Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Window on Eurasia: ‘We are Not With Russia; We are Russia,’ Muslim Leader Asserts

Paul Goble

Vienna, April 23 – From Soviet times forward, Russia’s ethnic and religious minorities have learned to say that their nations and faiths are “forever with Russia,” but now a senior Muslim leader has departed from that cliché and insisted that Russia’s Muslims “are Russia,” an assertion that conveys new and very different messages.
Some Muslims and even more Russians will see this statement as a profession of even greater loyalty and willingness to integrate into the broader society. But on the other, many Muslims and some Russians are likely to view it as an indication of that community’s growing self-confidence and willingness to challenge the ways in which Russians have defined Russia.
Last Thursday, Mufti Mukkadas Bibarsov, the head of the Muslim Spiritual Directorate of the Volga Region, delivered an address to the Congress of the Assembly of Peoples of Saratov oblast. But in addition to the kind of greetings typical of such speeches, Bibarsov made three important points (
First, he said, however much Muslims may hope to integrate into the broader society, they must do so on their own terms, rather than sacrificing their principles on questions like family life and morality in order to be accepted. To do otherwise, Bibarsov said, would be to betray not only Islam but also the much-valued “diversity” of Russia’s peoples.
Second, Muslims must resist the efforts of those who would deny their children the right to study their own culture in the country’s public schools or, even worse, divide up children according to religion. If that is allowed to happen, Bibarsov said, then the divisions in the schools today will lead to the division of the country in the future.
And third – and this is beyond question the most innovative part of his speech -- the Volga mufti said that Muslims must stop thinking of themselves as some kind of fellow traveler with Russia and start viewing themselves and their community not as a subset of Russian society but as full-fledged members both individually and collectively of that population.
Not long ago, he said, he visited one of the regions of the North Caucasus, where he saw displayed “a big banner with the slogan ‘We are forever with Russia.’” But, he told his Saratov audience, “I want to say ‘We are not with Russia; we are Russia,” a formulation that reflects some recent changes in the thinking of Muslims there.
As more and more ethnic and Orthodox Russians have indicated that they favor a “Russia for the Russians” – polls suggest that approximately 75 percent of Russians support one or another form of that arrangement – Muslims have become more insistent that they be recognized as part of Russia if not part of the Russian nation.
In recent months, Muslims in Nizhniy Novgorod have objected to efforts by the Russian community there to ignore that city’s Muslim past and to insist that the city was founded by a Russian prince and not by the Tatars, as history in fact shows. In the past, Muslims generally have kept quiet in the face of such actions, but ever fewer are willing to do so any more.
Moreover, Muslims have become ever more insistent in pointing to the Muslim roots of the Russian state, noting the continuing impact of Golden Horde traditions on Russian political arrangements and calling attention to the ways in which Muslims were responsible for the construction of many buildings and even whole cities that the Russians now claim as their own.
Indeed, several Muslims have recently written about something many Russians are at pains to deny: At one point the Moscow Kremlin, when Muscovite rulers were acting as tax collectors for the Mongols, contained more mosques than churches and indeed four times as many mosques as there are now in the Russian capital for that city’s more than two million Muslims.
And Muslim scholars and commentators are ever less shy in calling attention to what they see as the Islamic roots of Russian civilization. One interview with a Muslim leader that was published this week, for example, was entitled “Here was where Russia Was Born. How Do the Muslims of Kasimov live today?” (
What Mufti Bibarsov has done is simply given these new feelings of self-confidence a slogan, and that suggests that his words will not be read by most non-Muslims in that country as reassuring but rather as a challenge to the world they think they uniquely are in a position to define.

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