Thursday, April 5, 2007

Window on Eurasia: Russia’s ‘Ethnic Muslims,’ Faithful Urged to Make Common Cause

Paul Goble

Vienna, April 5 – In order to increase their social and political influence, Russia’s observant Muslims need to enter into an intensive dialogue with “ethnic Muslims,” who are members of historically Islamic nationalities but who do not follow the requirements of the faith, according to a leading Muslim commentator.
In an essay posted on the website today, Abdulla Rinat Mukhamedov says that overcoming the gap of ignorance and mistrust between observant and unobservant Muslims, a problem throughout the world, is especially serious in the Russian Federation (
That is because, Mukhamedov writes, Soviet anti-religious efforts were so successful that many people in historically Muslim communities had little chance to learn much about Islam. There were few mosques and mullahs to whom they could turn and virtually no religious literature from which they could learn.
Over the last 15 years, Muslim leaders have done a great deal to disseminate the ideas of Islam, but in all too many cases, they have directed their efforts first and foremost to those who have already declared that they are believers rather than the much larger number of “ethnic Muslims” who have fallen away from the faith.
Because of that, he continues, many “ethnic Muslims” tend to view active believers with suspicion or hostility, and many active believers often dismiss the unobservant as not being real Muslims. That weakens the Muslim community both internally and in terms of its influence on the broader society.
Internally, the Muslim commentator suggests, this division means that the two groups do not support one another and the broader causes of Islam, and externally, it means that the number of “real” Muslims in the eyes of non-Muslims is much smaller than it actually is.
Both sides must overcome their prejudices about the other, Mukhamedov argues, and engage in an active dialogue in which each recognizes the importance and values of the other. To the extent they do so, he says, they will be brought together, with the unobservant increasingly joining the observant for common tasks.
But what makes this rapprochement especially important now, he suggests, is that by coming together, the umma in Russia will be in a position to play a bigger political role. And in support of that argument, he draws two parallels, one with the efforts of today’s Russian Orthodox Church and the other with Muslims in the tsarist empire.
The Moscow Patriarchate has been able to expand its influence by counting as Orthodox believers many who say openly that they are “not believers but are Orthodox.” Thus, Mukhamedov notes, there are now “Orthodox Christian communists” and even “Orthodox Christian secret policemen.”
This approach, he suggests, has been “extremely effective” in helping the Church to “escape from the marginal position” it had occupied and to “achieve serious positions in the social-political life” of the Russian Federation. If Muslims do the same, Mukhamedov says, they do can benefit and in the same way.
The other model Mukhamedov encourages observant and non-observant Muslims in Russia to recall is that of Muslims before the 1917 revolution, In tsarist times, he notes, observant and non-observant Muslims adopted a wide range of political positions, but in the Duma and elsewhere, they actively cooperated with each other as Muslims.
Many observant Muslims are likely to find Mukhamedov’s argument offensive, seeing it as an invitation to ignore the importance of the religion itself. That is a misreading of what he is saying, but clearly Mukhamedov is more concerned with the politics of the umma than with its commitment to particular articles of the faith.
At the same time, many so-called “ethnic Muslims” are also likely to be put off, fearful that cooperating too closely either with the mullahs or the active faithful will have a negative impact on their workaday lives in a country that is increasingly infected by Islamophobia.
But even if both of these conclusions are true, the people most likely to be upset by Mukhamedov’s suggestion are those who want to limit the social and political influence of Muslims in the Russian Federation. If it is only a question of active believers, there are probably only a few million Muslims in that country.
But if the umma of the Russian Federation comes to a point where it is able to embrace both observant and “ethnic” Muslims, then that rapidly growing community will represent not a marginal part of Russian society but instead a powerful faction including nearly a fifth of the country’s total population.

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