Saturday, January 24, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Irkutsk Mosque Conflict Highlights Broader Problem for Muslims in Russia

Paul Goble

Vienna, January 24 – The changing ethnic composition of the Muslim community in Irkutsk, the region’s promise to provide funds to rebuild the mosque there, and the imam’s power to certify private businesses as “halal” have combined to divide Muslims in that Siberian city and create problems for government officials.
Although there are indications that a similar conjunction of forces is affecting many Muslim communities across the Russian Federation, coverage of the situation in the Irkutsk mosque in “Vostochno-Sibriskaya Pravda” this week provides details about them rarely reported in the other cases (
According to an article by that paper’s journalist, Vladimir Dyomin, the current conflict began about six weeks ago when one group of Muslims in the community began its campaign to remove the local imam, a campaign that not only split the community but brought the dispute to the attention of local law enforcement and other government officials.
For more than a century, there has been a Muslim community in Irkutsk. It now numbers several thousand, divided between locals, most of whom are Tatars, and an increasing number of new arrivals from Central Asia and the Caucasus. Several hundred of the Faithful attend services on Fridays, with as many as two thousand doing so on major Islamic holidays.
The community, which has a century-old mosque that can hold up to 500 people, has been led by Imam Farit Mingaleyev for more than 20 years. Until the end of 2008, his flock was relatively peaceful, but then on December 12, Dyomin writes, “order in the Irkutsk mosque was crudely violated.”
Magomed Nal’giyev, an Ingush, demanded that Mingaleyev be dismissed because according to the North Caucasian, the current imam does not have sufficient spiritual authority. Over the next several Fridays, Nal’giyev attacked Mingaleyev physically, was detained by the militia and gave an interview to a local television station.
At first blush, the local journalist says, it might appear that this was the playing out of theological differences among parishioners. Most the Muslims of Siberia and the Volga region from which Mingaleyev springs are Sunni Muslims of the tolerant Hanafi rite, while most from the North Caucasus, including the Ingush, belong to the stricter Shaf’ai legal school.
And it is also the case, Dyomin goes on to say, that a portion of the Muslim community in Irkutsk consists of Azerbaijanis who are predominantly Shiia, a group that in certain regards is invariably at odds with the predominant Sunni religious leaders of the Middle Volga and other parts of the Russian Federation.
But Dyomin continues, a closer examination of the dispute shows that far more than theology was at work. On the one hand, he writes, “the current sharpening of ‘dissatisfaction with the imam’ began after then Governor Aleksandr Tishanin promised to provide 20 million rubles (600,000 US dollars) to reconstruct the mosque.
Clearly, with that much money on the table, some members of the community were interested in getting their hands on some of this largess, an example of the way in which government involvement in religious life can have unintended and unwelcome consequences for all concerned.
And on the other hand, Dyomin reports, just before the dispute broke out, Imam Mingaleyev refused Nal’giyev’s request to give one of his friends certifying that his meat production met the standards Islam requires and was thus “halal,” another indication that more selfish motives may be at work.
Irkutsk officials, including Deputy Governor Yury Gurtovoy, told Dyomin that they consider this conflict to be “exclusively a conflict of personalities” and thus hope to be able to avoid any direct involvement in the dispute unless members of one or the other parties take actions that violate the law.
As the Irkutsk journalist notes, such conflicts are something new for Russian officials and are not confined to his city. “In the Soviet period,” Dyomin writes, “when officials were struggling with religion and interethnic conflicts were extinguished as soon as they appeared, the difference between Estonians and for example Tajiks did not have any principle importance.”
“All were ruled from one Kremlin. All studied the language of interethnic communication, served in a single army and sang similar songs. At the very least,” Dyomin says, “that was the idea.” But now “the situation has changed,” and divisions which were secondary in Soviet times have come to the fore.
What will happen next in Irkutsk? According to Dyomin, when such conflicts have taken place in other cities of Russia, something he says has happened “many times,” the Muslim community has called upon a shariat judge (kazi), and after he has looked into the situation, he has made a decision.
Normally that ends the dispute – and in almost every case, the kazis find for the incumbents given the nature of shariat law, Dyomin says -- but when the losing party refuses to accept such the kazi’s judgment, then the losers often leave and form their own separate community and when possible build their own mosque.
That last step seems unlikely in Irkutsk given that city’s relatively small Muslim community. But the possibility the losers could do so means that in many places, Muslim groups will constantly be quarreling and dividing, something that will make it more, not less difficult for them to speak with a common voice, however much more senior leaders want them to.
That in turn means that the unity of the umma that the Koran calls for is unlikely to be realized, especially since there are no Islamic bodies whose authority all Muslims acknowledge and since Russian civil law, which allows only registered members of a community a voice, gives a minority a reason to exit in order to become a majority in its own community.

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