Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Window on Eurasia: Russia’s Muslims Set to Test Haj Quota

Paul Goble

Vienna, September 11 – For the first time, more Muslims from the Russian Federation are ready and able to go on the haj to Mecca than there are slots authorized by the Saudi authorities for their community, a situation likely to trigger new conflicts within Russia’s Muslim community and between it and the Russian government.
A spokeswoman for Moscow’s Haj Council said today that the Saudis had not raised the haj quota for Russia’s Muslims from 20,500 to 25,000 as President Putin and other officials had requested and as Moscow officials had earlier suggested Riyadh had agreed to (http://www.rian.ru, September 11).
But because the number of Russia’s Muslims who want to make the haj this year will certainly exceed the lower number and may touch the higher one as well, the haj spokeswoman said that anyone wanting to go must register with a tour firm before October 10th to have a chance of being selected.
In the past, even though the number of Russia’s Muslims going on the haj has skyrocketed from a few hundred in the early 1990s to 3000 in the year 2000 to 18,000 last year, it has not come close to bumping up against the quota that the Saudi government agency responsible for the haj is charged with setting.
That annual quota, which the Saudis set as one-tenth of one percent of the total number of Muslims in each country around the world, has been at 20,000 for the Russian Federation for most of the past decade – a reflection of the Saudi judgment that there are roughly 20 million Muslims in that country.
The Saudis did agree earlier this year to a 500 person increment on the basis of Putin’s plea to allow Russia a higher quota given what he and other Moscow officials have pointed out is the pent up demand for making the haj among Russia’s Muslims who in Soviet times were denied any real chance to do so.
Saudi-established quotas, intended to limit the number of those making the haj to a manageable size, have led to long waiting lists in many countries. Because of these limits, Muslims in Turkey, Indonesia and Pakistan, often have to wait as long as ten years or more, with no certainty that they will still be alive in when their chance comes to go.
But for the Muslims of the Russian Federation, the possibility that they will have to get in line for the haj is something new and, according to an analysis prepared by a leading specialist on the history of the haj from Russia, could create some potentially explosive problems.
As I. Nurimanov writes in an article in “Islam in the Contemporary World: Intra- and Inter-national Political Aspects,” someone must be given the power to decide which Muslims will be allowed to go first and whether the current mix will be maintained or not (http://www.islam.ru/pressclub/analitika/osharu/?print_page).
In recent years, Muslims from the North Caucasus and especially from Daghestan have dominated the Russian haj contingent. Although they form far fewer than a quarter of all of Russia’s Muslims, they represent nearly 90 percent of Russia’s hajis – with Daghestani Muslims alone account for almost 80 percent of the total.
That pattern reflects both the greater religiosity of Muslims in the North Caucasus and Moscow’s desire not to further antagonize the peoples of that region. Any change, of course, could anger the North Caucasians, even if it won sympathy from the more numerous and more moderate Muslims of the Middle Volga and Siberia.
Not surprisingly, Moscow has not wanted to take any chances, and earlier this summer, the Russian Haj Council said that it would maintain the current regional percentages, even though that outraged senior Muslim leaders in Moscow, Kazan and Ufa.
Today’s announcement ups the ante, with tensions among these Muslim communities certain to increase: Those who benefit from the current system, of course, will argue that it should be extended, while those opposed may reject the Haj Council and the Muslim Spiritual Directorate (MSD) system, both quasi-state agencies, entirely.
But at the same time – and this is perhaps the greatest threat – the Kremlin’s inability to deliver on its promise to gain Saudi backing for an increase in the overall Russian haj quota sets up a new forum for conflicts between Russia’s Muslims and the Russian state.
And as Nurimanov notes in his detailed study, that conflict, which will first take place behind the scenes and reflect various kinds of official favoritism and even bribery, could rapidly move into the public domain, with everyone involved outraged just at the time when the Kremlin wants to present itself as a friend of the world of Islam.

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