Thursday, January 17, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Will Russia’s Muslims March under Russia’s Flag in Mecca Next Year?

Paul Goble

Baku, January 17 – This year, as apparently has been the case ever since the number of Muslims from the Russian Federation making the haj increased dramatically in the 1990s, Muslim pilgrims from that country did not assemble in Mecca under their country’s banner but rather under the flags of their national republics or even nations.
Such behavior, one Russian haji said, offended him, complicated the work of the Saudis and caused Muslims from elsewhere to wonder what is happening in Russia. But more seriously, such behavior raises the question of the ultimate loyalties of Russia’s Muslims and whether they can represent Moscow in its dealings with the Islamic world.
Now that the roughly 26,000 Muslims from Russia have returned from the holy places in Saudi Arabia, many of their co-religionists inside the country are beginning to reflect on how Russians should organize such pilgrimages in the future and on the role Russia’s Muslims should play in that country’s relations with Muslim countries.
Two products of such reflections are particularly instructive about the future of Russia’s Muslim community and its relationship with the central Russian government, the national republics in which many of its members live, and the worldwide umma of which they are a part.
In the first of these, Ibragim Techiyev, a leader of the Russian Islamic Inheritance who performed the haj this year, not only complained bitterly about several aspects of his experience but also proposed that Moscow assume an even greater measure of control over Russian hajis in the future (
His biggest complaint concerned what he said was the incompetence and greed of the Russian tour companies who failed to provide adequate food, transport or medical care for the hajis and kept asking them to pay extra for services that the Russian pilgrims had already paid for in advance.
Moreover, these tour firms, instead of hiring professional guides from the local population, recruited Russians studying in Saudi Arabia. And having done that, the firms did not train or adequately supervise them, and sometimes the tour operators did not even ensure that the guides showed up or knew what the Saudis expected.
Such problems, he said with obvious anger and regret, “occurred only among the Russian group of pilgrims. Muslims, who came from elsewhere, even those from the poorest countries, did not have such difficulties.” Only, the Russian hajis were thrown by their tour firms “to the winds of fate.”
Techiyev’s other complaint was that “the pilgrims did not raise their state flag” and proceed “as a group under “the Russian tricolor. Instead, the pilgrims from Russia “divided into groups on a regional and national basis and carried the flags of their republics and peoples.”
While the Muslims from Russia might have done so because the Russian Federation is a secular state in which the followers of Islam are a minority, no Muslim group from any other country did the same, something that embarrassed him and complicated the work of the religious authorities who did not know who was who.
Given these problems, Techiyev said, he believed that it is imperative that the Russian government take direct control of the haj process for Russia’s Muslims next year, thus ensuring that travel arrangements will be adequate and Russia’s Muslim citizens will represent the country in the manner that they should.
In a second article, members of prominent Kazan-based “Amal” Research Center discussed whether Moscow would be clever enough to employ Russia’s Muslims to lobby on is behalf in the Islamic world and whether this community in turn would be ready to do so (
Given the increasing importance of the Muslim world and the threat to it and Russia’s interests by U.S. involvement there – something the Amal analysts said would likely intensify this year but not end with the elections – Moscow needs to think about what groups it can turn to for expanding ties with the Islamic countries.
Obviously, they suggested, the Russian government cannot turn to “the Orthodox hierarchs with their ideology of ‘the Third Rome’” or to “orientalists and specialists on Islam who study the faith from the outside or what is still worse, engage in a dirty information campaigns to blacken Islam.”
Nor can the Kremlin rely on “the presidents of national republics who not only do not represent a large part of the Russian umma but lack an intellectual or analytic base.” on “’decorative’ muftis who cannot say two words not just in Arabic but even in Russian” or on “conformists” who are involved in Islam only for money or status.
Instead, the analysts argued, Moscow needs to help Russia’s Muslims develop intellectually and politically and they in turn prepare themselves for a broader role. But at a time when, as Techiyev pointed out, Russia’s Muslims do not even march in Mecca under the Russian national flag, it is far from clear that either group will in fact do so.

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