Baku, March 11 – A Samara district court has ordered a Muslim website to shut down because it posted an article saying that the traditional and very much pre-Islamic spring holiday of Novruz is not a Muslim festival, a view prosecutors argued is “extremist” because it supposedly will set Muslims against non-Muslims.
But even as most Muslim commentators argued that this is part of a broader move against Muslim media outlets, the site in question, muslim.boom.ru, continues to operate either because the court has not bothered to notify its owners of this decision, according to its editor, or because he has decided to ignore the court, according to a Moscow paper.
The case began a year ago when prosecutors warned the imam of the local mosque that he was violating the federal law on extremism by distributing the brochure, “The Novruz Holiday and Islamic Doctrine.” He stopped at least for awhile, but the website kept it online (http://www.ng.ru/regions/2008-03-11/8_islam.html).
Then, the prosecutors turned to the courts, and in October 2007, a local judge was persuaded to rule that the mosque must cease and desist making this booklet available to parishioners – apparently by downloading copies from the website. And then in February, the judge ordered the website itself closed down for extremism.
According to prosecutors, the Center for Ethnological Research at the Ufa Scientific Center of the Russian Academy of Sciences says that the brochure, which argues that Muslims should not mark this pagan holiday, can lead to “the radicalization of the consciousness of part of the Muslim community” and “the formation among Muslims of a negative relationship to the bearers of ethno-cultural traditions.”
Three aspects of this story are worth noting. First, the argument of the brochure in question reflects the view of most experts and Muslim ulema, one that is little different from the opposition of the Russian Orthodox Church to the celebration of St. Valentine’s day, a very public position no one has chosen to call “extremist.”
Second, the author of this booklet, Aydyn Arif ogly Ali-Zade is an internationally recognized scholar, whose works include The Islamic Encyclopedic Dictionary (in Russian, Moscow, 2007), and The Bible and the Koran: A Comparative Analysis (in Russian, Baku, 2002). He is not a crank (http://www.islamtat.ru/publ/3-1-0-622).
And third, both these points make it clear that Samara prosecutors and perhaps others in Moscow standing behind them were searching for an occasion to bring the kind of charges that would set a precedent that they might employ against other and quite possibly more problematic websites.
Indeed, this example of prosecutorial overreaching and a compliant judiciary is so extreme that it lends support to the view of Muslim commentators that it is “an echo of the inquisition” (http://www.islamnews.ru/news-10239.html) and the beginning of “a purge” of Muslim sites in Russia (http://www.islamnews.ru/news-10198.html).
This case, however, is likely to backfire on both the prosecutors and the more senior Russian officials behind them. On the one hand, as cooler heads know, moves against websites may intimidate but they rarely achieve their goal because operators simply shift to offshore internet providers.
And on the other, choosing what they must think of as “Novruz deniers” as their target not only ensures they will infuriate many people Muslim and non-Muslim alike who celebrate this ancient holiday but also guarantees that they will look as ridiculous and absurd as Christian divines who want to do away with the Easter Bunny.