Monday, November 26, 2007

Window on Eurasia: ‘Ethnic Muslim’ Siloviki from Samara to Make Haj to Mecca

Paul Goble

Vienna, November 26 – Fifteen Muslim officers in the Samara branches of the Russian Federation procuracy, militia, FSB and other “special services” – what Russians call the siloviki -- will be making the pilgrimage to Islam’s holy places in Saudi Arabia later this year, according to a Samara paper.
And while its article on this was very brief – fewer than 500 words – where “Samara segodnya” got its information, what the paper said and how it said it are all things that say a great deal the complicated relationship between the Russian state and Islam (
First of all, the paper carefully noted that it had received this information not from either the officers themselves or their employees but rather from a report that had appeared the day before in a local Islamic newspaper, an unusual but not unprecedented example of the way Muslim sources are beginning to inform the mainstream media.
Second, the article noted that the idea for siloviki going on the haj was launched a year ago in Tatarstan, “as is so often the case” in Muslim affairs in Russia, and that officers in Samara having learned of it decided – and the names and positions of several of them are provided -- to see if they could make the pilgrimage this year.
They worked with the council of the local Cathedral mosque, which secured the approval of the regional Muslim spiritual directorate (MSD). And the 15 officers agreed that their party would include, in addition to themselves two representatives from Tatarstan and two other Muslims from the local mosque.
Perhaps to no one’s surprise, the actions of the Muslim siloviki from Tatarstan a year ago and the efforts of their Samara colleagues this one have prompted officers with a Russian Orthodox Christian background to participate in religious activities related to their faith.
But it is the third point, the way in which “Samara segodnya” reported this story that is the most instructive. On the one hand, it noted that this siloviki effort to participate in religious activities enjoys the support of both their bosses and the population at large.
Such attention to “traditions and religious symbols,” the paper said, is “proved by experience to have a positive influence on these workers, to strengthen their moral foundations, to increase their sense of responsibility and to improve their attitudes toward their services.”
And on the other hand, the paper pointedly refrained from calling either the Orthodox siloviki or their Muslim colleagues Christians or Muslims. Instead, it employed what is in Russia today more politically correct language, although language that few readers are likely to take seriously.
With regard to those officers who have participated in Christian activities, “Samara segodnya” carefully noted that they were “representatives of peoples which transitionally have professed Orthodoxy,” implying that these officers were only “culturally” Christians.
But with regard to those officers planning to go on the haj, the paper described them both in the headline and in the article itself as “ethnic Muslims,” a term that refers to members of historically Islamic peoples in the Russian Federation and other post-Soviet states who may not themselves be active believers.
The interest of these officers in taking part in the haj, one of the five Pillars of Islam that all the faithful are supposed to follow, however, suggests that these 15 are somewhat more likely to be active participants in Islam rather than simply “ethnic” Muslims.
The journalists at “Samara segodnya” apparently do not feel that they can suggest that, especially when such an acknowledgement would call attention to a reality – the increasing role of Muslims in many parts of the state machine – that many ethnic Russians find troubling.
And consequently, either the paper’s journalist or his editors decided that the better part of wisdom was to refer to “ethnic Muslims,” especially during this election season when ethnic and religious passions in many parts of the Russian Federation appear to be running high.

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