Monday, January 28, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Russia’s Muslims Urged to Become More Politically Active

Paul Goble

Baku, January 26 – Russia’s Muslims need to become more active in the social and political spheres in order to defend their community against attacks be they from the government or other groups and to promote the values of Islam in the broader society, two influential muftis said on Friday.
One of them, Mufti Nafigulla Ashirov, chairman of the Muslim Spiritual Directorate (MSD) of the Asiatic Part of Russia, has long advocated such steps. But the other, Mukkadas Bibarsov, deputy head of the Union of Muftis of Russia (SMR), has not. And consequently, his statement suggests that such sentiments are spreading.
Given Moscow’s recent moves to ban Islamic literature it considers extremist and various Russian nationalist attacks on Muslims, such calls could set the stage for more conflicts between Muslims and non-Muslims particularly during the run-up to Russia’s presidential elections this spring.
In an interview posted on the Islamic Heritage website, Ashirov denounced Moscow’s ban on Muslim literature as completely unjustified and argued that the Russian government had concluded it could move in this direction because of “the passivity of Muslim organizations” there (
“Not a single decision about the prohibition of Islamic literature” by the government was justified, he argued, something that Muslim leaders should have made clear immediately. But they did not, and if they do not do so soon, “this process will continue.”
The authorities are creating an untenable situation, Ashirov continued. Muslims need more than the Koran to understand their faith. But the Russian government seems to think that the faithful can get by “with the Koran alone.” And unless Muslims make that clear, the situation could easily get worse.
“Tomorrow or the day after tomorrow,” the outspoken mufti said, the powers that be “can prohibit all translations of the Koran and sayings of the Prophet Mohammed as well” just because in the opinion of non-Muslim “experts, some of the faithful “interpret them incorrectly.”
“This is absurd,” Ashirov argued.
And a close examination of the list of materials the Russian authorities have banned proves that they are attacking Islam rather than opposing extremism as they claim. Banned items on the list which are not connected to Islam, he said, include only ephemeral newspaper and journal articles.
But among the Islamic items banned, he said, are “fundamental books for the study of our religion,” books that “have been sold in all magazines and mosques, books “written by the most well-known Islamic theologians of the entire world, and thus books that have and continue to have much of value for Russia’s Muslims.
Given all that, the failure of Muslim leaders to speak out is outrageous. Their “passivity,” Ashirov said, is hurting Islam and means that in the Russian Federation, Muslims can “expect new rounds of repression.” That “passivity” must end, or Russia’s 20 million Muslims will be subject to “new repressions.”
Bibarsov’s comments delivered to a meeting of the Saratov MSD he heads and reported by the portal, were couched in more cautious language, but that may make them all the more significant as an indication of the direction mainstream Muslim leaders are likely to take (
Unlike Ashirov, Bibarsov did not talk about the Russian government’s ban on Muslim literature. Instead, he criticized the proclivity of mullahs in Russia to remain within the mosque and reduce the faith to “rituals and customs,” a pattern many of them inherited from Soviet times when that was allow the state would allow.
“But today,” Bibarsov said, mosques and MSDs “fulfill social, charitable, cultural and educational functions,” and that means mullahs, muftis, and the faithful more generally must go beyond the doors of the mosque in order to live and help organize their communities according to the demands of Islam.
Had Bibarsov’s remarks come a few years ago, they would have been dismissed as no more than a typical call for Muslims to follow Islamic precepts all the time. But in the current environment, they constitute a challenge not only to the faithful themselves but to the Russian state and non-Muslim Russian society.
And it is entirely likely that both his comments and the even more radical words of Ashirov will be picked up by Russian nationalist sites like DPNI and Russkaya liniya and presented to their audience as evidence that the Muslims constitute the threat these sites have always insisted they are.

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