Monday, November 5, 2007

Window on Eurasia: Russia’s Muslims Seek Expanded Political Role in Upcoming Election Season

Paul Goble

Vienna, November 5 – Just as Russian nationalists are raising their voices in this electoral season because of uncertainties about the future, so too the leaders of the Russian Federation’s 20-million plus ethnic Muslim community are positioning themselves albeit in different ways to press for a greater voice in their country’s future.
Three developments over the long holiday weekend in Russia highlight this potentially important trend, one that has been largely ignored because of the more visible public protests of the Russian nationalists and because of legal prohibitions against the formation of ethnic or religious parties.
The first of these events, the Third All-Russian Muslim Forum -- the first was in 1917; the second, last year, both in Nizhniy Novgorod -- attracted not only leaders of the Islamic community from around the country but also administration and parliamentary officials and journalists.
The full extent of its deliberations has not yet been reported – Russian media were largely shut down over the weekend – but several of the comments reported so far suggest that this forum reflects rising Muslim anger about the way things are going in Russia and a greater willingness by that community to get involved politically.
Government representatives made it clear that they understand that time is now on the side of the Muslims. Veniamin Popov, the former special representative to the Organization of the Islamic Conference and current head of the Partnership of Civilizations Center, was the most explicit.
He pointedly noted that “the demographic clock is working for Muslims” both in Russia and in the rest of the world (, November 1).
In addition to announcing the establishment of a new website about Muslims in Russia and an expanded journalistic operation, Muslims at this meeting called for re-creating a country-wide Ulema Council to guide the spiritual life of the faithful (
Were such a body to be established – and one existed for a brief period after the 1917 revolution – it would constitute a powerful challenge to the existing system of Muslim Spiritual Directorates (MSDs), institutions that have given the Russian government since the 18th century significant control over the religious lives of Muslims.
Because this meeting was organized by the Union of Muftis of Russia (SMR) which is often been at odds with both the government and the pro-Kremlin Central MSD in Ufa, it is far from clear whether such a council will be created anytime soon and just how much an impact it might have.
But the discussion of this issue at this meeting in Moscow suggests that ever more Muslims in the Russian Federation back the idea and, what is certainly more important, are prepared to speak out about it, despite the opposition of many pro-regime MSD leaders and even more Russian government officials.
The second event was the Congress of the Peoples of Tatarstan, whose sessions attracted more than 700 delegates from the 115 nationalities and 66 national-cultural associations of that Middle Volga Republic. Among the speakers were Tatarstan’s President Mintimir Shaimiyev and State Council Chairman Farid Mukhametshin.
Shaimiyev described how inter-ethnic relations in Tatarstan have stabilized since the first such meeting 13 years ago, but he complained that Moscow’s policies in this area for the country as a whole were limited by its lack of “a special organ” devoted to them (
As usual, Shaimiyev adopted a middle course, suggesting that such a body could exist within the regional affairs ministry. But the congress itself suffered no such inhibition and pointedly adopted a resolution calling for the setting up a separate agency to oversee nationality policies (
Perhaps not surprisingly given the division of responsibilities between the two leaders, Mukhametshin was far more explicit in his remarks about what he sees as Moscow’s shortcomings in dealing with the Tatars and other non-Russians and what he would like to see happen next (
Specifically, the State Council head called for setting up a federal television station to treat the problems of and broadcast in the languages of the non-Russian peoples, having federal subjects play a role equal to Moscow’s in nationality policy, and ratifying the European Charter on Regional Languages.
To much fanfare, he continued, the Russian Federation signed that accord in 2001, but in the years since, the Kremlin has not pushed for its ratification. One of the major reasons is that the Charter would provide the basis for Tatarstan to use the Latin script rather than the Cyrillic for its language.
But however many challenges to Moscow these meetings represent, it is the third event – a statement about the elections by prominent Muslim businessman Adalet Dzhabiyev -- that is perhaps most indicative of the thinking of many Muslims there given rising tide of Islamophobia and the failure of the government, to counter it.
Dzhabiyev, who was the founding president of Russia’s first Islamic bank until Moscow closed it without explanation at the end of last year, has frequently spoken out on a wide variety of sometimes-controversial social and political issues in which his fellow believers are involved (
And now that some political groups both within the Islamic community and abroad are urging that their followers not take part in what increasingly appear to be less than fully free elections, Dzhabiyev has weighted in seven reasons why he says Muslims must vote (
First, he says, Russia’s Muslims must not allow “the restoration of totalitarianism,” a trend he suggests is growing and that can only be countered by greater civic activism of all kinds. Second, voting in the parliamentary elections will help reduce “the diktat” of the executive branch over the legislative one.
Third, by voting, Muslims can make it obvious to all officials that “arbitrary actions” by the police and judicial officials will entail real political costs. Fourth, voting will also help to ensure that Muslims will have the same rights as other Russians regarding where they live.
Fifth, by taking part in the elections, Dzhabiyev continues, Muslims will help to “guarantee the equal rights” of all confessions, not just their own. Sixth, they will help to secure social justice. And seventh, they will by their actions help to demonstrate “the necessity of inter-ethnic and inter-religious dialogue” to the political establishment.
Dzhabiyev’s arguments concerning what voting alone can do for the Muslim community of the Russian Federation are almost certainly overly optimistic, but they are nonetheless likely to help to undercut the calls of some to protest what is taking place in that country’s political system by staying home.
And perhaps most important, his underlying suggestion that Muslims must display greater political activism and more civic courage in order to protect their rights could lead more of them to do more in that regard than simply cast their votes either this winter or next spring.

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