Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Window on Eurasia: Strange Bedfellows Limiting Mosque Construction in Moscow

Paul Goble

Vienna, March 21 – An unusual constellation of forces – including xenophobic Russian officials, the Russian Orthodox Church and the leaders of several Muslim Spiritual Directorates (MSD) – has emerged to block, or at least slow, the construction of new mosques in and around the Russian capital.
There are today more than two million people of Islamic heritage in the capital of the Russian Federation, but they are now served by only a handful of mosques, not only far fewer than the number of Christian churches but also far to few to serve the relatively small percentage of “ethnic Muslims” who indeed practice their faith.
In the past, most Muslims there have viewed this as one more hangover from the Soviet period when Communist officials allowed only four mosques to operate in Moscow both to service embassies from Islamic countries and to allow the USSR to advertise itself as a friend of the world of Islam.
More recently, ordinary Muslims in the Russian Federation have blamed this situation on the generalized popular Islamophobia that has gripped a significant share of the Russian population since the start of the first post-Soviet Chechen war in 1994 and even more strongly since the Al-Qaeda attacks on September 11.
But now, several more thoughtful Muslim analysts in the Russian capital have pointed to what they acknowledge is an unusual and unexpected conjunction of interests between the Russian state, the Russian Orthodox Church and some chieftains of the MSD Muslim establishment.
First of all, no observer of the Russian scene has any doubts that many residents there are infected with Islamophobic ideas, but over the last two or three years, such attitudes have spread like wildfire among Russian officialdom that is able to use its powers to discriminate against Muslims and block their efforts to promote their faith.
Indeed, this rising tide of Islamophobia – one long tracked by human rights groups (see, for example, -- has become so serious in recent months that earlier this month, more than 3,000 Muslims signed an open letter to President Vladimir Putin asking him to intervene.
That letter, which appeared in “Izvestiya” on March 5, detailed the ways in which officials have mistreated Muslims in a variety of ways and warns that the situation is close to getting out of hand unless Putin, who has repeatedly cast himself as a defender of Islam, disciplines those responsible.
Such attitudes among officials, which both reflect and intensify the attitudes of the population, help explain why they have been interested in throwing up obstacles to the construction of mosques in a variety of cities across the country but particularly in the Russian capital.
Second, the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church (MP ROC) has been increasingly insistent that Russia must remain Orthodox and that the skyline of Moscow should feature the domes of churches rather than those of Islam. And the patriarchate has stepped up its efforts to convert Muslims to Christianity.
Last October, the church set up the St. Akhmed Orthodox Missionary Center and Information Agency in Moscow specifically to support Muslim converts to Islam such as the Kryasheny of Tatarstan and to promote the further spread of Christianity among Muslims (
The St. Akhmed center stages frequent meetings, has an active publishing program and has established a significant Internet presence with four different sites now active --,,, and
Obviously, the MP ROC and its missionary arm, many of whose leaders have been openly hostile to Muslims in the past, has little or no interest in seeing the construction of any new mosques, especially in highly visible places like the center of Moscow.
But it is the third group opposed to the construction of new mosques that at first glance may be the most surprising: the Muslim leaders of the various MSDs. For historical reasons, most are Kazan Tatars of Sunni Islam’s Hanafi rite, but today more than half of Moscow’s Muslims are either Shafei Sunnis from the North Caucasus or Shiites from Azerbaijan.
Because the Tatars dominated the Muslim scene in Moscow in tsarist and Soviet times, they were in a position to dominate the “official” hierarchies as the MSDs are known. Until the 1990s, these Tatar Muslims were even able to insist that Muslim services be conducted in Tatar.
But with the influx of other Muslim groups – particularly the more than one million Azerbaijani Shiites – the Tatar-led MSDs made a significant concession by allowing mosque services to be conducted in Russian, the language of “interethnic” and “interreligious” communication in Moscow.
At the same time, however, the Tatar-led MSDs have typically opposed the construction of new mosques lest they not be in a position to control them – the Tatars in Moscow lack the numbers to do so – and most recently have sought to reestablish Tatar-language services in the major mosques.
And at least some of the Tatar-led MSDs in Moscow have followed the practice introduced by a mullah in St. Petersburg who kept his mosque closed until just before prayers lest the mosque become a community center and either promote or appear to promote Islamic radicalism.
Not surprisingly, this response by the Tatar-dominated MSDs has found favor among Russian officials and the MP ROC, but it is infuriating many Muslims who feel betrayed by those who present themselves as leaders of the Islamic community (see the summary of these reactions at and, especially,
In the immediate future, the combined opposition of the state, the Orthodox Church and the MSD hierarchies may be sufficient to limit the construction of new mosques in Moscow, with each presenting itself as responsive to the religious needs of Muslims by allowing the remodeling or expansion of existing ones.
But in the longer term, this approach almost certainly will have the effect that official antagonism to Islam had in Soviet times: it will drive the genuinely religious Muslims underground and, as a result, lead to their politicization rather integration into the broader Russian society.

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