[The] critique of secularism has become the template for recent explorations of liberalism and secularization processes in the post-colonial context, particularly those that wish to explore the inner logics of Islam. Asad’s critical analysis of secularization in the Muslim world demonstrates how the demands of Western conceptions of church-state relations can amount to a form of ideological cultural (i.e. Christian) imperialism. But this is a critique that is based on a very selective genealogy of Christianity, a genealogy that excludes the Eastern Orthodox Church and conflates Christianity with Western Christianity. On one hand, it is an understandable exclusion given that Asad‟s critical focus is the movement of secularist discourses from Western Europe into its former colonies. On the other hand, it excludes an entire history of Christianity that might have produced a very different conception of religion than the hegemonic Western one, one that might have been more tolerant and inclusive of Islam.
Exploring this alternative genealogy of Christianity might reveal different collective understandings of the appropriate roles for the state and church. Indeed, Orthodox believers may not believe that “secularism” was imported from or imposed by the West, although scholars like Chaterjee (quoted above) argue that it has been universally coercive in its application. Instead, in the Bulgarian case, the local version of secularism grew out of the nation‟s own unique historical trajectory. This history is distinct from the Protestant and Catholic histories of the West. It is a history that for most modern Bulgarians begins in the ninth century when a medieval Bulgarian king, Boris I, Christianized the Slavs and when the Bulgarian kingdom embraced Orthodoxy and sided with the Byzantine Empire during the Great Schism of 1054.
Thus, if Asad and other post-colonial scholars can be read as supporting a theoretical position that defends individual religious rights and individual desires for embodied religious practices against a Western secularist imperialism that reduces religion to belief, this article pushes Asad‟s critique beyond the Muslim world to include Orthodox countries such as Bulgaria and other societies which might embrace a different notion of religion and secularism. Although there are obvious theological differences, Islam and Eastern Orthodoxy have traditionally been othered by the West – orientalized and essentialized as fundamentally non-modern. From the earliest days of the Enlightenment, Orthodox symphoneia was derided as a pejoratively Byzantine form of government. In his 1689 “A Letter Concerning Toleration,” John Locke condemned state interference in Church dogma, comparing Henry VIII and his self-serving heirs in England to the Orthodox, “caesaro-papist” Emperors in the East. More recently, Samuel Huntington (1996) relegated the Eastern Orthodox world to the status of a completely separate civilization from the West because the East did not benefit from, “the separation and the recurrent clashes between Church and State”. In its 2009 decision, even the European Court of Human Rights (2009) explicitly stated that “democratic societies” should not have governments that interfere with religious communities, even if those religious communities have always been intertwined with state authority.
If individuals in post-colonial societies have the right to resist a definition of religion that relegates faith to the private sphere, might not communities also have a right to defend conceptions of faith that root religious identity in the public sphere? This is a particularly salient question if the popular imagining of the category of religion is not about private faith, but rather about clearly defining the (often contested) boundaries of historically constituted ethno-national communities. If post-colonial scholars are pushing back at liberal secularist discourses for the sake of protecting the public spiritual commitments of non-Christian minorities in Europe or the non-Christian majorities in the post-colonial world, why not take this same critique and examine an Eastern Orthodox Christian society?