Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Who Exploited Ashirov’s Remarks on Israel and Why?

Paul Goble

Baku, April 2 – The media firestorm triggered by Mufti Nafigulla Ashirov’s ugly equation of Zionism with fascism was quickly transformed from “a clash of convictions into a conflict of interests” as various people attempted to exploit his remarks for their own purposes, according to an unsigned commentary on the Islamrf.ru portal.
Moreover, the site suggested, the differences among the leaders of both religious communities only served to highlight that none of them was speaking on behalf of the views of their believers but only with an eye to the benefit each of them might gain by staking out a position in public. (http://www.islamrf.ru/articles.php?razdel=1&sid=2372). And because of that, the patching up of differences between Ravil’ Gainutdin, the head of the Council of Muftis of Russia (SMR) and Berl Lazar, the chief rabbi of Russia, highlighted this problem rather than solved it and even added to the Kremlin’s difficulties in convening a conference on the Middle East in Moscow.
Islamrf.ru, which seeks to promote a common Muslim position on key issues, carefully recounted the course of the dispute, pointing out the many occasions when individual leaders ignored the obvious in their pursuit of publicity and political advantage.
The current controversy began two weeks ago when Ashirov, the head of the Muslim Spiritual Directorate (MSD) of the Asiatic Part of Russia and the vice president of the SMR, said that Zionism was a form of fascism. Significantly, however, he did not make that declaration on behalf of the SMR.
“Nevertheless,” the site continued, the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia (FEOR) reacted by announcing that it was suspending relations with the SMR. But the SMR said on its website that FEOR had not formally communicated that to the SMR leadership and that SMR was choosing to treat this as a media dispute.
So the situation continued until last week when Gainutdin and Lazar met at the country’s Social Chamber, declared the scandal over, and promised to restore good relations in order to be able to cooperate for the good of both Muslims and Jews and of the Russian Federation.
Had that been all that occurred, Islamrf.ru suggested, nothing more would have had to be said, but in fact, “this scandal revealed not only the complexities of inter-religious dialogue in Russia but also divisions within both the Muslim and Jewish communities.”
As an example of these problems, the site offered the following case. Several days after Ashirov made his hateful remarks, Mukhamedgali Khuzin, the head of the Perm MSD, accused not only Ashirov but Gainutdin and the head of the Central MSD, Talgat Tajuddin, of gross incompetence.
Saying that Ashirov could be charged with violating Russian law against inciting inter-ethnic and inter-religious hostility, Khuzin suggested that “only one thing is clear:” the opinions of Ashirov, the SMR, and “increasingly virtual Central MSD” are “not the opinions of the Muslims of Russia.”
They are at most “the private opinion of a group of Islamic officials, who are isolated from their co-religionists,” the Perm mufti said. But Islamrf.ru suggested that Khuzin was also exploiting the situation to “obtain his share of PR on the wires of the country’s information agencies.”
Khuzin’s point about problems within the Central MSD was quickly confirmed, Islamrf.ru noted. Shortly after Ashirov’s remarks, Rastam Valeyev, its representative in Moscow said that the Siberian mufti’s remarks “threatened inter-religious peace in the country.”
“However, literally the following day,” Islamrf.ru pointed out, Makhmud Velitov, the imam of the Yadram mosque in Moscow (which is part of the Central MSD group), not only dismissed Valeyev’s remarks because “he is not a religious leader” but said that Ashirov’s views on Israel were “not far from the truth.”
The situation in the Jewish community was not much more unified. The Euro-Asiatic Jewish congress announced that it would retain its longstanding “good relations” with the SMR whatever FEOR might do, arguing that Gainutdin has been “an example of what is needed for carrying on inter-religious dialogue.”
(Indeed, Islam.ru, the most visited Muslim website in the Russian Federation, reported that the SMR and Euro-Asiatic Jewish Congress had issued a joint volume (http://www.islam.ru/rus/2008-04-01/#20458).)
Obviously, the Muslim news portal continued, this entire incident “brought political points not only to the opponents of R. Gainutdin inside the Muslim community but even to third parties, in particular, the well-known anti-Muslim ‘Islamic specialist’ Roman Silantyev,” who used the occasion to call attention to himself.
Happily, while this media circus was going on in Moscow, Islamrf.ru said, relations among Muslims and Jews at the local level were continuing in a good way. At the Third Congress of Nizhniy Novgorod Tatar-Mishars, FEOR and SMR cooperated in a good way, while their nominal leaders at the center were fighting among themselves.
What all this shows, the Islamrf.ru commentary said, is that “in our country inter-religious dialogue is not a luxury but an objective necessity” not only for Muslims and Jews but for all believers and for others in Russian society and the Russian government as well.
And the site speculated that the entire media explosion may have been the work of unnamed “forces” which “are striving to present the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as an Islamic-Jewish conflict” in order to make it more difficult for interested outsiders, like Moscow, to help promote peace there.
(For additional commentaries on this controversy, see the reviews found at www.islamrf.ru/articles.php?razdel=1&sid=2375, www.blagovest-info.ru/index.php?ss=2&s=3&id=19731, and www.regions.ru/news/2132844/.)

UPDATE for April 3 – In a letter to and a telephone conversation with Rabbi Berl Lazar, SMR head Ravil’ Gainutin said that any equation of Zionism with fascism was impermissible because of its impact on inter-religious relations in the Russian Federation, Interfax has reported. (http://www.interfax-religion.ru/islam/?act=news&div=23675). Meanwhile, the Russian Inter-Religious Council denounced Ashirov’s statement for the same reason (http://www.mospat.ru/index.php?page=40378).

UPDATE for April 4 – The Ashirov affair continues. He renews his attack on FEOR for (www.interfax-religion.ru/islam/?act=news&div=23712), attracting support from some Muslims (www.interfax-religion.ru/islam/?act=news&div=23710 and www.interfax-religion.ru/islam/?act=news&div=23709) and new attacks from others

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