Thursday, February 19, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Is Moscow Trying to Create a Single ‘Power Vertical’ in Russian Islam?

Paul Goble

Vienna, February 19 – The Russian justice ministry has found the Union of Muftis of Russia (SMR) in violation of both of a series of Russian laws governing public and religious organizations and the union’s own statutes and given it three months to correct the situation or potentially face the risk of being closed down by court order.
And while both the ministry and SMR spokesmen are treating this as the result of the kind of regular checking Russian legislation requires and the latter are saying there is “no reason for panic,” this action, its timing and the publicity it has been given by Russian news agencies suggest that far more is involved.
Indeed, it is entirely possible that the government, possibly at the urging of other Muslim leaders or the Moscow Patriarchate, may be seeking to create a situation in which Muslim organizations in Russia will be headed by a single “Muslim patriarch” capable of imposing a “power vertical” on Islam.
Today, Interfax and various other Russian news agencies reported that Aleksey Velichko, the deputy justice minister, had sent a first warning to the SMR concerning violations that his subordinates had found in the religious group’s operations during an audit conducted in December 2008 (
According to the document sent to the SMR and published by Interfax, the SMR is “illegally certifying halal production, does not have adequate accounting procedures, and does not observe the provisions of its own statute” such as those governing the use of its name or criteria for membership (
Damir Gizatullin, the first deputy chairman of the Muslim Spiritual Directorate of the European Part of Russia and a senior SMR official, said that “we completely agree with the findings of the Justice Ministry. We know that the violations must be corrected, and we will introduce changes in the statute of the Council of Muftis” to bring it into compliance.
And he added, for good measure, that the ministry’s audit was “very competent and well-intentioned,” that the SMR was glad to be given this chance to improve and would adopt the necessary changes at a mejlis on March 2, and that “there is absolutely no reason for panic”
While Gizatullin may be right, there are three reasons for thinking that he may be more optimistic than he should be. First, the violations that the justice ministry found were so minor that they publicity they were given makes it appear that this was an act of official harassment rather than a simple government audit.
Second, this warning comes at a time when tensions between SMR which is lead by Ravil Gainutdin and the Ufa-based Central Muslim Spiritual Directorate (MSD) still at least nominally headed by Mufti Talgat Tajuddin have been heating up, with his allies criticizing the SMR for a variety of sins, including the presence among its leaders of outspoken Mufti Nafigulla Ashirov.
Since the 1990s, the SMR and the Central MSD have been competitors for the leading position among Russia’s Muslims, with now one and then the other being able to claim the favor of the state in large measure depending on how the Kremlin has reacted to the statements of the two leaders and the allegiance of regional MSDs and even individual parishes.
And third, it follows on the heels of the election as patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church of former metropolitan Kirill, who has sometimes lamented that the Muslims do not have anyone equivalent to the position he now holds or any institute equivalent to the patriarchate and who is quite willing to use the power of the state to settle disputes within the religious world.
Thus, it is entirely possible that this “warning” is more than a warning and signals a new stage in Moscow’s involvement in the management of the official structures of Islam in Russia, structures which trace their history back through tsarist and Soviet times but which have no foundation in Islamic law and practice.

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