Eagles Meer, PA, October 1 – In their Id al-Fitr messages to Russia’s Muslim community, President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin stressed very different things, a reflection not only of their different personal styles but also and perhaps more important of their contrasting expectations for the Russian umma in the future.
In his message, Medvedev said that “the followers of traditional Islam in our country always and with special respect mark this bright holiday. It calls to mind eternal moral values, like justice and mercy, the striving to build, and a concern for those who are close” to believers (www.blagovest-info.ru/index.php?ss=2&s=3&id=23023).
He said that he was “pleased that in the new, 21st century, the life of Russia’s Muslims is becoming richer and more varied. Our contribution to the strengthening of public accord and mutual understanding among the peoples of our united multi-national Russia is becoming ever more significant and important.”
And he concluded that he was “certain that [Russia’s Muslims] will in the future devote themselves to the preservation of the traditional faith and to the support of the development of a fruitful dialogue” with Russian Orthodoxy, Judaism and Buddhism, the three other “traditional” faiths of the country.
Putin in contrast said that he was “pleased that Uraza-Bayram is being marked at a time when there have been positive changes in the Muslim community of Russia. Disagreements are receding into the past, and the centralized organizations [of the Muslim community] are perfecting a system of Islamic education and the organization of the pilgrimage” to Mecca.
The former president added that cooperation [between leaders of Russia’s Muslim community and] the muftiates of the CIS countries and the faithful elsewhere is growing” as is “constructive inter-confessional dialogue” and participation “in the life of civil society” within the Russian Federation.’
And the prime minister concluded that all these activities of Russian Muslims are “making a significant contribution to the preservation and development of the richest national-cultural traditions of the peoples of Russia and the centuries-old spiritual inheritance of the fatherland” (www.interfax-religion.ru/islam/?act=news&div=26717).
Given the way such messages are prepared in any government, one should not expect the wording to be identical but one should be able to identify certain common themes, against which any significant differences stand out – and will be seen that way by the community to whom they are addressed even if they do not have consequences (www.islam.ru/rus/2008-09-30/#23008).
The common themes – respect for Islam not only as a community of faith but as part of Russian society and support for Muslim participation in inter-confessional dialogue with the Orthodox Church – were entirely to be expected, but the differences are interesting because they suggest that Medvedev and Putin do not see the Muslims of Russia in the same way.
Like most Russian leaders, but unlike Putin in this case, Medvedev talked repeatedly about “traditional” Islam, a code word in Russia for Muslims who view their faith in much the same way most Christians view theirs, as a set of personal values that does not challenge the existing polity rather than as a system of views on how that polity should be organized.
And like most Russian leaders but again unlike Putin this time, Medvedev talked about Muslims less as a corporate entity with their own structures like either the Muslim Spiritual Directorates (MSDs) than as individual Russian citizens, who happen to be followers of Islam and whose lives are becoming “richer and more varied.”
Putin in contrast focused precisely on Islam and its MSDs as a corporate entity, whose various parts are working more closely together and can be counted on not only to regulate the lives of the Muslim community within the Russian Federation but also to promote ties for Moscow with Islamic countries abroad.
And while not laying stress on “traditional” Islam, the prime minister did use long-standing language about “the development of the richest national-cultural traditions of the peoples of Russia,” a vocabulary that traces its lineage to Soviet times and not just to the late 1990s as any reference to “traditional” religions does.
Medvedev’s thematic are certain to be more appealing to most believers, most of whom will be only too happy to be considered Russian citizens who happen to be followers of Islam. But Putin’s are certain to be more attractive to the MSD establishment which will see his words as an indication that their power will not be challenged.
But however that may be – and the messages of the president and the prime minister did not appear to be near the center of any of the televised celebrations of the end of the holy month of Ramadan – Russia’s Muslims were out in force for the three-day holiday, with believers spilling into the streets at many of the more than 8,000 mosques now open there.
One of the developments in recent years that made that possible is that in most predominantly Muslim regions of Russia – including Chechnya, Kabardino-Balkaria, Bashkortostan, Ingushetia, Karachaevo-Cherkessia and Daghestan – Uraza-Bayram is now a public holiday. The only major exception is Tatarstan (www.regions.ru/news/2169693/).