Vienna, July 21 – Russia’s Muslim leaders are calling for the creation of a special council of experts to advise Russian prosecutors and courts about Islamic literature that the latter believe are extremist and want to ban, but there are reasons to believe that many non-Muslims are likely to oppose this proposal, however reasonable it appears.
On Saturday, the Union of Muftis of Russia (SMR) asked for the creation of such a body because its members are disturbed by the propensity of Russian courts to declare Islamic works extremist and thus ban them on the basis of expansive prosecutorial claims and testimony from people without any knowledge of Islam (www.ingushetiya.ru/islam/news/1700.html).
The proximate cause for this action was a decision by a Moscow court to declare the work “The Muslim’s Personality” by Mohammed Ali Al-Hashimi extremist and thus banned and bringing criminal charges against its publisher, Aslambek Ezhayev, for printing and distributing the book before it was banned. If convicted, he could be incarcerated for up to three years.
The court reached its decision on the basis of a report by someone who lacked the necessary expertise, Muslim leaders argue (www.islamnasledie.ru/news.php?id=1230). And Naima Neflyasheva, a senior scholar at the Russian Academy of Sciences Center for Civilizational and Regional Research went further.
She suggested that the court’s decision to declare Al-Hashimi’s widely-used book extremist – indeed, there are so many copies about that some doubt Moscow has the capacity to seize them – and even more to charge Ezhayev “troubling symptoms” of the state of relations between the government and religion (www.islamnasledie.ru/news.php?id=1229).
Since Saturday, Muslim leaders have continued to speak out, simultaneously repeating the SMR’s argument that Russian courts need a special council of experts to evaluate Muslim literature officials think is extremist but also stressing that they will obey the court’s decision even though they disagree with it (www.regions.ru/news/2156157/).
As it often does in such situations, the Regions.ru news portal interviewed three senior Muslim leaders concerning the SMR proposal. Anas-Haji Pshikhachev, the head of the Kabardino-Balkaria Muslim Spiritual Directorate (MSD), said that Russia needed such a council and that there should be theologians in it.
That is because, he continued, “people who have not received a theological education can simply understand the text of a book incorrectly” and because “the greater part of Muslim books are translations from Arabic,” making it important that those evaluating texts determine who is “guilty” of any extremism, “the author or the translator.”
Rostov Mufti Jafar Bikmayev, who serves as senior advisor to Central MSD head Talgat Tajuddin, said he backed the creation of such a council because “today in this area in Russia there is no system,” and thus a council consisting of both scholars and religious leaders could play a very positive role.
“If only one book were involved,” he continued, “then there would be no need to create such a council. But now in each region [of the Russian Federation], local government bodies or even individual political figures are in a position to make decisions without any constraints about religious literature. And that of course is incorrect.”
And Rushan-khazrat Abbyasov, the head of the SMR’s international department, said that his organization wants any council of experts that may be created to evaluate not only new charges of extremism but also to review earlier Russian court findings against Muslim books and articles, given the absence of genuine expert evaluations in most of these cases.
Despite this support, there are at least two reasons the proposal faces tough sledding ahead. On the one hand, Roman Silant’yev, a controversial writer on Islam with close ties to the Moscow Patriarchate, told Regions.ru that allowing Muslim leaders to evaluate Islamic literature was like putting the fox in charge of the chicken coop.
And on the other, many in Russia Muslim and non-Muslim alike concerned with media rights object to the banning of books in principle. And they are likely to argue that the creation of such a council would have the effect of legitimizing a process that in their view should not be taking place in a country with aspirations to becoming a democracy.
But the SMR appeal is clearly a dramatic indication of just how fearful many of Russia’s Muslims are that the Russian authorities will continue to ban books and that the creation of such a council of experts, however much that body might legitimate that process, is the only step now available to them.