Monday, December 31, 2007

Window on Eurasia: Russia’s Muslims in 2007 -- The Best of Times or the Worst?

Paul Goble

Vienna, December 31 -- In their year-end reviews, Muslim leaders in the Russian Federation argue that their community made enormous progress in 2007. But Russian academic specialists on Islam suggest that Russia’s Muslims should not be so upbeat, with one insisting Russia’s Muslims are currently “in a state of the deepest crisis.”
Among the positive developments over the past year Muslim leaders pointed to were the largest haj from Russia ever, rising mosque attendance especially among the young, the opening of new mosques in many parts of the country, and the expansion of Muslim media activities.
(These assessments can be found at,,, and
Moreover, they cited the Russian government’s decision to provide more funding for Muslim groups and to recognize the diplomas of Muslim universities, Moscow’s increased attention to the Muslims of Russia as an important part of Russian society, and the Kremlin’s opposition to the introduction of Orthodox Christian courses in Russia’s school.
But the greatest accomplishments of 2007, almost all of them said, were three: increased social and political activism by Russia‘s Muslims, their own moves to create a Council of Ulema to guide Russia’s Muslims, and newly expanded contacts with Muslims abroad and with governments where Muslims live.
At the same time, however, the Russian Federation’s various Muslim leaders said that the situation of the country’s Islamic community was far from ideal and that both the leadership and the country’s more than 20 million Muslims would have to continue to work hard in 2008.
The leaders identified five such problems that need resolution. First, they said, far too few mullahs have sufficient theological education to be able to counter extremist groups. Many still lack any formal training in Islam and thus are often at a loss when challenged by radicals.
Second, the leaders of Russia’s Islamic community said, the feuding Muslim Spiritual Directorates (MSDs) and the two super-directorates, the Union of Muftis of Russia (SMR) and the Central MSD need unity so that non-Muslims, including the Russian state will have an interlocutor.
Third, Muslim leaders need to address the issue of what is to become of those Muslim training centers whose diplomas are not going to be recognized by the state. Should they close? Or should they be upgraded? And related to that, what role should the state have in evaluating lower-level Muslim educational institutions?
Fourth, even though outside the North Caucasus, Russia’s Muslims are overwhelmingly followers of the Hanafi legal school of Sunni Islam, they have not created the “unified theological and legal space” they need, although the creation of an active Council of Ulema could do so.
And fifth, Muslims need to develop closer relations with the government at all levels both to ensure that the voices of the Islamic community are heard in the corridors of power and to enlist the government’s help in blocking the aspirations of the Russian Orthodox Church to dominate the country and overcoming anti-Muslim sentiments in Russian society.
But even in listing these “minuses,” the self-confidence, not to say self-satisfaction of most Muslim leaders this year is palpable. Thus it is not surprising that one of them felt compelled to remind his colleagues that Islam bans the consumption of champagne even during New Years’ celebrations (
Such upbeat conclusions are the norm in most year-end reviews by the leaders of any community and thus are unlikely to receive much attention. But in contrast, the year-end comments by Moscow academic specialists about the state of Islam in the Russian Federation stand out because they are not only overwhelmingly negative but even gloomy.
The most downbeat comments came as might be expected from Roman Silantyev, a specialist on Islam for the Orthodox Church who lost his position as executive secretary of the Inter-Religious Council more than a year ago for his negative remarks about Muslim leaders.
In remarks to the Russian media, Silantyev not only suggested that there are fewer Muslims in Russia than even President Vladimir Putin has said but argued in addition that Russia’s Muslim community and its leaders at the present time are mired “in the deepest crisis” (
According to the controversial writer, “unfortunately, the last 19 years in Russian Islam have been the blackest period in its history. Russian Islam has become the victim ideological expansion from abroad and, unlike [the country’s] other traditional religions, it has suffered from this more severely.”
A major reason for this, Silantyev continued, is a shortage of well-trained cadres. Only three of four of the country’s 65 muftis know Arabic well, he said, and despite the expansion in the number of mosques, there are almost no new mullahs being trained to lead them.
That has opened the door for extremists from abroad, allowing them to recruit among Muslims locally. One measure of this disturbing trend, he said, is that in his view, some 70 percent of all Muslim media, print and electronic, in the Russian Federation is controlled by Wahhabis and the followers of other radical groups.
Unless the state intervenes to promote the training of mullahs inside Russia and to crack down hard on the radicals, he continued, “the thousand-year-long tradition of inter-religious peace in Russia will come to an end.” Indeed, he said, “the stratum of Muslims who want to live in peace with Christians is becoming extraordinarily small.”
Two other Moscow specialists also expressed their concerns, albeit in more measured language. Writing in Nezavisimaya gazeta-Religii, Aleksei Malashenko of the Carnegie Moscow Center argued that politicization and radicalization of Russia‘s Muslims had continued during 2007(
In another article, Malashenko said that the failure of Muslims to act as a corporate political entity in the December 2 parliamentary elections should not lead anyone to conclude that they will not do so in the future, especially if they feel that the state is failing to check Islamophobia (
And Aleksandr Ignatenko, of the Institute for Religion and Politics and its oft-quoted web portal, added that Islamophobia is indeed a serious concern but its existence should not blind anyone to the reality that “religious-political extremism” among Muslims remains a problem, especially in the North Caucasus (
Indeed, he argued, in place of the armed conflicts that had dominated that region in the past have arisen an ideological extremism which “mimics” Islam, attracting the unwary to its banners and presenting the Russian authorities with a variety of challenges they have not yet figured out how to cope with.
Ignatenko said that defeating this ideological challenge, one that currently takes the form of the distribution of “hundreds of thousands if not millions” of radical texts among Russia’s Muslims, would require a multi-faceted campaign including “ideological, social-economic, legal, and international diplomatic” actions.”
But in calling for just such an effort, Ignatenko cautioned that it must be carried out with “the greatest of care” lest it contribute to the further “traumatization” of Russia’s Muslims not only by offending them directly but by giving Islamophobic groups in the broader population the dangerous sense that the government is on their side.
Bridging these divides over what the facts of this case actually are and even more over what Muslims, on the one hand, and the Russian government, on the other, should do about them is not going to be easy for any of those involved. And as a result, these controversies are likely to form an increasingly important part of Russian life in 2008.

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