Thursday, May 31, 2007

Window on Eurasia: Moscow Uses Category of ‘Ethnic Muslim’ in Allocating Haj Slots

Paul Goble

Vienna, May 31 – The mixed government-religious Russian Haj Commission has decided to allocate places for next year’s pilgrimage to Mecca not on the basis of the number of faithful but rather in terms of the number of “ethnic Muslims,” people who are members of historically Islamic nationalities.
This decision, which appears intended to reduce pressure on Russia’s overall haj allocation – set by the Saudi authorities at 20,500 for next year – will also have the effect of rewarding more moderate Muslims of European Russia and the Middle Volga at the expense of more radical ones in the North Caucasus (, May 31).
According to an article in the Muslim newspaper “Assalam” cited by the Islamic news portal, the Russian Haj Commission has decided to allocate 6800 slots to the Central Muslim Spiritual Directorate (MSD) and 7600 to the MSD for the European Part of Russia even though these last year sent on the haj only 320 and 2200 respectively.
At the same time, the commission has allocated only 5300 places for the entire North Caucasus, far less than the 15,000 who made the haj last year from Daghestan alone and vastly fewer than the total number for that entire region, including some 5,000 from Chechnya and at least that many from other republics there.
In addition to rewarding the first group and restricting the second, the Haj Commission’s unprecedented decision also may have the effect of excluding from the haj members of other ethnic groups – in particular, ethnic Russians – who have converted to Islam but whose nationalities are not known to be “ethnic Muslim.”
There are likely to be three major consequences from this decision, none of which can be entirely welcome to the civil authorities in Moscow who want to maintain control over this process or even to the leaders of some MSDs who will view this as an insult to Islam as such.
First, the haj commission’s equation of “ethnic Muslim” with believer may simply its administrative problems – after making this allocation on the basis of the census, the commission can simply stand aside – but it is certain to lead some members of historically Islamic nations to become more interested in their faith.
Second, this equation of ethnic and religious by a quasi-government group will likely cause ever more non-Muslims and Russian nationalists in particular to conclude that anyone with a Muslim name is a believer and even a likely extremist, judgments that will only further exacerbate inter-religious and inter-ethnic tensions.
And third, as has happened in earlier years, many Muslims in the North Caucasus will simply ignore this allocation and make the haj on their own, something that will simultaneously reduce Moscow’s control over the process and radicalize those believers who will see the Russian authorities yet again trying to restrict the influence of Islam.

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