Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Window on Eurasia: ‘No Guarantee’ Moscow Won’t Ban Koran, Russia’s Muslims Fear

Paul Goble

Baku, January 22 – Moscow’s decision to ban more books of Islamic content at the end of last year without any justification means that Russia’s Muslims “have no guarantee that tomorrow they will not ban the Koran,” according to leaders of the Islamic community there.
But still worse, the new bans put Muslims who want to be law-abiding Russian citizens in an impossible situation: What are they to do with books they may be reading that the courts or other authorities have suddenly and for Muslims unexpectedly declared extremist and whose possession has therefore become a crime?
The bans make no provision for that, and as several Muslim leaders pointed out this week, “not one Muslim in Russia is prepared to burn books” or simply destroy them in other ways if they contain references to Mohammed. Indeed, if they were caught while destroying such books, they might be charged with the crime of possessing them.
In an interview published on the Russian Islamic Heritage site, Fatykh Garifullin argued that “the entire Muslim community of Russia was shocked and revolted by the bans of Muslim literature announced last year both by an Orenburg court and the Federal Registration Service (http://www.islamnasledie.ru/news.php?id=870).
“As far as I know,” the Muslim legal specialist said, “all these books are based on the Koran and the Sunna.” For the last ten years, they have been freely available, “and no one had anything against that.” But now the Russian authorities say they are “extremist” without any apparent justification except that some of them came from Saudi Arabia!
Given the government’s approach, he continued, Muslims in Russia “have no guarantee that [the Russian government] will not ban the Koran” for equally unjustified reasons offered by supposed “experts” who do not know Arabic or anything about the Islamic faith.
But even if that does not happen, the head of the Tyumen kaziyat said, the Russian government has created an absurd situation. No Muslim is ready “to burn books or take them from library shelves,” but none of them know how they should proceed if they have such suddenly banned books in their possession.
And consequently, Garifullin continued, Russia’s Muslims must organize to demand the reversal of these unjustified judicial and administrative declarations by “establishing an expert commission of qualified theologians and scholars who could provide a competent assessment” of books Moscow now says are “extremist.”
In an interview posted on the Islam.ru website this week, Mukkaddas Bibarsov, the head of the Muslim Spiritual Directorate (MSD) of the Volga Region and a leader of the Union of Muftis of Russia (SMR), provides some additional insights on these issues (http://www.islam.ru/pressclub/gost/poreska/?print_page).
Because the ban on Islamic literature makes its ownership equivalent to the possession of illegal drugs and thus at least theoretically subject to the same penalties, Muslims who want to be good citizens of the Russian Federation, have been put in an impossible situation.
They can’t throw the books in the trash, burn or bury them, or tear them up into small pieces, the MSD chief said, because if they are caught in the act, they could be charged with a crime. And consequently, he suggested, some of them think they need to act with stealth.
“Each ought to burn the books, let us say those of Nursi [a Turkish theologian many officials view as extremist], all by himself, at night, outside the city, so that no one, and especially militiamen, will see what he is doing,” Bibarsov said, suggesting that this “theater of the absurd” recalls Nazi Germany and medieval inquisitions.
If the Russian government is going to ban books and Bibarsov is open the possibility that some should be, it must establish procedures for those who have them in their possession and are thus at risk of criminal charges to be able turn them in without penalty and also provide better justifications for these bans than it has offered up to now.
Unless it does so, the Russian government will allow radicals in the Muslim world to argue that Moscow is engaged “in a struggle with Islam as such,” a charge that even if it is “without foundation” in most respects, ever more of Russia’s Muslims will take seriously if the authorities do not behave in a more sensible fashion.

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