Friday, June 15, 2007

Window on Eurasia: Conflict Between Russia’s Senior Muslim Leaders Intensifies

Paul Goble

Vienna, June 15 – The long-standing tensions between Ravil’ Gainutdin, the head of the Union of Muftis of Russia, and Talgat Tadzhuddin, the leader of the Central Muslim Spiritual Directorate (MSD), exploded this week when Gainutdin leveled his sharpest charges yet at the leader of a Muslim community subordinate to Tadzhuddin.
On Thursday, Gainutdin convened a meeting of the SMR council to discuss the situation in St. Petersburg where two new ethnic Russian converts to Islam stand accused, in a case that has attracted widespread attention, of planning to assassinate that city’s governor, Valentina Matviyenko.
The SMR mufti told the Moscow meeting that the leaders of the Muslim community in St. Petersburg had failed to provide the necessary training among converts, had not kept the mosque there open for prayer, and had allowed the community to remain split along ethnic lines (
At present, he continued, the MSD of St. Petersburg and North-West Russia needs to address all these problems as well as the fact that there is only one mosque in the city and another under construction and none existing or being built in the oblast as a whole (
To remedy what he said was the inadequate “structuring” of the one million-strong Muslim community in the northern capital, Gainutdin said he plans to appoint plenopotentiary representatives who will be attached to the offices of the governors of both St. Petersburg and Leningrad oblast (
Not surprisingly, the Mufti of St. Petersburg Dzhafar Ponchayev reacted angrily to Gainutdin’s criticism, clearly viewing the SMR head’s remarks as a cynical effort to exploit publicity about the Matvieyenko case and attract the favorable attention of the country’s political elite (
The St. Petersburg Muslim leader rejected all of Gainutdin’s specific criticisms: He said that the mosque there had an active educational program, that it was open when Muslims needed to pray – more than 3500 do there every Friday – and that there are no serious ethnic divisions among the city’s faithful.
But Ponchayev made clear that he was angry not so much by the specific remarks as by what he saw as Gainutdin’s presumption in making them. The SMR mufti suggests, Ponchayev said, “that we are guilty. But when there were terrorist acts in Moscow, why did not Ravil Gainutdin repulse them – ‘Nord Ost,’ the metro, the apartment buildings!”
Moreover, and more to the point, he continued, he and his fellow mullahs regularly talk with young people and as a result, “there is no more peaceful region in Russia than St. Petersburg.” And as to the number of mosques, the northern capital compares favorably with Moscow, which has only five (, June 15).
“Our MSD [Tadzhuddin’s Central MSD] was founded already under Catherine II. Our muftiate is three times larger than Gainutdin’s. He is nothing to us. Therefore, we are indifferent to anything he says. We will never subordinate ourselves to him” and to the SMR he heads.
Another St. Petersburg Muslim leader, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told today “everything with us is in complete order. We are a cultured capital however much dogs bark at us. We meet routinely once a year with the authorities for [the holiday of] Sabantui. We also have conversations with priests and rabbis.”
“We don’t know any extremists,” the unnamed St. Petersburg Muslim said. “We pray in a timely fashion. If Gainutdin has problems, then let him speak about this. Moscow journalists relate to us very poorly.” He concluded the conversation, “Goodbye, and don’t call us again.”
Relations between the SMR and the Central MSD and especially between Gainudin and Tadzhuddin have never been good: Indeed, their differing positions on key issues and clashes between their very different personalities have been the stuff of critical commentary by Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
Some of the former have regularly speculated that these clashes have been orchestrated by those in the Russian government who do not want to see the emergence anytime soon of a strong, united and self-confident Muslim community in the Russian Federation.
And some in the latter have suggested that the inability of the two to cooperate provides what evidence is needed to show that Muslims in that country are not ready or able to work together, a situation that commentators like Roman Silant’yev have invoked to condemn many Muslim muftis.
But what this clash really reflects is the increasingly poor fit between the entire MSD system, itself a survival of tsarist and Soviet efforts to convert Islam, which is inherently a non-clerical and non-hierarchical community, into a single and thus more easily controlled structure resembling the Moscow Patriarchate.
The newly intensified clash between Gainutdin and Tadzhuddin at the very least will raise new questions about these arrangements and possibly force both Russia’s Muslims and the Russian state to re-examine all of them as each tries to find a way to manage an increasingly large Muslim minority in a non-Muslim state.

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