Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Window on Eurasia: Silant’yev Finds, Fights ‘Wahhabis’ on Sakhalin

Paul Goble

Vienna, May 30 – Muslims, including some with extremist views, are increasingly active across the Russian Federation, including in many places which until very recently did not have any Muslim residents at all, according Roman Silant’yev, the controversial Russian Orthodox specialist on Islam.
Two weeks ago, Silant’yev visited Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk to deliver a lecture and also to examine the religious situation in one of the most distant parts of the Russian Federation. His comments – which already have been criticized by Muslims -- are now available at
According to Silant’yev, who lost his position as executive secretary of the Inter-Religious Council following Muslim complaints about his first book on Islam and who now heads the human rights department at the Russian Public Council, there are currently some 12,000 Muslims on Sakhalin Island.
Like many Islamic groups in the Russian Federation, this large and growing community, Silant’yev said, is deeply split between those who follow the Central Muslim Spiritual Directorate (MSD), which he calls “traditional Islam,” and the MSD for the Asiatic Part of Russia, which the specialist said consists of “so-called Wahhabis.”
The Central MSD is headed by Talgat Tajuddin, who has styled himself Mufti of Holy Russia and is perhaps the Muslim leader most subservient to the Kremlin, while the MSD for the Asiatic Part of Russia is led by Nugman Ashirov, a more independent figure but not one many would describe as Wahhabist.
For Silant’yev – and he was more explicit on this point in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk than he usually has been in Moscow – the difference between “traditional” Muslims and those whom he calls Wahhabis has less to do with theological differences than with their attitudes toward Russian Orthodoxy.
The “traditional” Muslims, he said, are those who are “friendly” toward the Russian church, while “the Wahhabis” are those whose attitudes are characterized by “an unusual aggressiveness toward those who think differently than themselves,” including Orthodox Christians.
The Muslims on Sakhalin, Silant’yev said, are currently fighting over “who will build the most eastern mosque in Russia,” when if ever this mosque will be constructed, and where it should be located, an issue that involves property and thus exacerbates intra- and inter-religious tensions.
That is a pattern found in many Russian cities, the Moscow-based specialist said, and it is made worse by what he said was the tendency of Muslims, especially those far from the glare of publicity in the Russian capital, to seek to build their houses of prayer on sites guaranteed to anger non-Muslim groups.
In Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy, for example, Muslims wanted to erect a mosque directly above an Orthodox Church. In Ulan-Ude, he said, they wanted to put a mosque where a synagogue had stood. And in Vladivostok, the Muslim community sought to build a mosque in a memorial park.
As a result of popular anger, Silant’yev said, the authorities in all these locations have blocked the Muslims from building mosques where they want them. And even when mosques are built, they often remain empty and thus have to be sold, as he suggested was the case with a mosque in Sergiyev-Posad, the headquarters of the Moscow Patriarchate.
Speeches delivered in such out of the way places as Sakhalin are seldom as politically significant as those given in Moscow or another major city. But this one may prove to be an exception because of a situation that has arisen over the last year in the Russian Far East.
Last year, President Vladimir Putin named as his representative to that federal district Kamal’ Iskhakov, the longtime mayor of Kazan and a committed Muslim. Since assuming hiw new post, Iskhakov has, to the horror of some Russians and the delight of many Muslims, called for building mosques across that region.
By traveling to that region and arguing that Muslim “extremists” are behind the drive to build mosques, Silant’ev -- either on his own or more likely at the behest of others in the Patriarchate and the Kremlin -- is signaling that Russians in the Far East should resist rather than go along with Iskhakov.
Such resistance could spell trouble for Putin’s representative there and also for inter-religious concord, but even if that is the case, Silant’yev’s intervention is intended to test the waters for an anti-Islamic approach that if successful might be extended to other parts of the Russian Federation as well.

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