Baku, January 24 – More than 17,000 Muslims from Daghestan made the pilgrimage to Mecca this year, a number some 4,000 over their quota and one certain to raise questions about the Russian government’s ability to control its Muslim population and to spark demands by other Muslims there that they too ignore Moscow’s rules.
On the one hand, this figure announced by Makhachkala officials on Tuesday means that the number of Muslims from the Russian Federation was far more than the 25,000 that the Saudis agreed to after President Vladimir Putin pressed them to increase the national quota they had set at 20,500.
Because the Saudis set haj quotas for all countries allowing one haji for every 1,000 Muslims living there, the religious officials in Mecca had already been criticized by Muslims elsewhere, many of whom have been standing in line for years for a chance to make the pilgrimage, for raising the original Russian quota.
Now as a result of this week’s announcement, some of these same people are likely to be even more outraged, something that will certainly infuriate the Saudis who may feel they have been whipsawed by Moscow and may incline them to be much tougher in setting the haj quota for Russia in the future.
And on the other hand, Muslims in other parts of the Russian Federation will be upset as well. Even though Daghestan has always had the largest number of pilgrims since 1990s and while other regions have not always filled their quotas, Muslim leaders there have taken the quotas seriously on the assumption that others were as well.
The Daghestani announcement therefore is likely to lead some – particularly those in the Middle Volga who have always tried to live within the rules – to demand that Moscow enforce the rules that it has announced or alternatively expand the number of slots they receive.
But others – and Ramzan Kadyrov’s Chechnya is perhaps the most obvious candidate – will decide that if Daghestanis can ignore the rules, so can they. If that happens, it could spell additional problems for Moscow both in terms of domestic control and with regard to its relations with Muslim countries in the Middle East.
If these statistics were the most dramatic part of his report on Tuesday, Akhmed Magomedov, head of Daghestan’s State Committee on Religious Affairs, also provided some unusually detailed information about other aspects of the haj effort his committee oversees (http://www.riadagestan.ru/news/2008/01/22/61983/ ).
Magomedov said that his committee had carefully consulted “all interested federal, federal-territorial and republic-level” governments, Muslim Spiritual Directorates (MSDs), tour firms, and religious affairs officials both in Moscow and Makhachkala.
After selecting the tour firms that would be allowed to carry the hajis on their journey and the insurance firm that would cover them against accidents and illness, he said, the committee organized two roundtables broadcast on republic television about the haj.
Magomedov said that his committee had also set up a special “hot line” for pilgrims and their relatives at home not only to connect them in the event of emergencies but also to provide them with expert information about visa requirements and the laws of the Russian Federation and the countries through which the hajis travelled.
There were 54 special flights to the Middle East that carried 8263 Russian Muslims, of whom 7463 were from Daghestan. In addition, there were 13 charity flights organized by the Suleiman Kerimov Foundation.
The 2100 passengers on those flights, the Makhachkala official said, were “not counted in the quota of 13,000” that Moscow had allocated for the republic.
In addition, 720 buses carrying 9700 pilgrims passed through the special border crossing point going into Azerbaijan. By January 14th, Magomedov said, 17,381 people returned to Daghestan from Saudi Arabia, “approximately 98 percent of the pilgrims” from Daghestan.
Despite what he described as a remarkably successful haj experience for most of the faithful from Daghestan, Magomedov acknowledged that there had been problems first of all in the timely distribution of Russian government documents and visas and with the work of the tour firms.
. Flights and buses were overfull and did not meet international standards of hygiene. Moreover, there were disputes between the republic airline, tour groups, and the pilgrims over where they were to meet, how they were to move between various places, and what they were had to pay for particular services.
Next year, he suggested, hajis from Daghestan will have a better experience, but the way in which Magomedov and his colleagues lost control of the number of pilgrims this year means that in the intervening period they and their colleagues in Moscow are likely to have a far worse one.