Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Window on Eurasia: Russian Government Opens Website for Middle Volga's Muslims

Paul Goble

Vienna, July 18 – Concerned that many Muslim media outlets in the Russian Federation are dominated by radical groups and thus exacerbate inter-religious and inter-ethnic relations, Moscow has provided government funds for the creation of a new online news service for the Muslims of the Middle Volga –
The launch of the site was announced during a Muslim youth festival in Kazan on Sunday by Aleksandr Konovalov, the presidential plenopotentiary for the Volga District, and Aleksei Grishin, a senior advisor on religious affairs to President Vladimir Putin (
(One measure of the importance of this site in Moscow’s calculations is that Yevgeniy Primakov, a longtime senior Soviet and Russian official with particular interests in the Middle East and the world of Islam, gave the site an exclusive interview for its first posting (
Konovalov said that his office, together with the Civil Society Fund, was undertaking this initiative because Muslim media in Russia today “are not meeting the ideological challenges of the times.” Other speakers seconded that, even going so far as to suggest that Russia lacks any professional Muslim journalists.
Grishin agreed, saying that most Muslim media regularly adopted “a non-objective” approach to any story involving a Muslim. “As soon as a Muslim is charged with a crime and arrested,” the Presidential advisor said, “in the eyes of the Muslim media he immediately becomes a martyr of conscience.”
Thus, he continued, it is necessary to develop websites that are objective and “loyal to the authorities” in order to counter those which have “extremist content,” a distinction that at least some of his audience almost certainly found disturbing however welcome the infusion of funds.
The new site, which its organizers say will present “the government’s point of view on questions of religious policy and religious education,” will also feature information on Muslim organizations and their activities in the Middle Volga and more generally.
But the most important thing about the new site, which may be a trial balloon for similar sites elsewhere, the organizers suggested, is that “the selection of materials for the new Internet resource must help to promote the formation of religious tolerance and respect to people of other faiths.”
Given the large number of Russian-language Muslim websites, it is unclear just how many people the new one will attract, but there are three reasons why this site, however interesting it may be, almost certainly will have exactly the opposite impact that its backers hope for.
First, to the extent that the new site does not report what other Muslim sites do, it almost certainly will be viewed by Muslims in Russia as little more than an official mouthpiece and thus its reporting is likely to be dismissed or even generate more rumors than are already circulating in the Islamic community there.
Second, the existence of this site and potentially similar others in other federal districts could easily become a pretext for denial of service attacks intended to close down existing Muslim sites, a step Moscow would likely try to justify as part of its anti-terrorist effort but one that would undermine the country’s fragile media space.
And third, followers of other faiths are unlikely to be comfortable with the fact that in the Middle Volga at least, the Kremlin appears to be tilting toward the Muslims: Less than a month ago, the Moscow Patriarchate entirely on its own opened its own regional news site for precisely the same area:

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