Friday, March 14, 2008

Window on Europe: Russia’s Muslims Need Coordinating Center, Not Super MSD, Bibarsov Says

Paul Goble

Baku, March 14 – Given the range of challenge they face, Russia’s Muslims need a coordinating center rather than a single “super” Muslim Spiritual Directorate (MSD) so that the country’s Islamic community can speak with a single voice on key issues affecting all of them, according to an influential mufti.
In an interview on the portal this week, Mufti Mukkadas Bibarsov, the chairman of the Volga Region MSD and often a bellwether of opinion among Russia’s Muslim leaders, proposed this compromise outcome to a debate that has wracked the community since 1991 (
On one side are those, almost exclusively Muslims, who believe the Islamic community in Russia is so diverse ideologically, historically, and in terms of practice that the proliferation of MSDs after the collapse of Soviet power – there are currently more than 60 – has been both a good and necessary thing.
On the other are those, including both Russian officials who would like to deal with a single Muslim “patriarch” and some Muslim leaders, most notably Mufti Talgat Tajuddin of the Central MSD in Ufa who aspire to such a post, who argue that Muslims will never have the influence they should in Russia without a single leader.
Bibarsov, as he has often done in the past, accepts part of the argument of each. On the one hand, he said, the country’s MSDs vary in terms of their focus and level of activity. Trying to impose a single approach on all of them either by eliminating them or subordinating them in all things to a super MSD would sap this vital diversity.
But on the other, he argued, increasingly “there are issues which we [as a single, united community] must put before society and those in power.” And to do that, there should be “a single coordinating organ” which can sum up the various opinions within the Muslim community and then communicate them more broadly.
Bibarsov suggested that the Union of Muftis of Russia (SMR), which Ravil’ Gainutdin heads and in which Bibarsov plays a prominent role, represents “a prototype” for such an institution being one in which “there is no sharp vertical” of power but rather a setting in which Muslims can deliberate and come to agreement.
“Sooner or later,” he said, “we will come to the view that a single coordinating center is necessary.”
The Volga mufti pointed to three issues that such a center could take the lead in addressing. First, he said, it could speak out against anti-Muslim stories in the media and insist on the defense of the constitutional rights of individual Muslims and their community.
At the present time, he said, the situation in Russia in this regard is not good. Indeed, he suggested the last eight years under President Vladimir Putin had been “the peak of an anti-Muslim campaign, including in the mass media,” although he added that the situation had eased recently.
Second, he suggested, such a body could help the government organize the haj. The Saudis expect governments to be involved, but the Russian government has tried to contract it out to travel firms. That has not worked, Bibarsov said, and Muslims must insist that the state take action.
“Several tens of thousands of Russian citizens” are now making the haj each year, Bibarsov pointed out, “and they must feel the concern of their government.” This year they didn’t, with most choosing to march under not the Russian Federation flag but rather the flags of their various national homelands.
“The Saudis dealt with [Russia’s Muslims] respectfully,” the mufti continued, but “nevertheless, for them government power remains the authority” in such things. And consequently, “whatever agreements we conclude, if they are not signed off on by state structures, we will have problems.”
“The haj can become an element of patriotic training if our pilgrims will have a flag and other attributes of the Russian state.” After all, the Volga Muslim leader asked rhetorically, “are we worse than anyone else?” Consequently, the haj council must be “a state structure.”
To that end, he said, the country’s Muslim leaders had written “a letter [recently] to [incoming Russian Federation president] Dmitry Medvedev” about this, but “speaking honestly, we are not expecting an answer. We have raised an issue which must be resolved.”
And third, he said, a single Muslim coordinating body could speak out against the Russian government’s current campaign to ban books and periodicals it believes are extremist, a policy Bibarsov said had obviously been designed by people “who had not thought about the consequences” of what they are doing.
“Can you imagine,” he asked, what it would mean in the 21st century to burn tens of tons of books? That has happened in the past, but I do not think it should be repeated.” And if the government punishes those who own them, it will have to fill “a second GULAG,” something no one can want.
But there may be yet another factor pushing for the creation of such a coordinating body, one Bibarsov does not mention but that another active mufti, Visam Ali Bardvil, the head of the Karelian MSD, does. That is increasing interest both the Muslim community and the Russian government have in developing foreign contacts.
Russia’s Muslims, Bardvil said, will be playing an ever greater role in the newly established European Assembly of Imams and Spiritual Instructors. In order to represent the interests of Russia’s Muslims, there will need to be a structure that represents all of them (
And at the same time, the Russian government is increasingly involved in the Muslim world and its organizations like the OIC. Consequently, it too, the Karelian mufti said, will be interested in seeing Russia’s Muslims have the kind of organization that will allow them and the Russian state itself to work with the Islamic community abroad.

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