Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Moscow’s Ban on Islamist Literature Backfiring, Naumkin Says

Paul Goble

Vienna, August 13 – Moscow’s ban of Islamic books and articles it considers extremist is having the effect of popularizing them much as the Soviet ban on certain kinds of materials transformed samizdat from a marginal phenomenon into a major intellectual force that helped reshape attitudes and undermine the USSR.
Because of these dangers, Vitaly Naumkin, head of the Center of Arab Research at the Institute of Oriental Studies, says, the Russian government must not allow decisions about such literature to be made by local prosecutors and courts which are often guided by “insufficiently qualified” experts (
“Any prohibition,” he told Interfax in the course of a wide-ranging interview posted online today, “is a stick with two ends,” one of which may strike those who use it if they do not exercise sufficient caution. Even worse, he said, such bans are hurting inter-religious relationships within Russia and Moscow’s relations with other countries.
Naumkin, who enjoys close ties with the Kremlin, added that he didn’t want to single out any particular court decision but “the case in Penza oblast involving the prohibition of a book of the Ayatollah Khomeini was indicative.” Moscow, he noted, “is trying to develop relations with Iran and at the same time is prohibiting the works of the founder of the current Iranian state.”
“Not in any other country, even in the United States which does not recognize the current regime in Iran and does not have diplomatic relations with it is there such a prohibition on this book!” the Moscow orientalist pointed out, adding that he could make similar points about the current prohibition of the works of Said Nursi.
And Naumkin insisted on a distinction that Russian officials have generally lost sight of. Banning books by Nursi which “do not contain any extremism” is a mistake, but it is “a completely separate question as to whether the state should permit the activity of any groups and organizations of supporters of Nursi” and his ideas.
If the Russian government does believe that it needs to identify works as extremist, Naumkin concluded, then it should entrust that task to “a special organ in which ought to be included scholars, religious and social leaders, and officials” and ensure that there is a careful and thorough-going analysis of any work the authorities are concerned about.
Naumkin’s standing and the play Interfax gave his interview suggests that the Russian authorities may soon back away from their existing system of banning religious literature, one that places almost unlimited powers in the hands of local officials and that has been, as he suggests, a source of more problems than solutions up to now.
In other comments, Naumkin said that he regretted that some Muslim leaders like Nafigulla Ashirov and Geydar Dzhemal believe that the Russian government is putting pressure on Muslims and that the best response is an ultimatum insisting that Moscow change its ways or face problems.
Such a strategy, the Moscow Arabist said, “harms Muslims themselves,” who are full members of Russia as “a multi-national and poly-confessional state” and who have benefited from Russia’s support of the haj and Muslim education. Indeed, he continued, Islamic studies in Russia have entered into a kind of renaissance in recent years.
And he added that Muslim web sites now play a positive role in promoting debate within the Muslim community of Russia and in informing non-Muslims about that community. Some of their editors need to learn to avoid “extremism,” Naumkin said, but the very diversity of views being expressed shows that Russia’s Muslims have opportunities as never before.
To promote the intellectual growth of that community, Naumkin added, “new translations of the Holy Koran are needed” as is “new religious and research literature,” including “a large Islamic encyclopedia” which will serve the needs not only of the Muslims themselves but of all Russian society.”

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