Sunday, June 1, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Russia’s Muslims Must Overcome Minority Complex, Yakupov Says

Paul Goble

Vienna, June 1 – Russia’s Muslims must overcome the complexes they often manifest because of their minority status in an Orthodox country and because of the imagery about the expansion of Islam that they and other Russians have imported from abroad, according to a leading Muslim commentator in Tatarstan.
In an article posted online this past week, Valiulla khazrat Yakupov, a member of the Social Chamber of the Republic of Tatarstan and a leader of the Muslim community there, argues that Muslims in the Russian Federation will thereby become “more pragmatic” and less “hysterical” in their reactions and thus more capable of “constructive” work.
Indeed, the Muslim theologian, who recently was suspended from his position as first deputy chairman of the Muslim Spiritual Directorate (MSD) of Tatarstan for suggesting that Muslims should burn books that Russian courts have declared extremist, calls for a wholesale shift in Muslim attitudes (
Yakupov argues that the sources of many of the current problems of Russia’s umma have their origins in the failure of Muslims to recognize that their situation today with regard to broader Russian society is fundamentally different than they imagine or than Western imagery about Islam suggest.
On the one hand, he says, Muslims are no longer just a tolerated religious minority but rather a community large enough and strong enough to have political leaders like Mintimir Shaimiyev of Tatarstan speak up for them and to be able to expect that Russian leaders will support many of the things Muslims want, as Moscow currently is doing.
And on the other hand, Yakupov suggests, the image of some externally driven “expansion” of Islam, one taken from Western commentaries by some Russian nationalists and by some of Russia’s Muslims as well, does not correspond to Russian realities. Islam within the Russian Federation is not a foreign import and it is not trying to attack anyone.
Consequently, both its opponents who seek “a limitation” in the expansion of Islam there and its supposed advocates who call for a “Hamas-style” attack against the Russian authorities are wrong, a situation that the leaders of the Muslim community can demonstrate if they do not always react to everything anyone else says in a “hysterical” fashion.
Muslims need to stop talking about some kind of “revanchist, Caliphate, and other strivings” and focus on “realistic and understandable goals,” including in the first instance, “the support of stability in the country as the most important condition for the further positive development of the Russian-Muslim community.”
That is especially important, Yakupov continues, because such “a natural evolution of the country toward freedom and democracy is needed in the first instance precisely by [Muslims] who remain objectively in a minority status” and thus require the protections that liberal democracy alone can provide.
Unfortunately, many Muslim leaders have failed to recognize that or to see that relations between Muslims and the Russian state is not “what it was earlier.” In his view, Muslims already “have achieved the transformation of the policy of the state in relation to the Muslim community,” a new situation that “requires a different style of Muslim-state relations.”
That new style, he suggests, must reflect new Russian realities rather than the clash of civilizations imagery offered by the West. Indeed, that “ideological import of Western origin is very dangerous for Russia’s Muslims who need time for the building of the infrastructure” needed for the future.
For building a network of mosques and even more for creating a new Muslim intelligentsia, Russia’s Muslims need a certain number of years, and consequently “more than anyone else we are interested in domestic political stability and in the evolutionary development of the country,” not some kind of immediate and radical transformation.
Sometimes, Yakupov says, “it even seems that in the Russian Federation, there are two different Muslim communities:” those who are in Muslim majority areas who are comfortable with themselves and the local power elites and those who form small minorities and seem more concerned about their image than with real work.
But in both the one and the other, he continues, “Russia’s Muslims are equal citizens of our country and there are no legal limitations on the rights of Muslims.” Consequently, the adoption of “Hamas-style methods, approaches and rhetoric” is entirely inappropriate and counter-productive.
“We have an entirely different state and entirely different conditions,” Yakupov pointedly notes, and “there are consequently no objective foundations for confrontation” in either the one or the other, something that some Muslim leaders in Russia and many non-Muslim Russians sometimes forget.
Instead of viewing each other as opponents, both should recognize that they are partners, equally supportive of Russia’s political arrangements and equally loyal to the Russian Federation as a state, something that may require Muslims to put forward new leaders who are capable of acting in that way.
Looking ahead, Yakupov suggests that globalization is likely to have a growing impact on Russia, including leading many Russian citizens to change their religion just as it has in other countries already. And that means that Russia’s Muslims must be ready for this new ideological competition within Russia.
“The competition in the religious sphere will acquire a general character,” Yakupov suggests, creating a “fundamental challenge, which the community must be ready to respond to and which it must concentrate on its specific superior features in order to carry out the mobilization of its own faithful.”
And that in turn means that the Muslims of the Russian Federation must be increasingly concerned about their “image,” about “the attractiveness” of Muslim institutions “including also [their] leaders” who should be able to have “normal business relations and cooperation with all government structures” rather than react to any problem in a huffily counterproductive way.
Some Muslims in Russia are likely to read Yakupov’s words as his way of complaining about the way he was treated by the Tatarstan MSD, and others are certain to see them as his effort to position himself as the leader of either that Muslim structure or something more – possibly as the host of an all-Russian Muslim television program.
But regardless of which of these is more true, Yakupov’s call for a more cooperative approach between Islam and the Russian state reflects both the increasing maturity and self-confidence of a significant part of the Russian umma, qualities that leaders like Yakupov are certain to draw upon to advance its and their interests in the future.

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