Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Moscow Must Use Tatar Islam to Exploit ‘Historic Chance’ in Muslim World, Khakimov says

Paul Goble

Vienna, June 3 – Because of the collapse of American influence in the Islamic world as a result of the Bush Administration, Moscow now has an “historic chance” to dramatically expand its standing among Muslims abroad and hence in the world -- but only if it draws upon and forms a partnership with modernist Tatar Islam, according to the leading theorist of that trend.
In an article posted online today, Rafael Khakimov, the former political advisor to the Tatarstan President Mintimir Shaimiyev and the director of the Kazan Institute of History, argues that “one cannot explain the fate of Russia in the past [or] in the future without [taking into account] the Islamic factor” (
It is not just a question of the number of Muslims in Russia – even if it is only 10 million, that is “not small” – or the role of Islam in Russian history – Islam arrived before Orthodox Christianity did, Khakimov insists. Instead, it is the unique quality of Islam that has emerged within Russia, a development that he argues Moscow needs to exploit now.
“The main thing,” he suggests, “is that Russian Islam – at least among the Tatars – has its own face: Namely, it has passed through a reformation,” and as a result, “there is no other country or other people which has turned out to be entirely under the influence of reformed Islam (jadidism).”
At approximately the same time Abdul-Vakhkhab in Arabia was developing the ideas that are now called Wahhabism, Tatar divines like Kursavi and Marjani were developing an alternative approach to the faith, one that sought to breathe new life into it rather than shackle its believers to the ideas of the past.
In the two centuries since that time, the Kazan historian notes, the Tatars have proclaimed “as the central category” of their beliefs “freedom of thought” and “openness of culture.” And they defined jihad not as a struggle with others but as a “struggle with the lack of faith within oneself.
Even more important, he continues, “they declared the equality of men and women and a relationship of tolerance with a secular state and toward other faiths.” In short, Khakimov pointedly concludes, “Wahhabism and Jadidism represent polar opposites within the framework of Islam.”
Because Tatar Islam represents such an attractive and ready-made force, he says, it is a kind of “political capital” which Moscow would do well to use as it tries to recover the status in the world that it lost with the disintegration of the communist block and the collapse of the Soviet Union.
On the one hand, Khakimov says, Russian leaders today should remember the way Soviet leaders made use of Tatars to advance their influence in the Muslim world, both practically – the first Soviet ambassador to Saudi Arabia was a Tatar – and ideologically – Mirsaid Sultan-Galiyev played a key role in spreading revolutionary ideas to the third world.
(The Kazan historian pointedly notes that Stalin “feared” Sultan-Galiyev and ultimately had him killed. But Khakimov also recalls that before his death the Tatar theoretician of Muslim national communism predicted the demise of the Soviet Union because of Stalin’s inability to tap into the aspirations of the world’s Muslims.)
And on the other, the former Shaimiyev advisor notes, the post-Soviet Russian government has failed to develop the kind of clear and systematic approach to the Islamic world that it has already worked out for the West. Instead, it has tended to approach that world in an entirely reactive way.
Russian leaders like to talk about “the need for a balance in relations with the U.S., but it should be obvious to them that they are not in a position to compete militarily. Instead, Khakimov insists, Moscow must employ clever diplomacy, something entirely appropriate because “international relations are about more than arms alone.”
Indeed, he continues, the Bush Administration’s military overreach in the Muslim world has created “a vacuum in the political arena which the Western countries cannot fill,” at least in the immediate future. And that provides an opening for Russia, although it is not one that will last very long.
That is because, Khakimov insists, American experts, who are looking beyond the Bush Administration are already working on a new conception of dialogue between the U.S. and the Islamic world,” one “where naturally there will not be any place for Russia.” Indeed, a year from now, Washington will almost certainly be more politically active there.
“Will Russia be able to use this historic chance?” Khakimov asks. “It is difficult to say.” On the one hand, even though many in the Muslim world would like to have “a counterweight” to American power, some there are extremely disappointed with Russian policies, policies that seem simply to be a reaction to the U.S. rather than something more thoughtful.
And on the other, too many people in Moscow itself appear to think that they can act without reference to Islam itself, a self-delusion given the nature of the world and the nature of Russia itself and an attitude which leads them to ignore the political capital that its own reformist version of Islam can play.
“Russia has a unique experience which is already being considered in Europe and it is not excluded that it will be something of interest to Muslim countries as well,” Khakimov argues. Turkey is already examining how Islam in Russia has developed, and others are certain to follow in the future.
Consequently, if Moscow wants to succeed in taking advantage of this opening, one that “will not come again soon,” Khakimov says, it needs to draw on and make an alliance with Tatarstan as a unique “Muslim republic,” one that like Islam in Russia is on the credit rather than the debit side of Moscow’s political resources.

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