Thursday, June 7, 2007

Window on Eurasia: Nursi Case More About Political Loyalty than Religious Extremism

Paul Goble

Vienna, June 7 – The Russian government has sought to ban the works of Said Nursi ostensibly for their supposed “Islamic extremism,” but in fact Moscow is far more worried that his writings and especially their dissemination via Turkish lycees in the Russian Federation will promote pan-Turkist ideas among the country’s Muslim elites.
That conclusion is suggested by Georgiy Engel’gardt, a Moscow specialist on ethnic and religious questions, in an article entitled “Pan-Turkism in Lycee Auditoriums: The Real Basis for Charges Against the Nursiites in Russia” that appears in the current issue of “NG-Religii” (
Implicitly acknowledging that the explicit charges against Nursi are far from convincing – the same issue of this journal features an article in which experts dispute that the writings of Nursi are extremist ( -- Engel’gardt argues that “suspiciousness” about him did not arise “for no reason at all.”
Russia’s security structures, the Moscow analyst says, have had a variety of concerns about the Nursiites beginning in the early 1990s when the latter opened a network of more than 30 lycees and colleges in Tatarstan, Khakassia, Karachai-Cherkessia and other non-Russian regions of the Russian Federation.
The programs of the these institutions, the security services became convinced, were designed to promote “the indoctrination of young people in the spirit of pan-Turkism and the superiority of Turkish culture,” ideas that Engel’gardt argues have long been associated with Nursi – but ones, of course, that have little to do with Islamism.
And because these schools routinely sent a portion of their graduates to higher educational institutions in Turkey itself, the analyst writes, the Russian security services began to ask themselves “a completely justified question: to whom would [the elite trained in these colleges and lycees] be loyal – Russia or Turkey?”
The followers of Nursi, he continues, represent “one of the leading Islamic forces of contemporary Turkey, enjoying great influence both within that state and beyond its borders, in the first instance of the [often politically radicalized] Turkish diaspora in Europe.”
These ties have meant that the relationship between the Nursi movement and the Turkish government has not been a smooth or easy one: In 1999, Ankara banned the activity of the movement in Turkey and, by threatening his arrest, forced its most important leader to flee to the United States.
But despite these tensions, many in the Turkish government who are interested in expanding Ankara’s influence across the Turkic world appear to view the Nursiites as allies, albeit ones that Turkey cannot openly acknowledge lest it offend the governments of the countries, many in the post-Soviet region, where the Nursis function.
Consequently, Engel’gardt argues, it is important to recognize that the followers of Said Nursi “are in essence a political organization, which has branches in many countries” and whose current leader is currently living and functioning on the territory of the United States.
In 1999 and 2000, Moscow moved to limit the influence of the Nursis in the Russian Federation by restricting or even closing down many of the Turkic lycees there, but that alone did not end the influence of Nursi on the intellectual life of many Turkic Muslim groups there.
As a result, Engel’gardt continues, the Russian security services feared that even though the Nursiites and the followers of Hizb ut-Tahrir are “not one and the same thing,” the former could potentially have the kind of destabilizing influence in some of Russia’s regions that the latter already has had in Central Asia.
Russian concerns about the Nursiites were reinforced by the attitude of many Muslim leaders there. They did not view the Nursiites as competitors. The Nursiites continued to attend local mosques, and they appeared to promise further growth for Islam in Russia just as they had in Turkey.
These factors together led the Russian government to conclude that they had every reason to try to restrict the influence of Said Nursi. “One can criticize their method – the banning of texts,” Engel’gardt concludes. “But one ought not to consider this prohibition in isolation from the reputation the Nursiites have in Russia.”

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