Friday, May 2, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Muslim Sparks New Controversy with Call to Remove Cross from Russian Coat of Arms

Paul Goble

Baku, May 2 – Nafigulla Ashirov, the Siberian Muslim leader who recently landed in trouble for suggesting that Zionism was a form of racism, sparked a new controversy this week by calling on Russian officials to remove the crosses that form part of the Russian Federation’s coat of arms.
Ashirov, who heads the Muslim Spiritual Directorate (MSD) for the Asiatic Part of Russia, said that Muslims in various parts of the country have frequently expressed anger about this part of one of Russia’s main symbols, viewing it as a violation of the country’s constitutional commitment to secularism (
In Daghestan, he pointed out, “certain Muslim militia officers cover up the crosses” on the shields that are part of their uniform because wearing a cross “contradicts their convictions and their religious. One must not impose Christianity” in this official, government, way,” Ashirov continued.
“If President Putin says that Russia is at one and the same time both a Christian and a Muslim power and will remain a secular state,” he concluded, “then this ought to be implemented” by eliminating official symbols that appear to indicate that the government favors one religion over another.
And just as was the case during the dispute about Zionism, Ashirov was supported by Ali Visam Bardvil, a Palestinian who came to the Soviet Union more than 20 years ago and now heads the Karelian MSD. He said that Muslims respect “the religious feelings of Christians” and that Christians ought to do the same for the convictions of Muslims.
But other Muslim leaders were unwilling to join in this declaration, either because they do not want to engage in a controversy that will inflame the situation or more generally because, unlike Ashirov and Bardvil, they do not believe that Russia’s Muslims should be focusing on this issue.
As Geydar Dzhemal, the president of the Islamic Committee of Russia, said to Komsomol’skaya Pravda, Muslims there “waste much time and energy on things that are not matters of principle. Would the problems of [the country’s] Muslims end if a crescent moon were added to the shield? If so, then the situation is very sad indeed.”
But perhaps even more interesting and instructive than this exchange were the comments by various Russians that the Moscow paper assembled by making this issue its “question of the day,” those it elicited via a phone interview with Ramzan Kadyrov, the president of Chechnya, and the observations of the Russian government’s official master of heraldry.
Among the most interesting of the comments were the following. Duma deputy Aleksandr Krutov suggested that Ashirov’s proposal “smelled” like what he said was the American contention that “the Russian Orthodox Church is blocking the emergence of democracy” in Russia.
Sergei Chernov, a history professor at Moscow State, in contrast said that “if we have a civil state and the church is separate from the government, then there ought not to be a cross on the coat of arms.” But taxi driver Sergei Magarashvili said that rather than taking the cross off, Moscow should add “the moon, the Star of David, and whatever the Buddhists need.”
“That’s the way to ensure equality of religions,” the Vladimir resident said.
Most people argued that the cross was only a state symbol and not a religious one, although cosmonaut Aleksandr Ivanchenkov, twice a Hero of the Soviet Union, said he didn’t know that there was a cross on the coat of arms, and a “Komsomol’skaya Pravda writer, said he wouldn’t wear one, preferring Soviet symbols.
But a few were equally committed to keeping the cross. A Volgograd artist, Vladislav Koval’, noted that “after the February [1917] revolution, we removed the cross from the eagle. And what did we get? The October revolution.” He thus opposed taking any chances by removing the cross now.
Reached in Chechnya, Kadyrov said that he believed that Muslim militiamen in his republic should not be forced to wear the coat of arms with a cross lest that play into the hands of “the Wahhabis and bandits.” But at the same time, he said, he did not think the crosses should be removed elsewhere in the Russian Federation.
The Moscow paper gave the last word to Georgy Bilninbakhov, the Russian Federation’s state master of heraldry. His comments may prove even more inflammatory than anyone else’s. Noting that “every symbol has as a rule several means and does not belong to only one religion,” he noted that the crescent moon is the symbol of Mary, the Mother of God in Christian thinking.
Moreover, he said, the cross on the coat of arms of the Russian Federation is “not an Orthodox eight-pointed one but rather a four-pointed one … a common symbol encountered in Muslim culture as well.” And he pointed out that the tsarist authorities had adapted orders so that their Muslim subjects, who fought under Russian banners, would not have to wear a cross.

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