Thursday, April 3, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Some Russian Courts Will Ban a Muslim Book if Its Cover is Green

Paul Goble

Baku, April 4 – Russian courts at the local level are increasingly prepared to declare Islamic texts extremist on the flimsiest of “evidence,” Muslims there say, with at least one such court recently having declared an Islamic book extremist simply because it had, in the words of a prosecutors there, “a soft green cover.”
Given that 58 of the 101 publications the Federal Registration Service now lists as extremist materials are Islamic texts, Russia’s Muslim leaders have responded by offering their services as experts, challenging these decisions by appealing to the European Court of Human Rights, and publishing articles highlighting the absurdity of this system.
But many of these leaders now place their remaining hopes for a fairer review of Islamic literature on education, and this week, they released a new textbook on Islam that provides an introduction to the faith about which many Russian officials and judges have only the most primitive and uninformed notions.
In a review of recent court decisions that was published by, Al’fiya Muratova points out that Russian courts are often extremely arbitrary and even absurd in their classification of Muslim texts as extremist, with some courts saying a particular work is and another indicating that it is not (
Moreover, she notes, many texts the Russian government now lists as extremist and that are thus subject to a ban – including a special gift edition but not its regular issue of one published for the 1400th anniversary of Islam in Russia -- are standard works, “approved by official Islamic organizations and popular among Russian Muslims.”
And as evidence of the superficial and cavalier way in which Russian courts are now prepared to declare almost anything involving Islam “extremist,” she points to one decision in a Buguruslan where judges banned a book by Arab theologians after prosecutors described it as “a book in a soft green cover.”
“The incompetence of district courts, [whose actions] are encouraged by the federal center,” she writes, “has led in fact to the restriction of the rights of believers to information about Islam.” And many of them fear that the next book “in a soft green cover” that one or another Russian court may ban is the Koran.
Muratova’s article calls attention to two aspects of this situation that are particularly disturbing. On the one hand, the level of knowledge about Islam among judges and prosecutors in Russia’s regions is very low. And on the other, the central government now invokes the decisions of local courts to ban books countrywide.
If Muslim leaders have been unable to do much about the latter so far – they have several cases pending in Strasbourg – they are working very hard to address the former problem, regularly offering their own services and those of academic specialists on Islamic theology as expert witnesses.
But they recognize that this approach, given Moscow’s willingness to stand behind any court decision declaring a book or periodical extremist and thus banned, is insufficient, and many believe that the only way to achieve a fundamental change in the situation is through education.
And this week, they celebrated the release of a new 400-page textbook on Islamic Studies written by El’mir Kuliyev, whose translation of the Koran into Russian is widely recognized as one of the best, Rafik Mukhametshin, a leading Islamic educator, and a large number of others (
Explicitly prepared as a counterpart to the Russian Orthodox Church’s volume, “The Foundations of Orthodox Culture,” and thus intended as a textbook for schools, the new book provides the kind of introduction to Islam that Muslims hope will inform adults as well, including prosecutors and judges, about just what Islam is all about.
Among its chapters is one devoted to freedom of speech in Islamic history and law, an issue that agitates many Muslims and non-Muslims to this day. According to this textbook, “the Koran allows any discussion even if it concerns the basic postulates of the religion, but [that must not lead to] an attack on the honor and dignity of other people.”
And as Kuliyev points out, “there will be fewer problems in contemporary society if we learn not to put the secular at odds with the religious. Just as nothing earthly is alien to believers, so too many who fully back a secular state not infrequently go to church and mosques.”
Such a moderate and balanced approach to questions about the Islamic faith is useful for Muslims and non-Muslims alike, and one can only hope that it will inform local courts in the Russian Federation to whom the central Russian government has given virtually unlimited power to declare almost anything Islamic extremist.

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