Vienna, July 2 – Stung by a rising tide of criticism from Muslims at home and anger in some Muslim countries abroad, the Kremlin appears likely to move to strip local courts of the power to declare the works of religious and other writers extremist, to judge from comments yesterday by the director of the Russian government’s foundation for work with Islam.
In an interview with the Interfax agency, Veniamin Popov, director for external relations of the Foundation for the Support of Islamic Culture, Science and Education, said that some recent decisions by local courts have raised serious questions about their competence to make such determinations (www.interfax-religion.ru/?act=interview&div=187).
Popov, a former ambassador who also heads the Center for the Partnership of Civilizations at the Moscow State Institute for International Relations (MGIMO), argued that “of course, the judiciary is independent and its decisions must be respected. But at the same time, in this situation a large number of questions arise.”
Despite what he said was “all [his] respect” for the courts, Popov said that he does not think that “they are the main specialists concerning what should be considered extremist literature.” In fact, he suggested, there are many scholars who have the expertise to do so and whose views should be used in making such determinations.
To that end, he said, “for the review of such questions, the time has come to create a special experts’ council. It could include both prominent scholars in this area and representatives of the [country’s] traditional religions, who could bed able to give in certain cases competent judgments.
Popov noted that he personally had read one of the books of one of the Muslim writers a Russian court says is extremist and that Moscow has thus banned for the country as a whole. Again, while insisting that he was “not a specialist,” Popov said that he did not see how Nursi’s call for Muslims to avoid politics and seek moral improvement was extremist.
“It seems to me,” he continued, “that in such affairs it is more necessary to be guided by good sense and the interests of the Russian. If that is not done, if good sense is ignored, then if you like, someone can declare not a few citations from the [Christian] Bible and especially from [its] Old Testament extremist as well.”
And mistakes can have serious consequences for Russia’s foreign relations, Popov said. When a Russian court decided that the political testament of Iran’s Imam Khomeini was extremist, Iranians were furious, and it is important to reminder that “such decisions cannot pass without consequences for our relations with their country.”
Noting that Russian officials spoke out in favor of freedom of the press during the Danish “caricature scandal,” Popov said that at the same time, the invocation of such freedom must “not become the occasion” for insulting “the feelings of believers. And consequently, everyone involved in such decisions should proceed with extreme caution.
In other comments, he said that his foundation recently concluded an agreement with ISESCO, the Islamic counterpart to UNESCO, to hold meetings and publish works about Islam and Muslim cooperation with other faiths. Such activities are to dovetail with his own Strategic Vision Group on Russia and the Islamic World.
That body has already held three conferences, in Moscow, Kazan and Istanbul, and will hold a fourth in Riyadh in October. That meeting is intended to generate support for Moscow’s call to create a consultative council on religion at the United Nations and to promote dialogue among the three monotheistic faiths, at a time of “the de-Christianization of Europe.”
UPDATE for July 4: Chechen Mufti Sultan Mirzayev supports the creation of a federal experts’ council to evaluate whether particular publications are extremist or not (www.interfax-religion.ru/islam/?act=news&div=25292).