values and is more conservative in nature. This is a topic to be further explored.


This publication was produced under IWPR project «Forging links and raising voices to combat radicalization in Central Asia»