Friday, May 25, 2007

Window on Eurasia: Russia’s Muslims Increasingly Feel Alien in Their Own Country

Paul Goble

Vienna, May 25 –Muslims in the Russian Federation have increasingly begun to feel like unwelcome migrants in their own country, a situation which casts doubt on the claims by both Moscow and many Muslim leaders there that Russia’s Muslims are better integrated in their country than are Muslim immigrants in Western European countries.
And to the extent that trend continues, Roman Silant’yev, the Russian Orthodox Church’s leading specialist on Islam, argues in a newly released book, this represents “the most frightening development that has taken place with regard to Russian Islam over the last 20 years” (
Silant’yev, who lost his position at the Inter-Religious Council a year ago because of Muslim protests about his comments concerning the private lives of individual Muslim leaders in Russia, nonetheless is recognized even by many his critics as a genuine expert on the subject.
His new book -- “The Contemporary History of Islam in Russia”-- was thus eagerly awaited both by Russia’s Muslims and by others interested in their current situation. As Silant’yev has made clear, his new book is far less description and far more interpretive than was his earlier volume.
On the one hand, Silant’yev’s argument reflects the existing consensus in Moscow about the nature of Islam in the Russian Federation. He suggests that both its Middle Volga and North Caucasus elements, as different as they are, have generally found their place within the Russian world.
And he argues that most of the problems these communities now face with radicalism and fundamentalism are the work of outside agitators and missionaries who have brought into these communities Wahhabism and other forms of extremist ideology, ideas that would not have appeared any other way.
But on the other hand, the Orthodox scholar suggests that the good relations that the Middle Volga and to a lesser extent North Caucasus Muslims have had with Moscow in recent years has been called into question not only by these outside influence but also by three other developments.
First, he points out, there has been a dramatic shift in the balance of well-integrated Muslims and less-integrated Muslims because of the influx of massive numbers of Azerbaijanis and Central Asians, many of which have a very different way of life and point of view than do their co-religionists who have lived in Russia for centuries.
Second, as Silant’yev notes and as almost all other commentators have as well, the demographic decline of ethnic Russians and the continuing growth of historically Muslim nationalities means that the balance between these two groups has shifted, creating fears on the side of the first and expectations on the part of the other.
And third, he says, the Muslim community in Russia and the Russian government as well have failed to develop a program to counter those bringing in extremist ideas. In particular, he says, Russia lacks an adequate system of Muslim higher education, a situation that puts Russian mullahs at a clear disadvantage to the outsiders.
Few Muslim commentators in Russia would disagree with that line of argument as far as it goes, but increasingly – and this indirectly confirms Silant’yev’s point – many of them would argue that there are other causes of this estrangement between Russia’s Muslims and the rest of the Russian population.
Many argue that Russians and the Russian government bear responsibility for the isolation and alienation of Muslim communities who once valued and sought integration. Fabricated cases against Muslims, closing of mosques, arrests of mullahs, and often ugly discrimination against Muslims in Russian institutions, they say, all have played a role.
In the last week, the situation deteriorated further after a Russian court, relying not on religious and human rights expertise but rather the conclusions of linguists and criminal psychologists, held that the works of theologian Said Nursi were extremist and subject to ban (
Nursi is a controversial figure in some circles, but the way this case was handled – for devastating summaries of its history, see and -- has further divided Russia’s Islamic community from its fellow citizens and from their government.
One measure of this deepening split is the language some Muslims and human rights activists are using to describe what they see as broader repression against the Islamic faithful orchestrated by the Russian government and supported by xenophobia among non-Muslim Russians.
Three examples of this new and more emotionally charged vocabulary include the following. First, Nafigulla Ashirov, the mufti of the Asiatic Part of Russia, denounced Moscow’s moves in the Nursi case as an effort to “destroy Islam …under the guise of the struggle with extremism.” (, May 18).
Second, Sergei Sychev, who led the defense team on behalf of the publishers of Nursi’s works in Russian, said “our country is so constructed that it cannot live without victims. It is obligatorily necessary to bring something as a victim to support something else (
“More died in Soviet camps,” he continued, “than in the concentation camps of fascist Germany. In the bowels of the special services and law enforcement organs, a theory of repression was developed and then applied.” And that means that “specific people” are always behind crimes committed in the names of fighting various “-isms.”
And even more inflammatory than that, at least for a Russian audience, two Muslim commentators on the recent wave of false arrests of mullahs in the Middle Volga begin their article ( with the famous words of Pastor Niemoller who suffered under the Nazis:
“When they came for the communists,” he wrote, “I stayed quiet because I wasn’t a communist. When they came for the Jews, I stayed quiet, because I wasn’t a Jew. When they came for the Catholics, I stayed quiet because I was a Protestant. And when they came for me, there was no one left who could speak out on my behalf.”

No comments: