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Rebuilding a Confessional State: Islamic Ecclesiology in Turkey, Russia and China

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Religions are playing an ever more prominent role in the public sphere in the world today, and it hardly seems productive to examine religion-state relations from the traditional liberal standpoint of idealising the state's non-intervention in religious matters. In this article we examine the relations between Islam and the state in Turkey, Russia/the Soviet Union and China, using the concept of the 'confessional state'. A confessional state tries to use not only its dominant religion but also minority religions of all kinds to mobilise wider groups of the population. In confessional states the relations between the state and bodies of clergy are federative, not master-subordinate. The core of the Ottoman confessional state was the millet system, while the seyhulislam managed the Muslim majority. The Russian Empire copied the seyhulislam and created the Muftiate. Neither the Qing Empire nor the Republic of China built a nationwide system of Muslim administration, so the People's Republic of China architected it from scratch, on the basis of its own communist idea of the 'united front'. These confessional states were seriously damaged by Ataturk's secularism in Turkey, communist atheism in the Soviet Union and the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution in China. Later, leaders of these countries realised that secularism and communism could not monopolise the spiritual market of faith, and desperately needed to mobilise the nation, even with the help of traditional religion. They did not try to reintroduce confessional states on the lines of those which had historically existed, but tried to use religious congregations to mobilise the wider strata of the population. In this attempt, the three countries faced different challenges: Turkey suffers from the confessional homogeneity of the state; postcommunist Russia lacks a nationwide Muslim administration; and in China the Muslims do not have an autonomous clerical hierarchy.
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Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: December 1, 2010

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