Friday, November 16, 2007

Window on Eurasia: Muslim Neighborhoods Now Forming in Moscow

Paul Goble

Vienna, November 16 – An increasing share of the more than two million Muscovites of Islamic heritage are now living in ethnically distinct neighborhoods, a pattern that disturbs many longtime residents of the Russian capital who have little experience with ethnic enclaves but one that is encouraging some Muslim leaders living in them to make big plans for the future.
The largest of these “enclaves” in Moscow, an article in Komsomol’skaya pravda reported yesterday, is to be found in the city’s Butovo district, where almost a third of that region’s 200,000 residents are Azerbaijanis, Daghestanis, Chechens and Tatars (
Murat Alimov, who serves as imam there, talked with that newspaper’s Aleksandr Kots both about how some ethnic Russians are reacting to this development, about the relationship between ethnicity and religion there, and about what he and his community hope to achieve.
When Kots arrived, Alimov told him that he regularly receives emails from Russians telling him to “go back to [his] own aul.” But just where is he supposed to go, the imam asked rhetorically, pointing out that he is a native Muscovite who attended Russian schools there -- although he did receive his higher Islamic education in Qatar.
The Muslim leader said he came to Butovo to organize and then seek government registration for an Islamic community in which approximately 100 Muslims take part on a regular basis. Although that is a tiny fraction of the 60,000 ethnic Muslims there, Alimov indicated that he has great hopes for the future.
He told Komsomol’skaya pravda that he and his fellow Muslims hope to build a cultural center under one wing of the mosque, a Sunday school, a branch of the Moscow Islamic University and a halal market, as well as theaters, conference halls, hotels, and swimming facilities (divided by gender) just for Muslims.
To date, of course, Alimov only has his dreams, but his enumeration of them, Kots argued, suggests that he and other Butovo Muslims want to live apart from other Muscovites, however often they insist that they are very much part of the broader Russian community there.
And perhaps not surprisingly, many ethnic Russians are reacting to such assumptions by choosing to leave these neighborhoods for other areas, thus increasing the percentage of Muslims in them in much the same way that the rise of Islam in the North Caucasus over the last 15 years has driven many ethnic Russians from that region.
At the present time, Kots acknowledged, “Butovo is more the exception” than the rule in that regard. Muslims do form significant and rising percentages of the population in the Southwestern and Northeastern districts of the city but nowhere else do they constitute as great a share as in Alimov’s area.
Moreover, the journalist continued, “in these regions people unite more on the basis of their nationality than on their religion,” but of course, judging by the numbers Kots and Alimov provide for Butovo, that is still largely true there as well, however often Russian observers conflate non-Russian ethnicity with Islamic faith.
To supplement Kots’ relatively brief article, the editors of Komsomol’skaya pravda attached to his article two comments from experts: Igor Beloborodov, the director of the Moscow Institute of Demographic Research, and Ruslan Kurbanov, an academic specialist on Islam in the Russian Federation.
Beloborodov suggested that the appearance of such Islamic communities in Russian cities – and they are to be found not only in Moscow – is creating a situation that is sufficiently destabilizing that Russians as a whole should be willing to consider radical measures to prevent developments in these neighborhoods from getting out of hand.
On the one hand, the Russian demographer argued, Muslim efforts to create such separate neighborhoods underscores the harsh reality that “assimilation is a beautiful idea” that can seldom be achieved in “real life,” at least when those involved are of Islamic background.
And on the other, he said, the dangers of the rise of such Muslim-dominated enclaves are so great that Russians need to think about limiting the influx of such people and even using the power of the state to disperse those already here throughout the rest of the city lest they come together as they have in Paris and other Western cities.
For his part, Kurbanov insisted that such concerns were overblown. He noted that most of those Russians call Muslims are only members of historically Islamic nations rather than active practitioners of the faith, a situation totally different from the ones in Western Europe and the United States.
And he pointed out that even if Moscow’s Muslims do choose to live in neighborhoods with others like themselves in order to have easy access to halal markets and the like, they nonetheless remain far more integrated than the predominantly foreign-born Muslims elsewhere.
Most speak Russian and share many of the values and ideals of Russian culture, he noted, and because they are a minority even in these neighborhoods, they interact with Russians every day, an experience that will help integrate them unless members of the Russian community push them away.
But if that happens – and both the emails Imam Alimov is getting and the comments the Moscow demographer offered suggest that it easily could – then these Muslim neighborhoods could become ever more isolated and radical than either they or those living around them would like.

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