Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Is Mufti Ashirov the Bishop Diomid of Russia’s Muslims?

Paul Goble

Vienna, November 5 – Mufti Nafigulla Ashirov, the outspoken leader of the Muslim Spiritual Directorate (MSD) of the Asiatic Part of Russia, is playing a role within Russia’s Islamic community that parallels the one Bishop Diomid has been playing within Russian Orthodoxy.
On the one hand, Ashirov like Diomid has put forward ideas on various topics that are anathema to both other leaders of their denominations. But on the other, he like the Orthodox bishop is an ardent advocate of greater democracy within his organizations and more public activism by his followers.
But if they share those things in common, they find themselves in a fundamentally different situation because of the differences between the Muslim community which has no single authority which can rule on what is acceptable and that of the Russian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate which does (
Consequently,while Diomid has been stripped of his bishopric, Ashirov continues to control his MSD and to advance his ideas in a variety of venues, a development that may prompt some other Muslim leaders and certainly more than a few in the Russian government to revisit the idea of setting up a single MSD to impose discipline.
Over the last few days, more than 200 imams and leaders of Muslim social organizations which are part of the MSD Ashirov heads assembled to discuss expanding cooperation, reaching out to the media and other public groups, and, significantly, transforming the existing kaziats (Muslim courts) into MSDs at the oblast level.
But in contrast to other Muslim leaders, such as Talgat Tadjuddin of the Central MSD, Ashirov wants to make all these positions elective not so that he can better control them but rather so that the Muslims occupying these positions of trust will be closely attuned to the local parishes and imams.
Since the formation of the current Ashirov-led MSD in 1997, he pointed out at the meeting, there have appeared a large number of “highly qualified and professional cadres” for Muslim groups, and thus it is entirely possible to give them “a definite status” so that they can carry out work beyond the confines of the mosque.
“In certain regions there already exists a practice according to which beisdes regional mufits, Ashirov continued, “there are also elected district ones,” not assigned by some more senior person or by the government in Moscow but elected as Islamic laws required by the parishioners they service.
“For us,” the outspoken MSD chief said, “the main thing is to make possible the growth of the acitivty and initiative among Muslims and to give a chance to local religious organizations to develop independently, extending their creative work for the good of society.”
Those who do not measure up and meet the needs of their flocks, he added, must be identified and then reformed by “regional congresses.” And their replacements must be “prepared to take upon themselves the responsibility to represent the interests of the followers of Islam in local governments and in cooperation with othe rconfessions.
Such arrangements, Ashirov said, will not only allow the faithful to spread islam but to counter the “anti-Islamic attitudes” now widespread in Russian society. And thus the Muslim community will become more independent, active and influential not only for its members but for Russian society as a whole.
What makes Ashirov’s activities in regard so interesting, of course, is their parallels with those of Diomid. Both religious leaders want their faiths to move outside the boundaries of the mosque and the church, and both personally identify with ideas many find horrifying but with others that are extremely welcome.
Diomid has taken positions on a variety of issues, including ecumenism, which are out of step with those held by the Moscow Patriarchate. And Ashirov has attacked Israel, the United States and the West on a regular basis, providing in the minds of many a justification for the hostility to Islam he decries.
But both are committed to openness in their faiths, to a greater role for their parishioners and their immediate spiritual leaders, a commitment to democratic measures that is highly attractive even to those who reject their other ideas. And consequently they both have a significant following in Russia.
Unlike Diomid who has been ousted by the Moscow Patriarchate from his see, there is no structure in Russia’s Islamic community that is in a position to oust or even rein in Ashirov, a situation suggests one or both of two sets of actions by those who oppose what he stands for.
On the one hand, some may resuscitate the idea of a truly powerful central MSD with control over all muftis. And on the other, and more likely, Ashirov’s increasing calls for democratization within the faith is likely to reignite a compromat war, with his opponents in the umma and in the government charging him with all manner of crimes.

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