Monday, July 21, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Why Some Ethnic Russians Are Converting to Islam

Paul Goble

Vienna, July 21 – The exact number of ethnic Russians who have converted to Islam remains a matter of hot dispute, but the growth in their ranks over the last decade is not, prompting both supporters and opponents to ask why historically Orthodox ethnic Russians are crossing what many see as a civilizational divide and becoming Muslims.
The National Organization of Russian Muslims (NORM) says more than 150,000 ethnic Russians have converted to Islam, but Russian academic specialists say the actual number is an order of magnitude less and some Russian Orthodox churchmen and lay activists insist that there are far fewer than that.
There are good reasons why the question of “Russian Muslims” as such converts are typically referred to in the Russian media is an extremely sensitive one. On the one hand, these conversions not only call into question the degree Russians are in fact attached to Orthodoxy but also raise questions about the future and even survivability of the Russian ethnos.
And on the other, because such Muslims can “pass” as Russians in Moscow and other Russian, many people there view them as “new age” Janissaries who will be able to carry out terrorists attacks with relative ease on behalf of Islamist extremists in the North Caucasus or even further afield.
Such fears are regularly fanned by groups like the Moscow-based Institute for Religion and Politics which routinely feature articles playing up that possibility. One recent example is the posting in Russian translation of an “Al Hayat” story about a supposed increase in Caucasus Emirate recruiting in Russian cities (
All this makes a discussion of this issue posted on the Moscow State University Institute for the Study of Social and Political Processes in the CIS valuable, even though like most such surveys, this review does not allow for any final judgment about just how many “Russian Muslims” there are or what role they may play in the future (
Instead, after acknowledging that it is virtually impossible to say just how many ethnic Russians who are followers of Islam, although their ranks are certainly growing, Nikita Zeya devotes most of his time to discussing why members of particular groups of ethnic Russians are taking a step that many other ethnic Russians view as a form of national betrayal.
Until the last decade or so, he suggests, most such converts were to be found among Russians, mostly women, who married people from the Middle East or from traditionally Islamic groups within the Soviet Union or the post-Soviet states. Or they were men who had been captives in Afghanistan or Chechnya and converted there.
Those who do so continue to form a large if unknown percentage of Russian Muslims even now, Zeya says. But he identifies a number of other existential situations that have led at least some additional Russians to turn away from the traditional Russian religion of Orthodoxy to Islam.
First among these, Zeya says, is the growth of anti-Americanism in the Russian Federation over the last decade. Maksim (Salman) Zhuravlev, NORM’s representative in St. Petersburg, told Zeya that Al Qaeda’s attacks on New York and Washington on September 11, 2001, had prompted him and many others to take a fresh look at Islam.
“Like any patriot,” he said, “I considered America to be a strategic enemy of Russia and the Slavic world.” September 11th clarified the situation and suggested that Russia’s true friends and allies were to be found among America’s enemies in the Muslim world. And an examination of that world, he said, showed that Slavic-Islamic cooperation was entirely possible.
“By serving Islam,” Zhuravlev continued, “it is possible to revive Russian statehood and the Russian mentality in its most health manifestations. Islam is a religion that requires” a muscular approach to the world, something that all too many Russians have forgotten because of the influence of the West.
And he continues by suggesting that “the best [Russian] Muslim” is a former skinhead, intensely patriotic and searching for a way to help his country recover from the disasters of the past two decades but entirely willing to exchange hostility to people of other ethnic groups within Russia for anger at the West as such.
That view, Zeya reports, is seconded by other converts who insist that “Islam is more organically connected with Orthodoxy than with Catholicism, not only because Catholicism requires greater canonical purity: In Catholic countries, Muslims are aliens, but in Russia, they are part of the nation.”
Yet another reason behind shifts in religious affiliation among Russians is the search for meaning many Russians have been engaged in since the collapse of communism. “Islam helped me to find myself and thus provided peace for my soul,” one recent convert said. And she expressed the hope that she would ultimately marry a Muslim and have “a large Muslim family.”
Yet another recent convert, Sergei (Sardar), added that Islam itself was attractive as a faith. “There are no contradictions [in Islam] like the ones that exist in Christianity.” Instead, it is a “patriarchal religion with a masculine core,” something that will help Russia to overcome its current state of disorder.
To the extent that Zeya’s analysis is correct, Moscow’s increasingly anti-Western line and problems within the Russian Orthodox Church itself may have the effect of driving more and more Russians to become Muslims, a development that could further complicate their country’s demographic and political future.

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