Saturday, May 24, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Russia’s Muslims Brace for More Skinhead Attacks

Paul Goble

Baku, May 25 – In the wake of the brutal beating of a Muslim student in the Moscow metro earlier this month and foot-dragging by the authorities in going after the perpetrators, Muslims across the country are not only bracing for more attacks but asking each other what they can do to defend themselves against such crimes.
On May 11, three skinheads beat Yulduz Khaknazarova a third year student at the Moscow Islamic University, to the point of sending her into a coma for four days. The attack took place in the busy Partisan Metro Station, where numerous passers by did nothing to try to help her (
The horror of this attack was compounded for many Muslims first by the refusal of the militia to open a criminal case: Officers claimed that Khaknazarova had lied and that her wounds were self-inflicted, and, they insisted, the three men she identified were in fact trying to help her, and then by some bureaucratic sleight of hand in which the initial investigator suddenly retired.
Although this is hardly the first such case of such brutality or official denial that Muslims have experienced in Moscow, it has sparked outrage in the Islamic community not only there but across Russia. Muslims have gathered money for her defense, they have held prayers for her at Friday services, and their leaders have called for all Muslims to stand up for her rights.
Her lawyer, Andrei Chegodaykin, has already forced the militia to open a criminal case and is seeking to keep the investigation as transparent as possible because “everything about it says that this was a crime of religious and national hatred,” and not some hooligan attack as he clearly feels the Russian officials will try to present it.
The first and most anguished response to this case came from Siberian Mufti Nafigulla Ashirov who initially called for the formation of Muslim enclaves in Russian cities so that the faithful would be able to defend themselves, a position that he backed away from under the withering attacks not only of non-Muslims but of other Muslim leaders.
But at the same time, other Muslims have been asking themselves what they should do to protect their community given the increasing number of attacks – some human rights monitors suggest they are running at more than twice the number as a year ago – and the continued efforts of officials to deny what is going on (
Now, the portal has asked three leading Muslim commentators for their views on what Muslims should do given the widespread expectation that attacks like the one visited upon Khaknazarova are not repeated or, if they are, Muslims will be able to counter them in some way (
Shamil’ Sultanov, who heads the Russia-Islamic World Analytic Center, argued that the “one path” that history had shown to be “the only panacea for xenophobia and other social evils” is not “the destruction of the state but its strengthening [along with] the strengthening of the influence and control of society over the state.”
Russia today, he pointed out, has “a mass of broad laws, “but why do these laws not work at all in certain regions, in others, work only in part, and in a third group only selectively?” The answer, he said, lies in corruption, and corruption includes the actions of the militia who lie about what is happening so as to make themselves and their statistics look good.
“From the point of view of official ideology, we do not have fascism,” Sultanov said. “Although if there is not a real struggle with corruption, all these things will continue to flourish.”
Damir Mukhetdinov, a historian and senior official of the Muslim Spitiual Directorate (MSD) of Nizhniy Novgorod, said that “it is impossible to destroy xenophobia, but it is possible to re-educate people.” And intriguingly, he came out in a qualified defense of Ashirov on the need for Muslims to take some form of collective action.
Ashirov’s mistake, Mukhetdinov said, was to use words from the “Germany-Fascist” period – like ghetto and enclave – rather than ones from Russian history like sloboda [districts] in which Muslims had long lived in Russian cities. Those arrangements worked well in the past and in a modified form might work in the future, he suggested.
And he pointed out something that many Russians will not want to hear: Muslim citizens of that country are typically far more respectful of its past than are ethnic Russian ones. “I, for example, never heard that in Muslim regions were the graves of Russian soldiers ever defaced. But somehow in purely Russian cities this very often happens.”
Consequently, there is “a certain amount” of re-education that is needed, especially since “it is not always the case that politicians want xenophobia reduced to nothing” because they find it useful. As long as that is the case, Mukhetdinov said, “we will frequently observe force on our streets.”
And finally, Marat Sayfutdinov, the editor-in-chief of the portal, said that Muslims needed to take the initiative in providing the rest of Russian society with what he called “an adequate Muslim content and message which could change the point of view of our people toward Muslims and toward members of another ethnic community.”
“In that event,” he said, “Muslims [in Russia] will be able to peacefully stroll through the streets. Just as they do, let us say, in Europe.”

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