Monday, June 4, 2007

Window on Eurasia: ‘Traditional’ Muslims May Pose a Bigger Threat than Moscow Imagines

Paul Goble

Vienna, June 4 – In focusing on Wahhabism, Moscow has assumed that it has a firm ally in what Russians call “traditional” Islam, failing to recognize that Muslims in this group are both diverse and increasingly politicized and thus represent a serious challenge to Russian policies, according to one of Moscow’s leading specialists on Islam.
In a two-part article in the latest issues of “Svobodnaya mysl’,” Aleksandr Malashenko, director of the “Religion, Society and Stability” Program at the Carnegie Center in Moscow, surveys the complicated relationship between the post-Soviet state and Russia’s Muslims (
Among his numerous insights, perhaps the most striking is his insistence that Russian officials dealing with Islam have not only failed to understand those they have identified within that community as their enemy but also signally failed to understand those Muslims the they assume are Moscow’s friends.
If the first observation is common ground among both Muslims and the expert community in both the Russian Federation and the West, the second is not – and given Malashenko’s authority within it, that makes his argument on this point particularly worthy of attention.
In the view of most Russian officials, one that is in many respects a survival from the past, Malashenko says, “traditional Islam” in Russia is a homogenous mass that is inherently non-political, completely loyal to those in power in Moscow, and invariably hostile to all brands of Islam coming in more abroad.
None of these assumptions is justified, the Moscow scholar argues. First, Islam, even in its “traditional” form, is extremely diverse, even increasingly so. Treating this community as if it were all of a piece, as Moscow has been inclined to do, gives an opening to the radicals they do not deserve.
Second, the “absolutely inert” Muslims of the late Soviet period no longer exist. Like other Russian Federation citizens, they have been profoundly affected by the turmoil of the last two decades. Even though they remain deeply conservative, that does not mean that they do not want to view themselves as an “independent” force.
And third, Malashenko continues, Russia’s “traditional” Muslims are curious about their faith. If Russian officials do not allow them to learn about it from national sources, as is often the case, then they are likely to be at least curious and possibly attracted by some Islamic ideas coming in from abroad.
These assumptions, Malashenko continues, represent the continuation of Soviet and even tsarist-era ones, and reflect a profound but incorrect belief that Islam “must remain what it was, must operate on ‘traditional values,’ must help drive out deviations and heresies and act together with the ruling regime.”
Such a model is suggested to these officials by the Russian state’s relationship with the Orthodox Church, Malashenko says, because that Church “remains deeply traditional” and wants to be “close to the establishment.” It is “humbly conformist” toward the state, and it is unlikely go beyond the state’s ideology on most questions.
Indeed, given the composition of the Church’s clerical hierarchy, such a development is “simply impossible,” Malashenko argues. “The extreme, fundamentalist form” of Orthodoxy, although it “occupies a definite niche” among Orthodox believers “nevertheless is strictly dosed out.”
But none of these characteristics is true of Islam as a body of believers, even if there are some muftis who seek to curry favor by presenting themselves as at least or even more loyal and subservient to the state than do members of the clerical hierarchy of the Patriarchate, Malshenko suggests.
Fundamentalism is a longstanding part of the Islamic ideological spectrum, and consequently, as Malashenko argues, “in Islam in contrast to Orthodoxy there exists an independent religious opposition,” one that could under certain circumstances quickly broaden its influence and thereby contribute to the destabilization of society.
But because most Russian officials assume they can deal with “traditional” Muslims the same way they do with the Orthodox – a notion that informed tsarist and Soviet policy as well – they seldom recognize that “traditional” Muslims may well prove to be a far greater challenge than are the limited number of “extremists.”

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