Sunday, April 20, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Soviet-Era Muslim Institution Acquiring New Importance

Paul Goble

Vienna, April 20 – The Department of International Relations of the Muslim Organizations of the USSR, a body now known as the International Islamic Mission, is re-assuming part of the role it played earlier in relations between Muslim leaders inside the Russian Federation and the Islamic world abroad. .
And in a rare interview published last week, its president Tagira-khadzhi Khalilov suggested that his group could also help the Muslims of Russia and the post-Soviet states overcome the disorder in their own ranks and in their relations with the state that was produced by the collapse of the USSR (
Khalilov began by recalling that the Department of International Relations was created in 1962 to serve as the coordinator for all international work carried out by the four Muslim Spiritual Directorates (MSDs) of the Soviet Union. After 1991, the body was renamed.
But a more serious change occurred, he continued. Three of the four MSDs from Soviet times landed outside the borders of the Russian Federation, and more than 60 MSDs have sprouted up on the territory of that country alone. All these bodies have assumed the right to conduct their own relations with Muslims abroad.
As a result, he said, “processes in the Muslim umma of Russia acquired a chaotic and unsystematic character.” There are “serious contradictions between the MSDs, many of them the product of mercantilist desires of each leader individually to represent the interests of the Muslims of Russia in federal organs of executive power and [abroad].”
That situation, Khalilov complained, “does not allow for the development of a single strategy in the resolution of the global problems of the Muslims of Russia,” especially on “questions of countering religious extremism” and overcoming “radical trends” at home and abroad.
More and more Muslim leaders and Russian political figures are troubled by that situation, he said, and ever more of them now view “the creation of a structure capable of developing a common approach in interrelationships with foreign Islamic organizations,” on Islamic education, and on relations among the MSDs as “timely.”
The International Muslim Mission is an obvious candidate for such an organization, Khalilov said. On the one hand, the Russian government has shown its interest in the Mission by including it in the coordinating council of the government fund to support Islamic science and education.
And on the other, the Mission has shown its diplomatic skill by helping to crate, along with the Baku-based MSD for the Caucasus, a Supreme Council of Muslims of the Caucasus, which is headed by Sheikh ul-Islam Allashakhur Pashazadeh and which has become more active in the last year.
That body, Khalilov continued, has promoted cooperation among Muslims across what are now international boundaries, promoted tolerance among various groups, promoted moral education of young people, and helped to develop and carry out programs to counter extremism.
Even though the three leading MSDs of the Russian Federation – the Central MSD in Ufa, the Union of Muftis of Russia (SMR), and the Coordinating Council for the Muslims of the North Caucasus – are likely to oppose any dramatic increase in the power of the Muslim Mission, there is a major player likely behind it: the Russian government.
Not only has Moscow long wanted to have a single Muslim leader with which to deal, but the Kremlin may see the Mission as a good candidate for historical reasons; In Soviet times, the KGB controlled the Department as the Mission was then called and thus the ties of Soviet Muslims to foreign ones.
That is all the more so now as Moscow seeks to expand its own ties with the Muslim world, an effort that at least some in the Russian capital may fear might be undercut by the statements or actions of individual Muslim leaders within the Russian Federation.
As consequently, the Moscow’s International Muslim Mission may be an organization worth watching, with Khalilov’s interview being the opening salvo in a campaign to restructure the leading organs of Russia’s Muslim community.

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