Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Moscow Must Not Assume Muslim World Will Always Side with Russia Against the West, IMEMO Scholar Says

Paul Goble

Vienna, November 3 – Russian leaders must recognize that the rapprochement between Moscow and the Islamic countries has “its limits” not only because Russia is not itself a Muslim country but also because the governments of most Muslim countries will turn to the US than to Russia at critical times, according a leading Moscow specialist on the Middle East.
In an interview published in “NG-Religii” today, Georgy Mirsky, a senior scholar at the Russian Academy of Sciences Institute of International Economics and the World Economy (IMEMO), suggests that some in the Russian capital do not understand either of these limits on what Russia can achieve (
However much some might like to, he says, “there is no way to call Russia a Muslim country.” Only one in seven of its people are Muslims, according to the most widely cited number – and that rests on some questionable assumption. As a result, it will never be a full member of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC).
And that will not change, he says, however much Russia “trades arms with both Sunni countries and with Iran,” although those actions and the declarations of Russian leaders have created “the completely correct impression that Russia is trying to cooperate with the Islamic world in all its diversity.”
But it is a mistake to over-read this, the IMEMO expert says, and to ignore that “in critical moments these countries as before will turn to the Americans and not to us because the chief enemy of these countries – the representatives of the Sunni world [who make up 90 percent of the world’s Muslims] is Iran.”
Moreover, it is important for Moscow to understand why the authorities in Sunni countries are seeking to strengthen ties with Russia. On the one hand, “the ruling circles of these countries are closely connected with the US and understand that only Washington is capable of defending them against both Sunni extremism like Al-Qaeda and ‘the Shiite crescent.’”
But on the other, these regimes face a rising tide of anti-American attitudes among their populations, and thus they find it convenient to appear to be seeking improved relations with Russia, creating the impression of evenhandedness, even though they continue to rely on the United States to protect them.
In other comments, Mirsky urges that Russian commentators and officials more carefully distinguish between the actions of radical Sunni groups like Al-Qaeda and the governments of the countries where Al-Qaeda first arose. Moscow needs to understand that “the official Wahhabi circles of Saudi Arabia are the most committed enemies of Al Qaeda.”
Indeed, he points out, each is seeking to destroy the other, even though both are nominally Wahhabi, and it is time for Russian officials to recognize that Al-Qaeda, “a transnational terrorist network” is one thing, and “our citizens [who] receive training at Egypt’s Al-Azhar University” are something “completely different.”
Another point Mirsky makes is that it is simply wrong to view as many do what is taking place now between the Muslim world and the West as “a struggle of Islam against Christianity.” Nothing could be further from the truth: “The Islamists consider the West not Christian but ‘godless,’ ‘corrupt,’ and so forth,” he says.
And yet a third point he makes, one with more immediate resonance in Russia itself is that “for the official Saudi clergy as for the Russian muftis, Sunni radicals [like Al-Qaeda] represent exactly the same threat that [now dismissed Bishop] Diomid represents for the Russian Orthodox Church.”
Official Muslim organizations both in Saudi Arabia and in Russia, he continues, use “the same arguments against the Wahhabis that the Russian Orthodox church has employed against the followers of Diomid,” a reflection of the way in which the radicals represent a threat in the first instance to the leaders of what appear to outsiders as the same faith.
None of this means, Mirsky says, that Moscow should not work closely with the Muslim world. Obviously, “a united front of the Muslim countries with a common position on many questions has great political importance.” But it is to say, he insists, that such accords, at least with Moscow, may prove far more transitory than many now believe.

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