Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Window on Eurasia: Ethnic Russian Converts to Islam Face a Difficult Path

Paul Goble

Vienna, May 16 – Hundreds, if not thousands, of ethnic Russians have converted to Islam over the last two decades, a trend that infuriates many Orthodox Christians, encourages many members of traditional Muslim nationalities, and leaves the new Russian Muslims in what is sometimes a difficult situation.
There are no reliable statistics about exactly how many ethnic Russian Muslims there are. The Orthodox Church routinely argues that there are no more than 200 to 300. Most academic specialists say the number is in the range of 2,000 to 3,000. But some Muslim activists suggest there may be as many as 20,000 in all.
But controversy concerning Russian Muslims involves other questions as well, including What leads ethnic Russians to convert to Islam? What does a “typical” Russian Muslim look like? What obstacles do Russian Muslims have to overcome? What trends in Islam do they follow? And how do they fit into the broader Muslim community?
Now, four prominent converts to Islam – journalist Fatima (Anastasia) Yezhova, writer Fatima (Viktoriya) Veber, former priest Ali (Vyacheslav) Pogosin, and Kharum Ar-Rushi (Vadim Sidorov), head of the National Organization of Russian Muslims – have shared their answers to these questions.
Their views are summarized in an article by Kazan journalist Dilyara Rakhimova ( and will be amplified in a book entitled “[Ethnic] Russians in Islam” that Fatima Veber, the wife of the head of the Muslim Spiritual Directorate (MSD) of Karelia, is currently completing.
First, what leads ethnic Russians to convert to Islam? According to these converts, many Russian women convert because they have married Muslims or have Muslim friends. Many men and women do so after being inspired by the actions of Muslims, by the beauty of Muslim texts or as a result of developments in the Muslim world.
And still other Russians, Fatima Yezhova argues, do so because they decide that “Islam as the best path of saving [their homeland] from alcoholism and moral degradation” or because they feel “constant discomfort” with life around them and are searching for answers that neither secular society nor their own church provides.
Second, what does a “typical” Russian Muslim look like? “It is not difficult to draw a portrait of a typical ‘average’ Russian Muslim” because most of the newly converted come from a specific age group and educational background, the converts agreed, although they admitted “there are of course exceptions.”
Typically, they said, the new Russian Muslim is young, aged 15 to 35, at university or already a graduate, and an active participant in many aspects of life around him. And the “typical” convert is likely to say that he was first attracted to Islam by television programs, books and films, even when the latter are critical of Islam.
Third, what obstacles do Russian Muslims have to overcome? Russians who convert often face opposition from family and friends and discrimination in the broader society, the four converts say. Rakhimova begins her article by quoting from an Internet posting that makes this point.
“If I were to decide to start smoking or to organize a striptease club at work, most likely this would not elicit any reaction from my relatives,” a young Muslim convert from Voronezh wrote.”But Islam! Islam is associated only with terrorism, the denigration of women… [And if] a son adopts Islam, this is understood as a form of stupidity or the result of the influence of Arabs who dream of making everyone a Muslim and recruiting them for terrorism.”
Such difficulties are not unexpected, but there is another, Fatima Yezhova reports, that is often ignored. That is the impact on converts of Russian culture itself, a culture that rejects bourgeois limitations and orderliness and thus encourages some of its members to go from one extreme to another.
Indeed, she continues, it sometimes happens that ethnic Russian Muslims convert back if they face difficulties or if everything is not as they expected, something that almost never happens with “ethnic Muslims” who then begin to take their religion more seriously.
Fourth, what trends in Islam do they follow, initially and late on? Reflecting these cultural predispositions, Fatima Veber says, sometimes means that “at the beginning of their path in Islam, Russians if they are firmly convinced in their faith become a little extremist” in their views.”
“They may fall into extremist groupings” just as often as they may leave Islam altogether, something that contributes to their image as the new Janissaries but also encourages Orthodox Christian activists to demonize Islam and to put particular social pressures on new Russian Muslims.
But ethnic Russian Muslims who continue in the faith for some time seldom remain extremists, the converts say. As they learn more about Islam, they tend to become more moderate. As a result, they then are found across the entire spectrum of beliefs and attitudes that are typical of all other Muslims around them.
And fifth, how do they fit into the broader Muslim community? The National Organization of Russian Muslims (NORM) seeks to integrate the new ethnic Russian Muslims into the broader Muslim community so that their most important identity is primarily but not exclusively religious.
That is not always easy, NORM’s Kharum Ar-Rushi says, because sometimes the new converts then deny their ethnic identity rather than integrate it with their new faith. There is no reason, he continues, that one cannot be both Russian and a Muslim, whatever many Russians and even many Russian converts to Islam may feel.

No comments: