Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Jewish-Muslim Exchange Threatens Religious Concord in Russia

Paul Goble

Baku, March 25 – An angry exchange between a leader of the Council of Muftis of Russia (SMR) and the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia (FEOR) threatens to destroy something Russian leaders have taken pride in – concord, at least in public, among that the leaders of that country’s “traditional” religions.
Earlier this month, Nafigulla Ashirov, SMR’s outspoken vice president, called Zionism “a form of fascism” and said that “the Jews do not have the right to their own state,” especially given their treatment of Palestinians in the occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza.
In response, FEOR, with the backing of other Jewish groups in Russia, demanded that the SMR disown his statements and issue a public apology, something that group said it would not do, noting its own frequent statements in support of Israel. That was not enough for FEOR, and the Jewish group has now suspended its relations with the SMR.
This very public exchange, being played out in both the print and electronic media, has led some experts on religious affairs to raise a call of alarm, one commentator said, over what is “the first serious conflict at the level of the leadership of two religious confessions” in post-Soviet history.
One reason for their concern on this point, Aydyn Mekhtiyev says in an article posted online yesterday, is that both sides have hardened their positions compared to February 2007 when the press service of the SMR had to deal with earlier anti-Semitic comments by Mufti Ashirov (http://azerros.ru/index.php/articles/2537).
At that time, Mekhtiyev recalls, SMR spokesperson Gul’nur Gaziyeva told Interfax that her organization was disturbed by “the latest incorrect formulations” of Ashirov, effectively disowning them, meeting FEOR objections, and preventing Ashirov’s remarks from becoming the occasion for inter-religious discord.
Indeed, she said, SMR head Ravil’ Gaynutdin has frequently asked Ashirov to “observe the rules of good tone, to develop a correct relationship to our brothers in faith, and, while defending the interests of Muslims, to not offend the sincerely held feelings of other confessions.”
But this time around, the Azerbaijani political observer notes, both the content and tone of the SMR response were different. Instead of denouncing Ashirov, Gaziyeva lashed out at FEOR, arguing in a statement to the press that the “respected” Jewish organization’s position reflected “a certain irrationality and shortsightedness.”
Moreover, Ashirov, clearing emboldened by an apparent shift in opinion at least within SMR, told Izvestiya last week that FEOR must make clear whether “it considers itself a Zionist organization.” If it does, he continued, then no Muslim will “have anything to do with it” because “the Zionists are committing crimes in Palestine.”
On its own website, the SMR has posted a declaration saying that it considers the conflict to have been a media-organized provocation and that as far as it is concerned, the discussion is over (http://www.muslim.ru/1/cont/8/1416.htm). But whatever the SMR leadership may hope or believe, that almost certainly is not the case.
At least in part, Mekhtiyev points out, the reason for such a conclusion is that the SMR leadership believes it now enjoy the support of the Russian Orthodox Church. As evidence, they cite the recent criticism of “aggressive Zionism” by Bishop Mark, the deputy head of the Patriarchate’s powerful External Affairs Department.
(That there remains widespread anti-Semitism among the Russian Orthodox was highlighted this week when some of them celebrated the 100th anniversary of the formation of the Union of the Archangel Michael, a radical nationalist group notoriously involved with pogroms (http://www.rusk.ru/newsdata.php?idar=176134).)
The content and tone of the declarations of both SMR and FEOR show, Mekhtiyev argues, that the two sides “are not ready for compromise,” even though the absence of some accord will make it virtually impossible for the leaders of Russia’s “traditional” confessions to continue to present themselves as united.
And that lack of agreement could threaten more than just the country’s image: it almost certainly will further exacerbate inter-religious and inter-ethnic tensions in Russia, possibly sparking a new rise in violent anti-Semitism there fueled by the statements of both Muslim and Orthodox Christian leaders.
Such a danger may explain why the Russian Federation Social Chamber’s Commission on Inter-Ethnic Relations and Freedom of Conscience has issued the following statement in response to the standoff between the Muslim SMR and the Jewish FEOR over Ashirov’s offensive remarks.
“Dialogue between the representatives of various religions was and remains a firm basis for civic peace and accord,” the commission said, while conflicts based on religion “always lead to destructive consequences.” That is a conclusion with which no one of good will can disagree.

UPDATE for March 25. The danger that this situation may deteriorate has been increased by a decision of Russian television to provide extensive coverage in recent days of Israeli military actions against what its correspondents call “peaceful” Palestinians, an Israeli paper has complained (http://cursorinfo.co.il/news/novosti/2008/03/24/krest/). And the Russian media has unintentionally highlighted the lack of inter-religious cooperation by publishing articles on a village in Mordvinia where representatives of five traditional religions reportedly get along (http://www.portal-credo.ru/site/?act=monitor&id=11985).

UPDATE for March 25. Several groups hope to use this conflict between the SMR and FEOR in pursuit of their own goals. One consists of those close to the other Muslim organization with pretensions to all-Russian status, the Central Muslim Spiritual Directorate (MSD) of Ufa. Perm Mufti Mukhammedgali khazrat Khuzin, who for many years represented the Central MSD on the Inter-Religious Council, told the Muslim-press.ru portal on March 24th that Ashirov “cannot speak in the name of all Muslims of the Russian Federation.” Anything he says, Khuzin continued, is his personal opinion and should be treated as no more than that. “Heaven forbid,” he continued, that Ashirov’s comment should lead to tensions between Muslims and Jews as a whole. “But there is no evil without some good. At least, the majority of responsible government leaders, researchers, and heads of traditional confessions have had their eyes opened, and they begin to see the fruits of the real destructive activity of certain ‘representatives of Islam.’” Another are those behind Roman Silantyev, the former executive secretary of the Inter-Religious Council who is close to Metropolitan Kirill of the Moscow Patriarchate and who lost his job for criticizing Muslim leaders. Now executive director of programs at the World Russian Popular Assembly, he said this week that Ashirov’s comments and the SMR’s reaction raises the question as to whether the SMR should continue to exist (http://www.regions.ru/news/2132773/ ).

UPDATE for March 26. Complicating the situation still further, the Eurasian Jewish Congress has announced that while it shares FEOR’s evaluation of Ashirov’s statements, it will not follow that organization in breaking relations with the SMR (http://www.islam.ru/rus/2008-03-25/#20347).

UPDATE for March 26 – Rastam Valeyev, the representative of the Ufa-based Central MSD condemned the statements of Mufti Nafigulla Ashirov about Israel and said that his remaks threate “inter-religious peace” in Russia. In comments to Interfax, Valeyev said that unfortunately this was not the first instance of Ashirov’s bad behavior in this regard (http://www.interfax-religion.ru/islam/?act=news&div=23572).

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