Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Middle Volga Muslims Renew Ties with Central Asian MSDs

Paul Goble

Baku, February 6 – After a break of nearly 15 years, Muslim leaders from Russia’s Middle Volga region are re-establishing close ties with their Islamic counterparts in Central Asia, a linkage that almost certainly will affect the faithful in both places.
In Soviet times, the relationship between Muslims in these two regions of the USSR was extremely close. On the one hand, most Muslim leaders in the Middle Volga region were trained in Bukhara and Tashkent. And on the other, Central Asia’s Muslim Spiritual Directorate (MSD) often set the agenda for other Soviet Muslims.
But with the collapse of the Soviet Union, these ties largely collapsed or were overshadowed by the new relationships Muslims in both places developed with Islamic countries in the Middle East and South Asia and the very different intellectual and political trajectories the two assumed.
In the Middle Volga, Muslim leaders sought to recover the dynamism of the reformist Islam that their predecessors had promoted before the Bolshevik revolution cut short that remarkable renaissance, while in Central Asia, the Muslim hierarchies remained more conservative and subservient to national political elites.
During this period, Muslims from the Middle Volga both set up their own training centers or went to Islamic universities in the Middle East for training, while Muslims in the Middle Volga continued to study at Bukhara and Tashkent or at one or more of the medrassahs they or missionaries from abroad had set up.
As a result, the two communities that had once been so close diverged and seldom had much to say to one another. But over the last 18 months, both because of the internal dynamics of their own community and at the urging of the Russian government, Muslim leaders from the Middle Volga have begun to reach out to Central Asia once again. In an article on the Islam in the Russian Federation portal, Damir Mukhetdinov, the rector of the Nizhniy Novgorod Islamic Institute, discusses the long history of contacts between Muslims in the two regions, the breakdown in those ties, and current efforts to reestablish them (
According to Mukhetdinov, the key breakthrough in renewing these ties came during two visits by Umar-khazrat Idrisov, the head of the Nizhniy Novgorod MSD, to the region last year, an argument some other Muslims might dispute given the visits other MSD leaders also made last year.
In April-May 2007, Idrisov led a large delegation to Uzbekistan, where he not only met with people he had studied with in Bukhara 20 years ago but also promoted the work of the Bashkir and new Tatar cultural centers in Tashkent and political ties between the Russian Federation and Uzbekistan, where Moscow’s ambassador is a Tatar.
Perhaps the most important result of this trip was the establishment of cooperative relations with the Babakhanov Foundation, including its registration in the Russian Federation. That group, named for the family that led the Central Asian MSD for 80 years, promotes the traditional Islam favored by political leaders there and in Russia.
Then, in November, Idrisov made another visit to Central Asia, this time to Almaaty, where he took part in a conference on secularism and Islam in Kazakhstan and laid the foundations for cooperation in publishing, training, and the future exchange of visits.
So far, it is uncertain which group will have the greater influence on the other – the modernist Middle Volga Muslims or the more traditional Central Asian ones – or whether the two will find common ground in their opposition to Salafi radicalism that missionaries from abroad have brought to both regions.
But one thing is certain. Both groups have their own reasons for promoting these ties: the Middle Volga MSDs to reassert their influence and to demonstrate a more cooperative relationship with Moscow and the Central Asian hierarchies to win more freedom of maneuver that the regimes in their region have allowed them up to now.

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