The impulse to orthodoxy: why illiberal democracies treat religious pluralism as a threat
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Since the late 1990s, governments across the post-Soviet space have redefined freedom of conscience as freedom from "non-traditional" religious groups — part of a broader effort to recast pluralism as a threat to national sovereignty. This dissertation focuses on the Central Asian states of Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, which have restricted such groups as the Jehovah's Witnesses, the Ahmadi Muslim community, and the Chinese spiritual movement Falun Gong. It analyzes why illiberal regimes restrict marginal and apolitical religious groups, which are often more docile than the population at large. Furthermore, it addresses why policies that infringe on civil liberties nevertheless enjoy popular support. These questions take on greater significance in the midst of the current global retreat from democratic values. Yet they cannot be answered by the prevailing instrumentalist perspective in political theory, which assumes that rational citizens should seek to maximize individual liberties. Popular support for authoritarian figures has prompted scholars to propose non-instrumental motivations, such as national and religious identity. Rather than treat “identity“ as non-instrumental, I propose a relational model of identity politics, wherein pluralism and essentialism represent opposing strategies in a competitive political field. Drawing from Bourdieu's work on public politics, I argue that essentialist claims to authority (e.g. ethnic nationalism, religious populism) appeal to strata with relatively low capacity for autonomous political mobilization. Illiberal regimes propagate essentialist claims on behalf of such strata, and repress even benign forms of pluralism as part of this essentialist social contract. I investigate these hypotheses by examining recent discourses on religious tradition in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. I employ a dataset of 5,000 public documents (legislation, court rulings, etc.), which I analyze using qualitative coding. In addition, I draw on interviews with government officials and religious leaders collected during fieldwork between 2012 and 2014, and on data from the World Values Survey. I find that the political and religious establishments of both states are erecting new orthodoxies that consecrate the will of their political bases as essential to national self-determination. Thus, illiberal democracies maintain popular support by redistributing authority (symbolic capital, per Bourdieu) to core constituencies at the expense of peripheral constituencies.
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