Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Russia’s Muslims Hope Medvedev Will Not Promote Orthodoxy

Paul Goble

Baku, March 4 – Dmitry Medvedev and his wife have been more demonstrably interested in the Russian Orthodox Church than even Vladimir Putin has been, but many Muslims in the Russian Federation say that they believe or at least hope that the new Russian president will not tilt government policy further in the Patriarchate’s direction.
On the one hand, some of them say, Medvedev appears more interested in all religions than has been his predecessor. And on the other hand, others suggest, the overwhelming support he received from Muslim voters and the imperatives of foreign and domestic policy will block him from elevating Orthodoxy over other faiths.
But if they hope for a continuation of Putin’s policies or even more support for Islam than Moscow has given in the past, both groups suggest that Muslims must mobilize as a community ensure that the new president will not take steps that might diminish the status of Islam in Russia.
Most Russian and international reporting about Medvedev’s election on Sunday noted among everything else the extraordinarily high and almost certainly falsified levels of participation and support for Medvedev in the Muslim republics of the Northern Caucasus (http://www.caucasustimes.com/article.asp?id=13732).
One Muslim commentator, Den’ga Khalidov, who heads the Center for Problems of Ethnic Politics and Islam, suggested that the governments in that region, dependent as they are for support from the center, were simply in Soviet-era fashion trying to be “more Catholic than the pope” (http://www.islamnews.ru/news-10105.html).
But other Muslim commentators suggested that the Muslim vote for Medvedev across the country was not so much an act of deference to the newly-elected president and to his predecessor who chose him but rather an effort to ensure he would not move further to boost the status of the Russian Orthodox Church.
Russia’s Muslims have reason to be concerned. Far more often than Putin, Medvedev has been seen with Patriarch Aleksii II, and his wife is active in the Church’s outreach program to the young. Mrs. Putin, in contrast, has worked to promote the Russian language (http://www.islamnews.ru/news-10104.html).
That imagery and Medvedev’s own direct appeals to the Church during the election campaign have led many Orthodox Russians and some Muslims in that country to conclude that Medvedev will move even further toward the establishment of Orthodox as even more than “first among equals” of Russia’s traditional faiths.
Either because they fear that possibility or because they do not think it likely, most Muslim commentators so far have expressed the hope that this will not happen. Karelian Mufti Visam Bardvil, for example, that that he had “no concerns” that Medvedev would “raise the status” of Orthodoxy.
He said he was sure that Medvedev like all other Russian leaders “understands that this [would be] very dangerous for the multi-national [Russian] Federation and would involve serious problems” for the country and its government both at home and abroad.
Among other Muslim commentators who have reacted to Medvedev’s election so far, two stand out: Damir Khayretdinov, a historian and ethnographer who writes frequently on politics, and Abdullah Rinat Mukhametov, the head of the analytic center of the Islam.ru portal (http://www.islam.ru/pressclub/gost/chomegri/).
Khayretdinov began by saying that those who were asking whether the results of Sunday’s election were “objective” were asking the wrong question. “Our country is not European but Asiatic,” and those who want a freer expression of opinion would open the way to the unrestrained populism of the “wild 1990s.”
That would not be in the interests of the Muslim community, which though growing is still very much a minority in the Russian Federation. Consequently, instead of focusing on such issues, Muslims in Russia must focus on what is possible within the Russian political system as it exists now.
That in turn means organizing to advance their own interests, even if Medvedev appears likely to be more supportive of Orthodoxy than Muslims would like, welcoming whatever policies Moscow adopts that help them such as in the area of education and foreign policy and pointing out the dangers involved in alternative ones.
Meanwhile, Mukhametov for his part suggested that Muslims must now work “to win time,” recognizing both that their community is growing stronger and that Medvedev himself will “in the foreseeable future” become not the figurehead many expect but a president “in the full sense of the word, without any qualifications.”
If the country’s Muslims understand that, he said, they will also recognize that they must work hard to be in a position to influence him and those around him and not assume as some do that Putin’s hand-picked successor will continue the current president’s policies -- good and bad -- any more than Putin continued Yeltsin’s.

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