Friday, August 1, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Russia’s Muftis Turn Down State Department Invitation to Visit the U.S.

Paul Goble

Vienna, August 1 – Almost certainly at the direction of the Kremlin, senior muftis from the North Caucasus and other parts of the Russian Federation have rejected an invitation by the U.S. Department of State to make a 12-day visit to the United States later this month as part of Washington’s “Islam in America” program.
Shafig Pshikhachev of the Coordinating Center of Muslims of the North Caucasus said that the four muftis, initially including Ismail Berdiyev, head of the Coordinating Center, and the muftis of Daghestan, Chechnya and Kalmykia, had done so because of U.S. policy toward Russia and Muslim Countries (
Pshikhachev added that when Russia’s muftis had visited the United States in July 2007, they found that American officials were not in possession of information of accurate information about the state of Islam in the Russian Federation, a view that he said was confirmed by a 2007 U.S. government report saying that the rights of Muslims are being violated there.
For his part, Berdiyev, who is Pshikhachev ‘s boss said in widely quoted remarks that “the visit of Russia’s muftis will not take place among other reasons because the Americans say one thing and do another. We are not satisfied with the policy of double standards the United States” in this area (
But clearly the Muslim leaders did not make this decision independently of the Russian government. Visam Bardvil, head of the Muslim Spiritual Directorate (MSD) of Karelia, when he told that he couldn’t possibly go once the program ceased being only a cultural measure and “acquired a political coloration” (
“Unfortunately,” the Palestinian born mufti added, “I cannot say anything more because this affair is connected with politics.”
A second indication that the Kremlin was behind the muftis’ decision is a statement by Roman Silantyev, a specialist on Islam with close ties to the Russian Orthodox Church and according to some reports to Russian security agencies, welcoming what the muftis had done (
Silantyev, who last year lost his job as secretary of the Inter-Religious Council for publishing a book many MSD leaders considered slanderous, said that the muftis clearly recognize that Washington is not interested in learning about Islam in Russia but rather are seeking to use the muftis to “discredit Russia” and its government.
Had they gone, he continued, the muftis might have been subject to what many people would call “recruitment” to this effort. And in words remarkably similar to those Berdiyev and Bardvil used, Silantyev suggested that the muftis were not impressed with what the Americans know about Islam in the Russian Federation or are interested in finding out.
Instead of trying to learn about the state of Islam in Russia, he continued, the American officials almost invariably use such occasions to “speak about the supposed existence of cases of the violation of the rights of believers and about outrages committed by the [Russian government] authorities.”
Having had that experience once, Silantyev said, many of Russia’s muftis “do not want to repeat it.”
And yet a third indication that the Russian government is behind the muftis’ rejection is the fact that so far the two most senior leaders of Russia’s 20 million Muslims, Ravil Gainutdin of the Council of Muftis of Russia (SMR) and Talgat Tajuddin, the head of the Ufa-based Central MSD, have not said anything – although they can be counted to fall in line quickly on an issue like this.

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