Friday, November 23, 2007

Window on Eurasia: Russia’s Islamic Leaders Back Putin, But Some Muslims Tear Down His Posters

Paul Goble

Vienna, November 23 -- Russia’s Muslim leaders have organized their own movement to support Vladimir Putin by getting out the vote for United Russia and calling for an amendment to the Russian Constitution so that he can remain in office or otherwise serve as “leader of the nation” after his second term ends.
But one leading analyst has suggested that they are more calculating than committed in their support. And there is growing evidence that many Muslim intellectuals are angry about Putin’s policies and that many ordinary Muslims are sufficiently unhappy to ignore their leaders on this issue.
Moreover, and this may be one of the more significant stories of the upcoming vote, many Muslims appear to be outraged by the transparent efforts of the party of power to pander to them, while some non-Muslim Russians are prepared to penalize those parties actively soliciting Muslim support.
At the Third All-Russian Muslim Forum in early November, Russia’s top Muslim leaders called for amending the Russian constitution to allow Putin to stay on for a third term or even more. The will of the people should not be blocked on this point, they said in a resolution at that time.
Then this week, they formed a “Muslims in Support of President Putin” movement under the presidency of Abdulvakhed Niyazov, the president of the Islamic Cultural Center of Russia. And they sought the closest possible ties with other groups having the same agenda (
Over the last several days, this Muslim movement not only has received extensive attention from the Moscow press but also seen the organization of numerous local branches. And almost all of the coverage in the media has stressed the notion that this all shows that Muslims, like all other Russians, completely support Putin.
But Aleksandr Ignatenko, the president of the Moscow Institute of Religion and Politics, a member of the Social Chamber and one of Russia’s leading specialists on Islam, offered a more nuanced analysis of where that country’s Muslims stand in the upcoming elections (
He said he was “certain” that Russia’s Muslims will take “a most active part” in the elections” and that “an overwhelming majority of ‘ethnic’ Muslims (more than half) will vote for [Putin’s] United Russia Party.” As such, they will not constitute a special “factor” influencing either the course or the outcome of this vote.
But Ignatenko said, it was incorrect to view what Muslim leaders have been saying about Putin as an indication of total support. Instead, he suggested, such expressions of support reflected a careful calculation of their “own corporate interests” both vis-à-vis the larger society and in terms of political power.
Not only do such statements keep them squarely in the middle of the Russian political spectrum, Ignatenko said, they also appear to offer the chance that the Muslim leaders could get something they have long aspired to -- the creation of a Russian vice presidency explicitly reserved for a Muslim.
If the Russian constitution were to be changed to allow Putin to continue for a third or more terms, then, they clearly calculate, the way would be open for them to press for a Muslim vice president, a move that would threaten the country with “’Lebanonization’” or even “’Iraqization’,” the Moscow scholar said.
But if the very top leaders of Russia’s Muslim community are on the Putin bandwagon, there were clear indications this week that many Muslims lower down are now and even that some are angry at their own leaders for supporting the Russian president and his party so enthusiastically and uncritically.
In an article entitled “Who Speaks Out in Support of Muslims in Russia Today,” Adalet Dzhabiyev on the website lashed out at the presumption of those in the Muslim spiritual directorates (MSDs) to speak for ordinary Muslims about the elections and to form such a pro-Putin movement (
Such a step was “a shameful act of betrayal” of all honest Muslims, he said, the work of people drawn “out of the trash can” who can be counted on to do whatever “dirty deeds” President Putin and his lackeys in the Kremlin want carried out.
This act is especially appalling, Dzhabiyev said, because “Putinism today is the concrete manifestation of the traditional authoritarianism of the Russian Empire which was under the tsar and became again after 1991 ‘a prison house of peoples,’ including it would seem, the Russian people, in the name of whom the empire’s ruling class does its worst.”
Muslims have always suffered from this arrangement, and their leaders should not kowtow to those like Putin and United Russia interested in maintaining or even strengthening it. Instead, they should try to find parties which are prepared to “raise their voice against the cult of personality” in Russia today.
According to Dzhabiyev, the best of these is Boris Nemtsov’s Union of Right Forces (SPS). He acknowledges that for him, it is a surprise that it should be a party of the right rather than the left that is prepared to do the right thing.
“Those on the left, from whom many by habit awaited (and possibly still await) defense have so isolated themselves and betrayed the ideals of justice that their ‘leftism’ has” degenerated in Russia and “throughout the entire contemporary world” into “playing the role of ’Gapon,’” a reference to the tsarist agent who organized workers in 1905.
If Dzhabiyev’s remarks can perhaps easily be dismissed as those of a single disgruntled intellectual, two other reports this week point to a deeper malaise among Russia’s Muslims concerning Putin and United Russia -- even if they do not suggest that Muslims will vote en bloc against either.
On the one hand, a poll conducted in Grozniy, the capital of Chechnya, earlier this month found that 26 percent of the Chechens there said they support United Russia, with 16 percent saying they backed the Communist Party, 14 percent Yabloko, 11 percent Just Russia, and 8 percent Vladimir Zhirinovskiy’s Liberal Democrats.
While United Russia leads among voters there, its plurality is far smaller, and the support for the other parties far larger than most polls suggest is the case in the Russian Federation as a whole (
And on the other, residents of Ingushetia went on a rampage Wednesday night, tearing down election posters put up by the United Russia Party and others in support of the Putin Plan. According to the news portal, they did so to protest the Kremlin’s backing of unpopular regional leader Murat Zyazikov.
They were also infuriated by the reports that one local official had brought back to Nazran 20,000 ballots already marked with votes for United Russia. And anger about both things led local officials to arrange for militiamen to guard every one of the remaining posters (
But if some rank and file Muslims are angry at Putin and his party for their policies, many others are furious about the Kremlin’s patronizing attitude during this election season, and even more non-Muslim Russians apparently are prepared to vote against parties and leaders with “too much” Muslim support, something that perhaps gives Putin pause.
A year ago, officials of the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church declared without any dissent that Rashid Nurgaliyev, Russia’s interior minister and the highest ranking ethnic Muslim in Moscow, had formally converted to Christianity, an action that angered many Muslims at the time.
But during this election season and given reports that Putin is considering appointing him to succeed Mintimir Shaimiyev as president of Tatarstan, Nurgaliyev has been presenting himself as a practicing Muslim to the enthusiasm of at least one mullah (see, for example, but the anger of others.
One reporter for the service compared this transparent misrepresentation of Nurgaliyev’s faith to the actions of US President George W. Bush who, he said, “also from time to time visits mosques,” even though that does not “prevent him from conducting an anti-Islamic war on all fronts.”
Nurgaliyev, the journalist continued, is the same. He has overseen “numerous acts of repression against the followers of Islam, the fabrication of criminal cases, the persecution of imams and simple people who visit mosques, and the torture of those Muslims condemned to prison.” But when elections come around, he presents himself entirely differently.
Then, the service said, Nurgaliyev and others like him may actually do some good, and for that, they deserve some gratitude. But unfortunately for those who have been their victims in the past, neither Russia nor any other country lives in a permanent electoral campaign ( http://Islam
At the same time, anger among non-Muslims at those politicians who receive what the former believe is “too much” support from Muslims is being expressed in two ways: falling poll numbers and, in one terrible case, a violent attack that has left one Yabloko activist near death as of this writing.
According to the polling agency,, the Union of Right Forces (SPS) has been losing support supposedly because many Russians have decided that it has been far too critical of the Russian Orthodox Church and far too sympathetic to Russia’s Muslim population (
That the SPS should be in this position now is interesting. The party’s leader Boris Nemtsov landed in hot water with Muslims a month ago when he suggested that Putin’s pro-natalist policies applied equally across the country would lead to a spike in the birthrate among Muslims.
That prompted him to give an interview in which he acknowledged he had “made a mistake” but said he “couldn’t be an Islamophobe” because is wife, Raisa Akhmetovna, is part Tatar, and because at least some Tatar blood thus flows in the veins of daughter (
But more tragically in personal terms if less politically significant, the leader of the Yabloko Party in Daghestan was shot five times on Wednesday night. He is in a coma on artificial respiration and may not live. Officials in Makhachkala have launched an investigation (

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