Vienna, April 27 – Russia’s government-organized Haj Council has asked Saudi Arabia to allow 40,000 Muslims from the Russian Federation to make the pilgrimage to Mecca next year, a figure that is more than twice the quota Russia now has under the existing formula.
Muslims on the Haj Council justified this request by noting that “Russia’s Muslims over the course of 70 years [of Soviet power] were deprived of the opportunity of making the haj, and the number of those who want to make the pilgrimage is increasing with each day” (http://www.religio.ru/news/14728_print.html).
Last year, some 19,000 Muslims from the Russian Federation went on the haj, up from approximately 12,000 the year before, and only 40 in 1990 at least officially, increases that reflect pent up demand, increased wealth, and better transportation (http://www.religio.ru/arch/12Jan2007/news/14103.html).
Because the Saudi government controls the Muslim holy places, it sets quotas for each country usually on the basis of a formula of one pilgrim per year for every 1,000 Muslims. Because Russian officials from President Vladimir Putin on down have generally said there are 20 million Muslims there, that works out to 20,000.
But because the numbers of Russia’s Muslims making the haj reached 19,000 last year, only a few hundred less than that, Moscow and Russia’s Muslims have decided to push for an adjustment. Acknowledging that there are more than 20 million Muslims in Russia would be difficult: justifying an increase on the basis of the Soviet past is easier.
In the past, the Saudis have adjusted quotas for various countries on the basis of negotiations and political pressure, and they are likely to do so in this case, although it is far from clear whether they will agree to the dramatic increase that Muslims in the Russian Federation, backed by Moscow, now seek.
Once the Saudis do set a national quota for the Russian Federation, Moscow’s Haj Council will set quotas for the Muslim communities in each of that country’s republics and regions, a process likely to involve intense political infighting not only among them but between Muslim regions and Moscow.
On the one hand, the more rapidly growing Muslim communities in Moscow and other major cities are likely to seek expanded quotas while those in Tatarstan and Bashkortostan, the two republics which traditionally have sent the most, seem certain to seek even more haj slots.
And on the other, many in the Russian government will be inclined to favor Muslim communities in the traditionally moderate Middle Volga republics and to restrict the number of Muslims from the more radical North Caucasus who will be given permission to make the pilgrimage to Mecca.
But however all this works out, three other things are virtually certain. First, the actual numbers of Muslims from Russia who make the haj will be significantly larger than the quota because many of them travel abroad during the pilgrimage period without declaring that they will be in Mecca.
Second, Russia’s Muslims are certain to view Moscow’s willingness to back them up on this issue as yet another indication of their growing political cloud, something that may lead some of them to make additional demands not only about religious issue like the haj but on political ones as well.
And third, many non-Muslims in the Russian Federation are likely to look askance at this development, viewing it as a concession to a group that they do not believe should be getting this kind of support.
As a result, ever more non-Muslim Russians will share the view of Roman Silant’yev, the Orthodox Christian specialist on Islam, who writes in this month’s “Radonezh” that “Islam has become the most privileged religion of Russia” and seek to challenge that religion as a result (http://www.radonezh.ru/analytic/articles/?ID=2282).
UPDATE ON MAY 3: One reason why Moscow may be seeking to increase the Saudi haj quota for Russia’s Muslims is that last year, Daghestan and Chechnya combined for more than half of the total number of Russian Federation piligrims with some 5,000 people from each. If these two republics again send that many – and that is entirely likely -- Islamic communites elsewhere in Russia might find it very difficult to meet demand (http://www.religo.ru/news1437_print.html).