Thursday, September 25, 2008

Window on Eurasia: The Anniversary that Failed – Tajuddin’s Central MSD at 220

Paul Goble

Vienna, September 25 – Efforts by Talgat Tajuddin to use the 220th anniversary of the Central Muslim Spiritual Directorate (MSD) he heads to boost both that institution and himself have failed, thus raising more questions about who will be the Kremlin’s chief interlocutor in the Muslim community and whether Russia’s Muslims will turn away from the MSD structures.
For the last several years, Talgat Tajuddin, the long-serving head of the Central MSD in Ufa who styles himself “the supreme mufti of Holy Russia” and who is known to his opponents as “the drunken mufti” because of his taste for vodka, has been planning the celebration of the 220th anniversary of his institution.
But judging by the attention this anniversary and its celebrations have received in the mainstream Russian media and Russia’s increasingly diverse Muslim online media, its celebration this week has highlighted not Tajuddin’s influence and the strength of the MSD system but rather the reverse (
The Central MSD is the direct descendent of the Mohammedan Spiritual Assembly created by Catherine the Great on September 22, 1788, and was until the end of the Soviet period the most important administrative structure for Muslims in the Soviet Union outside of the republics of Central Asia and the South Caucasus.
Catherine created the institution at the request of the military governor of Orenburg where the assembly had its headquarters for a time before shifting to Ufa where it remains as an institution to “test” mullahs for their “spiritual knowledge” and to “select” those who best combined knowledge of Islam and political loyalty for appointment as muftis.
There is no precedent for such an institution in Islam: both mullahs and muftis are traditionally elected by the faithful rather than appointed by a secular state or its agents, but the Russian Empire’s expansion into Muslim areas first in the Middle Volga and then in the Caucasus and Crimea prompted Russian officials to invent it.
Tajuddin himself stressed the continuing importance of such an institution in the Russian Federation. He told “Rossiiskaya gazeta” this week that “the main role of the spiritual directorate” -- the coordination of Muslim religious communities” -- “remains unchanged despite the significant social-political changes in the country over the last 15 years.”
The Ufa mufti may be correct as to the goal of the Central MSD, but he is clearly wrong as to the role it plays across the Russian Federation. In tsarist and especially in Soviet times, the Central MSD was staffed by officials who either represented or worked closely with the security agencies, something that made many Muslims there wary of dealing with it.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, three things happened, all of which have cast a shadow over Tajuddin deeper than the one he has often cast over himself by incautious statements such as his recent call for a jihad against the United States, an appeal that led other Muslims in Russia to question his judgment and to suggest that he should coordinate things better with the Kremlin.
First, the number of Muslim communities in the Russian Federation grew explosively from a few hundred in the early 1990s to almost 9,000 now. Many of them were, as Islamic law requires, self-organized and chose not to have any relationship with either the Central MSD or with the Russian state.
Second, some more ambitious mullahs and imams often at the behest of Russian officials in the regions created new MSDs on their own. If in 1991, the Central MSD headed by Tajuddin had the field to itself, by this year, the number of MSDs within the Russian Federation alone has risen to 64.
They represent a variety of trends within Islam and an even more diverse group of ethnic communities, vary widely in their religious and political activism, and cooperate with each other on a case by case basis rather than accepting subordination to anyone, including to the Central MSD and Tajuddin.
An extreme example of this is provided by Muslim radicals in Daghestan who refuse to have anything to do with Tajuddin and who call their own MSD the Spiritual Directorate of the Hypocrites because of its close ties to the government and its well-documented level of corruption (
And third, a new competitor arose to the Central MSD which Tajuddin found it hard to counter. Alone of the traditional religions, Muslims until 1991 had their primary center not in Moscow but in Ufa, the capital of Bashkortostan in the Middle Volga. And consequently, even though Tajuddin wanted to speak for Moscow, he was operating from somewhere else.
(That the tsarist state and its Soviet successor organized things this way almost certainly reflects both deference to the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church and a desire to promote the moderate Muslim communities of the Middle Volga as against the more radical ones in the North Caucasus.)
In the 1990s, however, Ravil’ Gainutdin and a number of Muslim leaders who want a less authoritarian arrangement than Tajuddin has offered created the Union of Muftis of Russia (SMR) which the Kremlin has sometimes but not always preferred to work with rather than dealing with the impulsive Tajuddin.
In the near term, Moscow will continue to try to play the SMR and Central MSD off against one another, holding out plums for cooperation and distancing itself from the one that doesn’t. But in the longer term, that strategy and Tajuddin’s approach are likely to kill the MSD system, reducing still further Moscow’s influence on Russia’s growing Muslim community.

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