Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Could Moscow Pay Its Debt to Russia’s Muslims?

Paul Goble

Baku, January 22 – Russian President Vladimir Putin recently promised that Moscow would make restitution to Russia’s “traditional” religions for their losses in Soviet times, but a Muslim scholar suggests that there is no easy way for the Russian government to do so with regard to the losses of the country’s Islamic community.
In an interview posted on the Islam.ru portal this week, Damir Khayretdinov, an ethnographer who specializes on the Islamic community of Russia and writes frequently about contemporary issues, argues that Putin was speaking in the first instance to the Russian Orthodox Church but that Muslims must hold him accountable as well.
He describes three kinds of property that Muslims should seek compensation for – mosques, medressahs, and waqfs (businesses whose earnings support Islamic activities) – and in each case outlines why both Moscow and the Muslims will find it extremely difficult to agree on compensation (http://www.islam.ru/pressclub/vslux/rugodel/ ).
First, Khayretdinov says, Putin’s remarks concerned in the first instance church buildings the Soviet government seized and that the Russian government still owns. And while the Soviets seized and destroyed many mosques, the situation Muslims find themselves in today is very different.
Although “the majority” of these Muslim religious buildings have been restored since 1991, they have been rebuild “not thanks to the state” but “mostly” with funds provided by local communities as well as “with the help of foreign charitable organizations” in Muslim countries abroad.
When Moscow blocked the activities of these foreign groups, Khayretdinov notes, “the financial base of the Muslims of Russia was once again undermined.” That raises a most interesting question: “Who will pay the Muslims for that which has already been reestablished? For that which was forcibly taken away or destroyed by the state?”
That is a very different situation than the one the Russian Orthodox Church finds itself in, he continues, although “in certain regions” of the country, there is still the issue of “the return of the historic buildings of the mosques of believers. That problem also requires its own resolution.”
Second, he says, there is the question of the entire system of Muslim educational institutions like medressahs and mektebs which were “liquidated” by the Soviets and now “also need to be reestablished.” These too have been funded directly by the local communities or from abroad, but now the government is providing some money.
Unfortunately, Khayretdinov argues, “it is still not clear” how the Russian government-backed Foundation for the Support of Islamic Culture, Science and Education is making its decisions, “but in any case, this is a [useful, first] step in the right direction.”
And third, he continues, there is the issue of the restoration of waqf properties. In some ways these are “analogues” to the monasteries of the Orthodox Church. And there is no question that “this system must be reestablished” if the Muslim community is to be put on a sound and independent financial basis.
“But the problem here is that nothing has been done” about creating the necessary legal arrangements at the federal level for waqfs. Some regional governments have allowed Muslim communities to restore waqf properties, but without a federal law, their existence continues to be at risk.
But there is another aspect to the question of restitution for which there is no easy answer. That concerns how to compensate for the Soviet destruction of religious leaders, its destruction of religious literature, and its destruction of “national culture,” including the Arabic script – which “which had linked” Russia’s Muslims to the Arab world.
“To restore all this and especially to try to do it all at once will be complicated,” Khayretdinov says. But Putin has opened the door to the recovery of what the communist regime took from Islam, and Russia’s “Muslim intelligentsia must thus set this [goal] as its maximum program.”

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