Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Window on Eurasia: 40,000 Muslims from Russia Want to Make the Haj This Year

Paul Goble

Vienna, October 3 – Some 40,000 Muslims in the Russian Federation have applied to go on the haj to Mecca this year, more than double the number who went last year and almost twice as many as the longstanding Saudi-imposed quota for that country of 20,500, Russian officials said today
And these officials added that as a result of this dramatic rise and pressure from President Vladimir Putin to raise the Russian quota to compensate for Soviet times when few Muslims from the USSR made the haj, the Saudis have boosted Russia’s alotment to 25,000 (
But even with that larger quota, officials in the Muslim Spiritual Directorates (MSDs), regional governments, and the state’s Haj Commission will have to rank the applicants according to one or another characteristic and thus disappoint almost 15,000 of those who say they want to go this year.
But the additional 4500 slots that the Saudis have allocated to the Russian Federation’s Muslims will make that task easier. And some regions may be able to get under their sub-quota limits by excluding those who went last year – which is what Daghestan is doing – or boosting the chances of the elderly – as in Chechnya.
But even though most Muslims in the Russian Federation and many officials in the Russian government greeted the Saudi decision to make an exception for Russia’s Muslims, there are at least three reasons why this latest step may create serious problems in the future.
First, by violating their own rules and giving in to Moscow this year, the Saudis have opened the door to new pressures in the future not only from the Russian government in the future but also from other countries with significant Muslim populations to boost their quotas.
As guardians of the Holy Places of Islam, the Saudis have set annual national quotas for hajis at one-tenth of one percent of the number of Muslims in each country. Saudi officials say that if they did not do so, they would be unable to cope with the number of hajis from around the world.
In some countries, that has meant that those wanting to go on the haj have to wait in line for ten or even 15 years, with no certainty that they will still be alive when their turn comes. But until now, the Saudis have held the line, fearful that breaching it any one place could lead to the collapse of this system.
But now, having yielded to Russian pressure, the Saudis are certain to face it from other governments and perhaps even from the Russian government as well again next year. And when Muslim groups realize that is happening, they will put pressure on their leaders to do the same.
Second, up through last year, the number of Muslims in the Russian Federation who wanted to make the haj had been below the Saudi quota: 19,000 in 2006, 13,000 in 2005, and smaller numbers going back to the end of the Soviet period when only a handful of Muslims from the USSR were able to make this pilgrimage.
Now, rising incomes – it is worth noting that half of those going on the haj will travel by air, a greater percentage than ever before in post-Soviet Russia -- and increasing interest in Islam has pushed the number up far higher and faster than anyone expected, and that means that at least 15,000 of them are going to be disappointed this year.
On the one hand, many of those excluded will be angry as well as disappointed, and their anger is likely to be exploited by radicals in the Muslim community in the Russian Federation. And on the other, at least some of them are certain to question the structures that are deciding which of them can go and which cannot.
That in turn almost certainly will spark additional questions about and demands for doing away with the MSDs, which few Muslims view as legitimate, and also for reducing or even eliminating the Russian government’s role in the selection process, especially since many of the officials involved are not themselves Muslims.
And third – and this is likely to be the biggest headache for Moscow in the near term -- Russian officials charged with reaching out to the Muslim world will have to explain why Russia got preferential treatment for its Muslims and what if anything Moscow is prepared to do to help Muslims elsewhere.

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