Thursday, December 20, 2007

Window on Eurasia: Muslim Websites Uniting Russia’s Islamic Community

Paul Goble

Vienna, December 20 -- Islamic websites now serve not only as a common and independent source of news and information for Russia’s more than 20 million Muslims but also as a collective organizer far more powerful than the traditional Muslim spiritual directorates (MSDs) with their links to the Russian state.
That was the basic message delivered by speaker after speaker at a conference in Moscow yesterday on “The Internet in the Life of Muslims of Contemporary Russia,” a meeting organized to mark the fifth anniversary of the site and that attracted the editors of other sites, scholars, and politicians.
Yesterday,, the most frequently visited Muslim news and information site published an extensive report on the meeting ( And today, other Muslim sites, including Islamic Inheritance are providing additional details and the texts of speeches (
Organizers promise to publish in the near future a full version of yesterday’s discussions both online and in hard copy, but the reports just listed suggest that Russia’s Muslims view the Internet as one of the most important forces in helping to revive their community in post-Soviet times.
(One place where coverage of this meeting and indeed of the Muslim Runet more broadly -- including comments from individual Muslim bloggers -- will be found is in the weekly summaries now being posted on the Islam in the Russian Federation website at
For many of Russia’s Muslims, one speaker said, “the Internet today is almost the only window on the world of Islam.” And paraphrasing Lenin, he suggested that Muslim websites collectively are “not only an informer but a systematic organizer” of the umma in the Russian Federation.
Lacking a significant presence in the traditional Russian media and widely dispersed territorially, many Muslims in the Russian Federation rely the Internet to find out about their faith and learn what is going on with their fellow believers not only within the borders of the Russian Federation but more generally.
Indeed, another participant said, the Internet now “is unifying the umma by allowing it to overcome borders, conflicts and disagreements.” He viewed that as a positive contribution, but both some Russian officials and more than a few of the traditional MSD leaders are not so sure that this is an entirely good thing.
On the one hand, many Russian officials appear concerned that the Internet has promoted the integration of the Muslims of their country into the worldwide Islamic community, a process that has reduced the influence of Moscow on this community and allowed it to adopt a more independent position.
And on the other, some MSD leaders are unhappy that websites often have more influence than they do and report criticism of the traditional leadership rather than simply singing its praise. Increasingly, of course, MSD leaders are operating their own sites, although many of these are relatively inactive.
But perhaps the most important speech to this gathering was delivered by Shamil Sultanov, who was a member of the fourth Duma. Arguing that the next five to seven years are likely to be extremely difficult for the Russian Federation as a whole, he said that Muslim sites must help prepare their visitors for that.
At present, he added, Russia’s Muslims are neither sufficiently politically active as a group nor in possession of “a picture of the world” on which to base their actions. If the Internet can provide that picture, then it will not only integrate Russia’s Muslims as a community but allow them to play a vastly expanded role in the life of the country.

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