Monday, January 12, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Imams for St. Petersburg ‘Muslim Republic’ May Train where Lenin Once Led the October Revolution

Paul Goble

Vienna, January 12 – Muslim leaders in Russia’s northern capital are drawing up plans to open an Islamic studies program at the Smolny Institute from where Lenin in 1917 directed the Russian revolution, the kind of symbolic shift that is already sparking debates about the possible “Islamization of Russia” in the coming decades.
And such discussions are likely to become all the more heated because Dzhamaliddin Makhmutov, the president of the St. Petersburg Islamic Religious Organization which is behind these plans, says they are necessary to support what he called “the whole republic” of the 700,000 Muslims in that city (
Exactly when such a faculty might open remains unclear, the newspaper “Moy region” reports, but there is already a precedent for it: during the last three months, there have been a series of ten-day courses in Arabic and Islamic studies there. And Makhmutov told the paper that he hopes to open a regular Islamic studies faculty there in the fall.
This report, like the appearance of Elena Chudinova’s anti-utopian novel, “The Mosque of Notre Dame de Paris” two years ago about what she projects as the Islamic take-over of the European Union by 2048, seems certain to increase discussions about the future of the Islamic community in Russia and its role in defining the future of that country as a whole.
That is all the more so because of three other recent developments in that community: the appearance there of the first Muslim shopping center (, the first Islamic financial center there (, and the first Muslim medical facility (
All that makes a recent article by commentator Nikolay Mikhailov particularly useful. No one denies, he writes, that the number of “ethnic Muslims” in Russia is increasing absolutely – because of higher birthrates – and relatively – because of the demographic decline of other groups, including ethnic Russians (
And if one projects those trends far enough into the future, the lines will at some point cross, although Mikhailov for one, is skeptical that will ever happen. But however that may be, he argues, it is far more important to consider what the “rise” of the Muslim community in Russia may mean.
He begins his analysis by insisting that Europe has exported to Russia in recent years not only “fashionable industrial goods and styles but also fashionable fears,” one of the most powerful of which is the Islamization of society. There may be reasons why Europeans should be concerned, Mikhailov says, but there are fewer ones for Russians to be worried.
First of all, he argues, the number of Muslim believers remains relatively small in Russia even as the number of “ethnic Muslims” – members of traditionally Islamic ethnic communities – continues to grow. And he cites sociological studies showing that Muslim believers today probably constitute no more than four to six percent of the Russian population.
Many of Russia’s Muslims would dispute this argument. On the one hand, they would point out that the Russian Orthodox Church claim as Christians all members of “ethnic Christian” nations. And on the other, they would insist, as Mikhailov himself admits, that religiosity among Muslims in Russia is higher than among Christians.
Second, even among religious Muslims, the number of radicals – the so-called Salafites – is small, a reflection not only of the secularization to which most of the population of the Russian Federation has been subject to but the commitment to liberalization of Islam by Tatar scholars like Rafael Khakimov.
Many, of course, would disagree with Mikhailov on this point, noting the retreat from secularization in the North Caucasus and the attacks on Khakimov and others who support what their increasingly vocal representatives call “drunken Islam” whose followers supposedly pick and choose from Islamic injunctions in “a cafeteria style.”
And third, Mikhailov continues, government control of Islam has been far greater in Russia than it has in Europe, and “in our days this tendency is only increasing.” Not only does the government exercise control over domestic Islamic institutions, he writes, but it also has moved to regulate their contacts with foreign and often radical Muslim centers.
Again, many would disagree with him and point to the way that efforts at official control proved counterproductive in Soviet times, leading to the survival in the underground of the most radical forms of Islam, and to the difficulties even the Russian state has in controlling questions of faith in the age of the Internet.
Nonetheless, Mikhailov is almost certainly correct in his assessment that what he calls “the Islamic factor” will be “much less ‘threatening’” in Russia than “[Russian] nationalists attempt to suggest” because the Muslims of Russia would play a different role than they play in other countries, however much either they or the nationalists think otherwise.

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