Vienna, June 26 – Senior Russian officials, including the Kremlin’s point man for relations with the Muslim world, and equally senior Iranian ayatollahs used a conference in Moscow this week to underscore their close cultural and historical ties and to reaffirm their opposition to the West in general and American policy in the Middle East in particular.
Organized by the Russian Center for Arab and Islamic Research, the Iranian Organization for Culture and Islamic Ties, the Moscow Center for Civilizational Partnership, ISESCO, and Moscow State University, the two-day conference attracted more than 100 officials and scholars from Russia, Iran and other countries (www.interfax-religion.ru/islam/?act=news&div=25063).
The keynote speakers, Ayatollah Mohammad Ali Tasrihi who heads the Iranian Center for the Rapprochement of the Legal Schools of Islam, Russian Ambassador Veniamin Popov who is in charge of Moscow’s Center for Civilizational Partnership, and former Russian prime minister Yevgeny Primakov, took common and mutually reinforcing positions.
Ayatollah Tasrihi stressed that both Russia and the Islamic world are currently “subject to attacks from the West” and that as a result of that and their common status as “Eastern” countries, the two were working together ever more closely to counter the United States and its policies in the Middle East (www.blagovest-info.ru/index.php?ss=2&s=3&id=21236).
He said that Russia was wise to distance itself from the West and the United States and thus was in a position to serve as “a bridge between the West and the Islamic world” as the international community moves to cope with the new realities of a multi-polar world in which energy resources and culture are playing an ever greater role.
Ambassador Popov echoed the ayatollah’s arguments, noting that Russia can play a particular role not only because of its longstanding ties to the world of Islam but also because “25 percent of the world’s supplies of fresh water, land and natural wealth” are concentrated within its borders and because two-thirds of the world’s oil is found in Islamic countries.
And Primakov, one of Moscow’s authoritative spokesmen on relations with the Muslim world, said that the ongoing process of expanding ties between Moscow and Islamic countries was “a principle line” for Russia, something that Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov also stressed in his message to the conference (www.islam.ru/rus/2008-06-23/#21845).
Primakov, who has spoken in this vein many times before, called for dialogue between Russia and the Muslim world as well as for expanded conversations among Muslim states, in which Russia itself could participate because of its own sizeable Muslim population and traditions (www.islamrf.ru/articles.php?razdel=1&sid=3485).
Subsequent speakers added their voices to this choice. Mahdi Hidawi, a scholar at the Shiite Theological Center in Qum, for example, stressed that “the Islamic world does not see Russia as being among its opponents” and thus hopes to work with Russia to create “a new world order based on the principles of dialogue and logic.”
And Yashar Yakshin, the former foreign minister of Turkey and current head of the European Committee of the Turkish Parliament, called for the development of “concrete interrelationships between Russia and the Islamic states,” as part of a general reordering of the international system (www.islamrf.ru/articles.php?razdel=1&sid=3520).
The comments of Muslim leaders, both from within Russia and abroad, were similar, with one additional aspect: Many of Russia’s Muslim leaders who participated stressed how much they still had to learn from Muslims abroad, and many foreign Muslim leaders offered to help with translations and training (www.interfax-religion.ru/islam/?act=news&div=25109).
Beyond the clearly anti-American views both Russian and Iranian leaders wanted to send, these Muslim-to-Muslim ties may prove to be the most important result of this meeting. On the one hand, Moscow cannot promote closer ties with the Muslim world abroad if its own Muslims are unhappy, something Islamic leaders on both sides of the border recognize.
And on the other, Moscow cannot fail to be concerned about the influx of Muslim influence from abroad, something that radicalized Islamic opinion in some parts of the North Caucasus and the Middle Volga a decade ago and could lead to more of the same if Moscow and Tehran continue to seek closer ties in this area.