Friday, June 22, 2007

Window on Eurasia: Moscow Presses Saudis to Double Russia's Haj Quota

Paul Goble

Vienna, June 22 –Akhmed Balilov, the chairman of the Russian Federation Council on the Haj, is in Saudi Arabia this week pushing for a doubling of Russia’s haj quota so as to allow up to 40,000 Muslims from Russia this year to make the required pilgrimage to Mecca.
The results of his meetings are not yet known, and they may not be announced for some time or even publicly because the Russian request is unprecedented. As the rulers of the holiest sites of Islam, the Saudis for decades have set national quotas for the haj of one tenth of one percent of Riyadh’s estimate of the number of Muslims in each country.
For Russia, the Saudis have thus set a quota of 20,000 – based on the figure of 20 million Muslims in the Russian Federation. But last year, the number of Russia’s Muslims making the haj was at least 19,500 and may have even exceeded the formal Saudi number (, June 20)
As a result, last month, during his meetings with Saudi leaders, Russian President Vladimir Putin asked that they agree to double this number because the Soviet system did not permit very many Muslims to make this pilgrimage and thus there is enormous pent up demand.
Now, Balilov is trying to secure Riyadh’s accord to that request, but whether he succeeds or not, this situation is striking for three reasons: First, the Saudi estimate is based on the number of “ethnic” Muslims in the Russian Federation, not on the number of actual believers.
Second, Moscow’s effort to set a higher number for Russian hajis suggests that the Kremlin believes it now must respond or at least be seen to respond to greater Islamic activism inside the country even at a time when hostility to Muslims is growing among many Russian nationalists.
And third – and this could be the most important aspect– Moscow is seeking to raise the quota even though that almost inevitably means that more of Russia’s Muslims who make the haj will bring back to their own community at least some of the ideas associated with Wahhabism, the Saudi strain of Islam.
If the Saudis agree, the number of Russia’s Muslims making the haj will certainly approach the 40,000 figure: According to RIA “Dagestan,” 13,000 Muslims in the Russian Federation have said they want to go, a number that is sure to increase despite the fact that the cost of the pilgrimage will be 20 percent higher this year than last.

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