Friday, November 9, 2007

Window on Eurasia: Moscow Sending Mixed Signals to Russia’s Muslims

Paul Goble

Vienna, November 9 – Even as President Vladimir Putin and the most senior leaders of Russia’s Muslim community traded compliments in Moscow, another Russian official in the Far East sent a clear signal that there are some very real limits to cooperation between the government and the country’s growing Muslim community.
Today, Putin told the Muslim leaders that he supports their proposal for state-certified diplomas for graduates of Islamic educational institutions and would continue to provide funding for various projects in support of the country’s Muslim community, Interfax reported.
The Muslim leaders for their part effusively thanked him for this, for his securing of additional slots for the haj this year, and for his efforts to expand Russia’s ties with the Muslim world, thus building on their call last weekend for changing the Russian Constitution so that Putin can remain in office.
But on the very same day, an official in the Far Eastern Federal District provided one of the clearest indications yet of just how sensitive and even controversial such government support for Islamic institutions is and what the limits now are on official aid to Russia’s Muslims.
In its coverage of the installation of the new head of that district, Oleg Safonov, Vremya novostei quoted an unnamed official in the district’s central office as saying that Safonov’s predecessor, Kamil Iskhakov, had effectively been kicked upstairs for his open backing of the small Muslim community there.
Prior to his appointment, Iskhakov, a committed Muslim, had been mayor of Kazan, and many analysts had suggested that he was named polpred to give him the seasoning and prominence that would allow him ultimately to succeed Mintimir Shaimiyev as president of Tatarstan (
But according to the paper’s source, Iskhakov blotted his copybook by his repeated calls for officials to help build mosques throughout the district, something that won him no friends there and apparently led the Kremlin to decide earlier this fall to kick him upstairs as the deputy minister for regional affairs.
Iskhakov’s “Muslim roots did not serve him well,” the source said, because “people in the Far East reacted negatively to his initiatives concerning the construction of mosques,” all the more so because “in that region,” the anonymous official added, “one can count the number of Muslims on one’s fingers.”
In fact, the Muslim community there has grown dramatically since Soviet times, but its percentage of the district’s total population is smaller than that of Muslims in most other federal districts. Consequently, ethnic Russians there were clearly annoyed with Iskhakov for backing Islam in so public a way.
His dismissal apparently in large measure for this reason – and it is worth noting that Interfax repeated this part of the Vremya novostei story thereby ensuring that it would reach a broader audience – thus is likely to constrain other officials who might be tempted to support Muslim activities in too public a fashion.
(The Vremya novostei article carried another unrelated but perhaps equally intriguing message: It noted that one of the most important tasks Safonov has is to finish construction of the federal highway Putin “opened” in 2004 -- only to discover that several important bridges had not been completed and much of the road not yet paved.)
Two other comments reported in the Russian media today not only supply context for these mixed signals but also suggest some of the reasons why relations between the Russian authorities and that country’s more than 20 million residents are unlikely to be untroubled anytime soon.
On the one hand, Archpriest Dmitriy Smirnov, head of the Orthodox Church’s department for work with the military and law enforcement agencies, told a Novosti press conference yesterday that all countries are multi-national and poly-confessional but that only Russians feel compelled to talk about this all the time.
It is now time to stop doing so, he said, not only because such discussions divide people but also because while it is true that there are many different groups in the Russian Federation, ”we are all [ethnic] Russians: we live in one country and everyone speaks a common language” (
And on the other hand, in an essay somewhat provocatively entitled “The Future of Muslim Russia,” Daniyal Isayev argues that “Russia as a state and civilization could not exist without Islam and Muslims” and that it is time to acknowledge that “Russia is obliged to the Muslims for its birth and rise.”
Islam appeared in the area that is now the Russian Federation both “centuries earlier than it did in many other regions of the world” and hundreds of years before the Russian nation and the Russian state arose, the Muslim commentator continued with obvious pride (
And while he acknowledged that the Muslims of Russia are “a religious minority” today, he pointedly noted that Muslims everywhere else had once had that status even in places like Mecca and Medina that now are almost 100 percent Islamic and are at the center of the Muslim world.
Some may find it “strange” to imagine that “precisely Muslim Russian could become the leader of the development of Islam in Northern Europe,” Isayev concludes, but other, even more unexpected changes in direction have characterized those touched by Islam over the last 14 centuries.
And consequently, he says in words that many members of the umma there and elsewhere may find inspiring, just what role “Muslim Russia” will be called upon to play in the future is something that “Allah alone knows.”

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