Vienna, April 15 – Ethnic tensions among the Islamic communities in Russian cities are intensifying as new arrivals find they have little choice but to attend mosques still controlled by members of a nationality other than their own, a trend that ever more Muslim leaders there appear to be worried about.
Like believers everywhere, Muslims in the Russian Federation have always preferred to attend mosques whose parishioners and mullahs are of the same nationality as their own. Indeed, even in Derbent, which was islamicized in the 8th century, there have long been “national” mosques.
Indeed, even the Arab Muslim conquerors who brought Islam to that Daghestani city quickly divided themselves into ethnic specific enclaves and mosques. According to Ruslan Kurbanov, that city had from the beginning Palestinian, Cairene, and Mosul quarters (http://www.islam.ru/pressclub/histori/derag/).
But three factors help to explain why the mosques in many Russian cities today are exacerbating national tensions among Muslims rather than leading the faithful, as the influx of Muslims in many European cities has, to make Islam rather than ethnicity their primary identity.
First, Russian officials just like their Soviet predecessors, have been extremely reluctant to allow Muslims to build new mosques in major cities. Moscow, for example, still has only four mosques for an estimated Muslim population of more than two million, a situation that inevitably throws Muslims of various ethnic groups together.
Second, because the number of mosques in Russian cities has remained relatively constant, at least compared to the dramatic growth in their numbers elsewhere, the ethnic group from which most mullahs sprung – the Kazan Tatars – still dominates the situation, even though their community no longer forms a large part of the umma.
And third, the largest influx of new Muslim arrivals in these cities has been from areas which are either mono-ethnic or where ethnic tensions have been high, thus creating a situation where the arrivals are especially sensitive to ethno-linguistic divisions even within what is supposed to be the supra-ethnic religion of Islam.
In an essay posted today on the Islam.ru portal, commentator Daniyal Isayev provides one of the fullest discussions yet of a problem that many Muslims prefer to remain silent about lest they provide an opening for their opponents among other faiths (http://www.islam.ru/pressclub/vslux/medrunac/).
As Isayev notes, “the problems of ‘Tatar mosques’ are so longstanding for the Russian Muslim community that many have already despaired of struggling against them.” But, he continues, difficulties related to “mosques of a different nationality” are not limited to the Tatars.”
Anyone who has visited a mosque in a multi-national republic of the Caucasus, will discover “at each step” Kabardinian, Karachay, Kumyk, Chechen, Avar, Lak,” and a multitude of other mosques,” all with mullahs, imams and parishioners made up of people from the same nationality.
“This is not a problem as long as a Muslim lives in his own national milieu, in his own village, where everyone around him speaks the same language,” Isayev says. But the situation is “entirely different” in large multi-national cities like Moscow, where Muslims of various nationalities are thrown together.
In many places abroad, this experience leads Muslims to feel more Muslim and less national because demographic changes produce changes in the number and composition of Islamic parishes. But in Russia, the reverse is the case, something Isayev argues should be a matter of concern for all the faithful.
Undoubtedly, some Russian officials just like their Soviet predecessors will welcome such ethnic divisions out of a belief that it will weaken the Islamic community as a whole. That is, of course, a possibility, but there is another that is more likely, at least in the next few years.
In the past, precisely because the historically moderate Tatars occupied a dominant position, they were often able to “domesticate” more radical Muslims from the North Caucasus. But if the ethnic divides between the Middle Volga and the Caucasus are deepened, they will lose that chance.
And in that case, the more radical Muslims from the republics of the North Caucasus are likely to become more radical in national terms without becoming any less so in religious ones, a combination that almost certainly will prove more explosive, especially in the already ethnically tense Russian cities of today.