Monday, April 16, 2007

Window on Eurasia: Nizhniy Muslims Expand Their Influence Across Russia

Paul Goble

Vienna, April 16 – The relatively small Muslim community of the Nizhniy Novgorod region is exploiting its wealth, reformist traditions, and organizational skills to influence Russia’s Islamic community not only in the Middle Volga but across the Russian Federation, including in Moscow and St. Petersburg.
On the one hand, this development might have been expected. Prior to 1917, the Muslims around Nizhniy were profoundly affected by the liberal, free market traditions of that city’s famous fairs. Moreover, compared to other Muslims in the Russian Empire, they were more educated, urban, and organizationally savvy.
And they occupied a disproportionate number of positions in various Muslim organizations, including political ones, even though both then and now, the Nizhniy Muslims – who were called Mishars at that time – were far more interested in practicing their religion than expanding their political influence.
On the other hand, the expanded role of the Nizhniy Muslims over the last 15 years has been surprising. Given the small size of the Nizhniy Muslim community – only about 50,000 – they have been operating in the shadows of the Tatar-dominated Muslim Spiritual Directorates (MSDs) in Ufa, Kazan, and Moscow.
But because they have largely worked below the radar screen and are simultaneously more religious rather than explicitly political and urban and educated rather than rural, Nizhniy’s Muslims have been quick to exploit the Internet and their representation in the growing Muslim communities of Moscow and other Russian cities.
More speculatively, all this taken together could point to an even more dramatic possibility: Given the political problems of the leaders of the Central MSD and the Union of Muftis of Russia, Moscow might look to Nizhniy as an alternative central leadership for Russia’s Islamic community.
In the last few weeks, at least one Muslim leader in Nizhniy Novgorod has assumed a higher profile in the media and to provide a glimpse into both the recent activities of the Nizhniy Novgorod MSD and its parishes and the plans he and other Muslim leaders have for the future.
Damir Khayretdinov, the rector of the Nizhniy Islamic University, last week gave two interviews describing the rebirth of Islam in his region and the ways Nizhniy Muslims are providing leadership to Russia’s Islamic community outside their oblast ( and
Acknowledging that the Tatars form only 1.44 percent of the population of Nizhniy Novgorod oblast, Khayretdinov outlines the reasons for their recent rise: They live compactly in 32 well-off communities, they are “more religious” compared to other Tatar groups, and they are eager to acquire advanced education and live in Russian cities.
On measure of the stature of Nizhniy Novgorod Muslims elsewhere, he said, is that two out of three Tatar bodies in Moscow are headed by Muslims from Nizhniy rather than Tatarstan and that Muslim groups in St. Petersburg now look to Nizhniy for leadership as well (
In addition, the rector continued, they are quite proud of their liberal, reformist tradition, something produced by their exposure to the famous Nizhniy Novgorod fairs. And they have been committed to financing their own activities, not taking money from ethnic groups, the Russian government or foreign states.
Such a commitment to financial independence might have been expected to leave them with little money, but in fact, he said, the Nizhniy Novgorod MSD operates on a budget “comparable to that of the MSD of Tatarstan and of the Central MSD and one that exceeds the combined budgets of all other MSDs in the Volga Federal District.”
And that financial robustness, Khayretdinov argued, has allowed the Nizhniy MSD to stand up for its beliefs: it is the only MSD which “has been able to work with the Saudis by forcing them to provide translations and publications of quality contemporary Hanafi literature – which is not even recognized as a ‘normal’ doctrine in Saudi Arabia.
Moreover, the Nizhniy MSD has worked to develop not only an active publishing program but also maintains an active Internet site – -- which serves as a clearing house and source of ideas for Muslims not only in that region but across the Russian Federation.
On recent example of this outreach was the recent announcement by Tatars in St. Petersburg to place their scholarly articles and news releases on the Nizhniy Novgorod website, rather than as might have been expected, the websites of Tatarstan or the local site with which they cooperate,
Some observers might see this growth as dangerously political virtually inviting a response by Moscow. That is all the more so since, as Khayretdinov acknowleged, the Nizhniy MSD has been active in helping Muslim diaspora communities including the Azerbaijanis last month organize their own national cultural autonomies.
But those who assume this is a political rather than religious act, he continued, fail to understand the responsibilities of Muslims to unite or to remember that the Nizhniy MSD is “by definition” not anti-government but rather supportive of Moscow and its policies. Whether such a declaration of loyalty is enough, of course, remains to be seen.

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