Vienna, October 17 – Angered by Muslim criticism of the Moscow oblast governor earlier this month, four Russian Orthodox lay groups known for their Russian nationalist views have urged the most politically compliant Russian mufti to take control of Islamic communities now subordinate to another Muslim spiritual directorate (MSD).
In doing so, they are speaking to the choir: Talgat Tadzhuddin, the head of the Ufa-based Central MSD who sometimes styles himself as the Supreme Mufti of Holy Russia, has long sought to secure control over all Muslim communities in the Russian Federation.
And they are reflecting a significant trend of opinion within the Russian government, many of whose officials would like to see a single Muslim leader in Russian play a role like the one the patriarch plays in the Russian Orthodox Church, even though many have acknowledged that achieving this goal will be difficult if not impossible.
But at the same time, their letter, posted online yesterday, is certain to infuriate many Muslims as unwarranted interference in the religious affairs of their community and as yet another indication that the Orthodox Church is doing the Kremlin’s bidding, something that raises the stakes in the relationship between the two faiths.
A week ago, Muslim activists in Moscow oblast sent an open letter to that region’s Governor Boris Gromov to complain that his administration was blocking the construction of mosques there and warning that they would not vote for him and United Russia if this continued.
In their letter, the Muslims referred not only to specific instances of bureaucratic obfuscation but also to a variety of other issues, including what they called the “unjust” Soviet war in Afghanistan, where Gromov served as the last Soviet commanding general at the time of the USSR’s withdrawal.
That comment clearly infuriated the Orthodox Christian activists as somehow anti-patriotic, and their letter, posted on a website of the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church expressed first their rage and then their desire to subordinate Russia’s Muslims to a single power vertical (http://www.radonezh.ru/news/?ID=6507).
The letter, addressed to Mufti Tadzhuddin in his capacity as a Muslim leader, was signed not by individual members of the Russian Orthodox Church but rather by the Union of Orthodox Citizens, the National Assembly, the Radonezh Society, and the Union for Christian Rebirth.
Having noted their “indignation” at the complaints of Muslims in Moscow oblast and their suggestions that the war in Afghanistan was “unjust,” the authors of this letter then attacked some of the signatories of the earlier missive for various crimes punished and unpunished that the letter writers said undermined their authority.
And while suggesting that the Orthodox have “nothing against traditional Muslims and their mosques,” the authors of yesterday’s letter said that behind the Moscow oblast Muslims were the leaders of two other MSDs not subordinate to Tadzhuddin – the MSD for the European Portion of Russia and that for the Asiatic Part.
Both these are subordinate to the Union of Muftis of Russia (SMR), which is headed by Ravil Gainutdin, who has often been at odds with Tadzhuddin because of his greater willingness to speak out on behalf of the Muslim communities that are part of his organization even if that offends the Russian government.
According to Orthodox letter, wherever Gainutdin is involved, there are “scandals” that have a negative impact on the reputation of the Muslim community and its relationship to the Orthodox Church and to the people of the Russian Federation more generally.
The four organizations say that they “warmly greet the transfer of the Muslim communities of Vladimir oblast into the jurisdiction of the Central MSD and ask [him] to finally take the remaining communities of Central Russia away from [SMR head} Gainutdin.’
“Otherwise,” the Orthodox authors of this letter to the Islamic leader conclude, “the authority of Muslims here will fall to a catastrophically low level.”
Tadzhuddin, who rose to his current position in Soviet times and who has a reputation not only for close ties with the Kremlin but also for behavior – including the very public consumption of alcohol – which offends many Muslims in Russia, would be all too happy to oblige.
But Gainutdin has proven himself to be a far more skillful political infighter than other MSD heads, and Tadzhuddin may discover that this latest public support from Russian nationalist groups among the Orthodox Christian laiety may hurt him more than help him and the Russian state in his desire to become “the Muslim patriarch.”
In addition to laying the groundwork for yet another conflict between the Russian Orthodox Church and the various MSD leaders of the Russian Federation, this letter calls attention to a phenomenon described in two major essays posted online this week – the willingness of Orthodox nationalists to do what Kremlin leaders want no matter what.
In one, entitled “Orthodox Stalinism: Why do the Orthodox so Love Those in Power?” Pavel Urnov calls attention to the view among many Russian Orthodox nationalists that all leaders, including dictator Joseph Stalin, perform a “sacral” function and thus must be supported and obeyed regardless of what they do.
Such an attitude, he adds, helps explain why so many Russian Orthodox today can view Stalin as a superior leader despite his crimes and attacks on the church and despite the fact that Christianity is “not a political or state ideology” but a source of moral guidance for all (http://www.russ.ru//politics/reakcii/pravoslavnyi_stalnizm).
And in the other, a commentary by Orthodox journalist Sergei Putilov points to the increasing willingness of the Moscow Patriarchate and its laiety to put themselves “at the service of the state” up to and including support for anti-Christian and even anti-Church goals (http://www.baznica.info/index.php?name=Pages&op=page&id=4491).
According to Putilov, many in the Russian Church have forgotten in their rush to support whatever the state does or its leaders want have forgotten that “when the Church acts as one with the state, it inevitably becomes a participant in the crimes and misdeeds carried out by the civil authorities.”
That has specific resonance for today, he says: Given the current direction of the Russian government at home and abroad, “the close proximity of the Church to those in power means that the hierarchs” and the laiety should stop and reflect on what the real meaning of their faith before simply continuing to do the bidding of the state.