Sunday, February 1, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Islamic Challenge in Russia Increasingly Resembles the One in Europe, Moscow Scholar Says

Paul Goble

Vienna, February 1 – When Muslims rioted in French cities, Russian officials comforted themselves with the observation that such things could not happen in their country because Russian Islam is different. But now a leading Moscow specialist on Islam argues that this self-confident assumption may no longer be entirely justified.
Aleksandr Ignatenko, the president of the Moscow Institute of Religion and Politics and a member of the Russian president’s Council on Ties with Religious Organizations, says that the situation with regard to Islam inside Russia increasingly resembles that of the communities of the faithful in European countries (
And he implies in the course of this interview which was posted online at the end of last week that Russians are likely to respond as Europeans have, not only restricting immigration and tightening government control over Muslim organizations of all kinds but also becoming more self-conscious of their own national, religious and cultural identities.
Asked whether what is taking place in Europe now represents a kind of Crusade in reverse, an effort by Muslims to do to Christians what Christians once tried to do to them, Ignatenko said he would prefer describe what is taking place as “the Muslim mastering [“osvoyenie”] of Europe.”
That process consists of three distinct “flows,” the Moscow expert says. The first of these – and it is “the most obvious” -- involved “the demographic expansion of the Islamic world into Europe,” the increasing number of “Muslim immigrants and naturalized Muslims in the populations of various European countries.”
The second is “the political and military-political expansion of the countries of the Near and Middle East into Europe.” These countries use their diasporas to put pressure on European countries to advance their own interests and that of the Muslim world. And some of them may provide bases for those who conduct terrorist attacks in Europe and elsewhere.
“As a rule,” Ignatenko continues, “the terrorists from among Muslims living in Europe achieve geopolitical tasks which are set in the capitals of Arab and other Islamic capitals. The reaction of European regimes to such attacks is increasingly presented as “the persecution of Muslims,” which “in its turn leads to the radicalization of part of European Muslims.”
And the third “flow of the Islamic ‘mastering’ of Europe consists of religious expansion,” both by means of direct missionary work and conversion where that works and by forcible jihadist tactics, including violence, where such softer and more peaceful means for the spread of Islam do not.
“Paradoxically” however, the Moscow scholar, the increasing role that Islam plays on the continent is “leading to a growth of European self-consciousness and to a clarification of just what Europe is in a cultural and even civilizational sense,” something that informs but may prove more important than the direct restrictions on Muslims some governments there have imposed.
The situation with regard to Muslims in Russia is different, Ignatenko says, but not as different as it was only a few years ago. Islam is “one of the traditional religions of Russia and as such it does not and cannot represent” the kind of danger it represents for the countries of Europe.
But there is now a problem with Muslims in Russia that has parallels with the challenges they pose in Europe. “A religious expansion from foreign Islamic centers – Saudi Arabia, Iran, and other countries like Libya, Pakistan, Egypt, and Turkey, each of which has its own form of Islam, is taking place among Russian Muslims,” Ignatenko says.
And that is leading to “a collision” between the values of “traditional” Islam in Russia and the imported variants. Ignatenko cites with approval the words of Valiulla Yakupov, a Muslim leader in Kazan, who said “For Arab nomads, perhaps, Wahhabism is a good thing, but for Europeans and the Tatars consider themselves Europeans it is completely unacceptable.”
Ignatenko points out that this “religious expansion” inside Russia is “combined with political and military-political” expansion in the southern part of the country. And although he does not refer to it here, these expansions are being reinforced by a demographic one powered by higher growth rates among Muslims within Russia and the influx of Muslim labor from abroad.
Opposing this, the presidential advisor says, is “a vital necessity” for Russia, and he urges more support for “traditional Russian Islam.” But if he is right about the situation in Europe and the increasing convergence with it of the situation in Russia, such support may slow but will not stop the Islamic “mastery” of Russia or a nationalist reaction among non-Muslims there.

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