Friday, May 23, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Moscow Must Reward Loyal Muslims, Punish Disloyal Ones, Silantyev Says

Paul Goble

Baku, May 23 – The Russian government should actively support, including financially, “traditional” Muslim leaders who are loyal to the Kremlin and punish all the others, according to Roman Silant’yev, a specialist on Islam with close ties to the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church and the country’s political elite.
At a press conference called to present his new encyclopedia, “Islam in Contemporary Russia,” Silant’yev called for the government to take a more active role in the country’s growing Muslim community, one that would integrate Islam into the political establishment in much the same way the Orthodox Church is (
Arguing that for Russian Islam, the period between 1789 and 1917 was its “golden age,” Silant’yev suggested that the current Russian government could draw on that experience both to promote its own goals of civil peace and to help today’s Islamic community immunize itself against radical influences from abroad.
During that period, he said, Muslim leaders were employees of the state. They enjoyed the privileges of other state bureaucrats, and from them, in turn, “it was required only that they be completely loyal to the state and not engage in harmful actions relative to the Russian Orthodox Church.”
The Soviet regime did not continue that tradition but rather destroyed Islamic institutions and most especially Muslim theological training centers. As a result, when communism fell, Russia’s Muslims had to look abroad for training, something that exposed them to radical and un-Russian schools of thought.
“Only with the coming to power of Putin did the situation begin to change. The events in the North Caucasus showed that the state must not leave Islam without attention,” because even in domestic medressahs foreign influences were strong because loyal Muslim institutions, like Talgat Tajuddin’s Central Muslim Spiritual Directorate” (MSD) lacked the means to fight them.
Now, Moscow has two presidential programs to support Islamic education and is spending “millions of rubles’ to solve “the cadres problem of Russian Islam.” But there is more to be done as over the last 20 years not a single Islamic theological institution of real standing has been created in Russia.
In funding Muslim groups, Silant’yev said, it is important to support only “traditional” Muslims, those who are loyal to the state and who want to live in peace with other faiths, and at the same time, it is equally important not to provide funding for those who are not “loyal” or who criticize other religions -- and Russian Orthodoxy in particular.
Given who attended his press conference, it is clear who Silant’yev believes deserves support – the Central MSD and the Coordinating Center of Muslims of the North Caucasus – and who he thinks should be punished – those muftis who are part of other Muslim groups, like Nafigulla Ashirov of Siberia or the Council of Muftis of Russia.
Another participant in Silant’yev’s press conference added a detail to what Silant’yev and many others in the Russian establishment would like to see. Shafiq Pshikhachev, the representative of the Coordinating Center of Muslims of the North Caucasus called for a single muftiate in place of the more than 60 now (
Such an arrangement, which would parallel that of the Russian Orthodox Church, might make it easier for the state to act as Silant’yev wants, but both it and the policy of greater state involvement in the lives of Muslims would have two unfortunate consequences that many Muslim leaders and even more ordinary believers are certain to point out.
On the one hand, Silant’yev’s approach would promote the clericalization of Islam in Russia, something entirely foreign to that faith which does not give any group special sacral functions, and thereby undermine the very diversity which has been at the heart of Islam as a faith for most of its history (On this, see
And on the other, it would almost certainly guarantee the kind of brutal and ugly state interference in religious life of the kind the Soviet government routinely engaged in, made even worse by the commercialization and largely controlled aspirations of some Moscow and regional officials.
Indeed, even as Pshikhachev was lending his support to Silant’yev’s ideas, he used the press conference to complain about the way in which some government officials in the North Caucasus had illegitimately used their administrative powers to get rid of a senior Muslim leader they simply did not like (

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