Thursday, January 3, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Moscow’s Notion of ‘Traditional Islam’ Offensive and Dangerous, Muslim Writer Says

Paul Goble

Vienna, January 3 – Increasingly frequent references by Russian officials and Orthodox Christian hierarchs to “traditional [Russian] Islam” are offensive to Muslims and can generate the very radicalism among the Islamic community there that those who use this term clearly want to avoid, according to a Muslim commentator.
In an article on the website yesterday, Abdulla Rinat Mukhametov notes that the notion of “traditional Islam” has been invoked so often that many non-Muslims seem to think that Islam in Russia is “almost a separate religion” from “other ‘Islams’” in other countries (
Abdul-Khakim Sultygov, who serves simultaneously as Moscow’s special ambassador for relations with the Muslim world and United Russia’s coordinator for ties with religions and nationalities, has come dangerously close to insisting on precisely that, Mukhametov says.
In an interview featured in “Argumenty i Fakty - Novosti” last September 8, Sultygov openly declared that “Islam in Russia is self-sufficient,” and that Russia’s Muslims are connected to the Muslim world abroad “only by the holy places and the haj – and not by anything else.”
Moreover, some, like Metropolitan Kirill, the powerful number two leader of the Russian Orthodox Church and man behind the Inter-Religious Council which unites Russia’s “traditional” religions, treat this term as if it were virtually a legal one even though, as Mukhametov notes, it has not yet appeared in the body of any Russian law.
(As a matter of fact, some Russian laws do refer in their preambles to the existence of “traditional” faiths in that country, but the texts of these acts do not define with any precision just what makes a religion “traditional” in Russia besides its acceptability to the authorities.)
Such a term, the Muslim commentator notes, is inherently offensive, but even more it is dangerous both for those who use it and for those to whom it is applied. That is because it posits a definition of the faithful in Russia very much at odds with the facts and because it contributes not to moderation but rather to the rise of extremism.
Like the followers of any religion, Muslims vary from country to country, region to region, and even individual to individual, Mukhametov observes, but to suggest that Russia’s “traditional” Muslims are separate from the worldwide community of the faithful is simply wrong.
Muslims are united by their faith, whatever their differences, and those non-Muslims who speak about “traditional” Russian Islam, which supposedly has always had good relations with and been prepared to subordinate itself to other faiths, are simply trying to isolate Russia’s Muslims from their co-religionists abroad.
Just how offensive that is to Muslims should be obvious to anyone who knows the central place of oneness in Islam, Mukhametov continues, but Russian government officials and Orthodox hierarchs, given their own experience, should also recognize how dangerous it is to pursue the policy line implicit in such a term.
The results of Soviet efforts to isolate Muslims in the USSR from others, he argues, show this clearly: “The isolation of the Muslim community, the attempt to create its own ‘Islam,” which basically was intended as a display in the foreign policy window for countries of the East led to tragic consequences.”
As soon as that regime loosened up and then collapsed, Mukhametov observes, “we got a wave of radicalization and vulgar primitivization” among some Muslims in the Russian Federation. Had the regime allowed for “the normal development of Islam, there would not have been anything like that.”
And he notes that Russian officials are not the only ones offending the community of the faithful and deluding themselves about the consequences of their actions. Many Western officials and commentators are doing almost exactly the same thing with their passionate but ill-conceived search for “moderate” Islam.
“’Traditional’ and ‘moderate’ Islam are in reality first cousins,” Mukhametov says. “Only in the case of the first, one is not talking about some correspondence to liberal values but rather about a certain loyalty, best expressed by keeping quiet, to the traditional Russian bureaucratic order.”
But now is not the time to keep quiet, he suggests, and the Muslim writer ends his article by urging Muslims to speak up and point out something even President Vladimir Putin has acknowledged: they are an integral part of both Russia and the world of Islam and should not be forced to deny either part of their identity.

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