Saturday, February 7, 2009

Window on Eurasia: ‘Nation of Islam’ Movement Wants Muslims at the Center of Russian Political Life

Paul Goble

Vienna, February 7 –A group of politically radical but not fundamentalist Muslims has set up a new movement, the Nation of Islam, to help Russia overcome its current economic and moral crisis by promoting internationalism, the protection of Gastarbeiters, and the inclusion of Russia’s more than 20 million Muslims in the country's political life.
Last Sunday, delegates from 42 cities and towns in Bashkortostan met in Ufa in response to an appeal by two politically radical figures, Geidar Dzhemal, the leader of the Islamic Committee of Russia, and Ayrat Dil’mukhametov, a leader of the Bashkir opposition, to establish a new Nation of Islam movement.
The meeting itself attracted little attention beyond the Middle Volga, but on Tuesday, Dzhemal and Dil’mukhametov held a press conference at which they described the group and its plans (, a session that received significant media attention, including by “Kommersant” (
Both men, Dil’mukhametov who is the president of the new movement and Dzhemal who is its chief inspiration and ideologist said that they had decided to create the Nation of Islam in order to help Russia overcome its current crisis by promoting increased self-consciousness among Muslims.
While “Kommersant” suggested on the basis of the origins of the attendees at the constituent meeting and the role Dil’mukhametov is playing that the new group is primarily a Bashkir operation, Dil’mukhametov and Dzhemal stressed that they seek to form a broader and internationalist movement, because Islam is “internationalist by its nature.”
Both men stressed that “the Nation of Islam has set itself large tasks, but the most important of these is the return of Muslims to political life” and to provide an organizational matrix for them to do so, given that religiously-based parties have not been allowed under Russian law since the 1990s.
Not only will the return of Muslims to more active political life help them defend their own interests, but it will provide a catalyst for the unification of society rather than its further division. Indeed, both leaders suggest that it can help hold Russia together in much the same way that the Bolsheviks did after 1917.
According to Dzhemal, Russia’s current crisis soon “will lead to a deterioration of relations between the Center and the regions. On the one hand, the crisis will hit the regions directly far harder. And on the other, he continued, the center will “try to use this, by lodging charges of separatism and striving to seize those resources which the regions still have.”
Another group the crisis is already hitting hard includes guest workers from abroad. They must be protected, both men said. (This is something that Dzhemal has long been associated with. Last year, he even helped launch a labor union for Gastarbeiters to defend their economic interests and give them a means to defend themselves against xenophobic attacks.)
The two said that the Nation of Islam would use demonstrations and broadsides to advance three demands immediately with respect to the lives of Muslims: first, “the elimination of the shameful prohibitions on Islamic literature,” second, “the review of false cases” that have put so many Muslims in prison, and third, quotas for Muslims in various government bodies.
Muslims in Russia must have the chance to participate in political life as Muslims and not just as members of a particular nationality or class, Dzhemal argued. Only if this happens, he said, can they “be a factor of big History and the social-political life of the country, and not an oppressed minority whose members feel themselves to be second-class citizens.”
Asked about how he sees Russia as a whole developing over the next few months. Dzhemal said that in his view, there were three ideas currently on offer. According to the first, and he said it is the one the government believes in, the crisis will end before the government runs out of money and so not so much will have to change.
The second “variant” is that there will be a successful putsch by one or another group that will lead to a dictatorship. And the third suggests that when the leaders of the region, having no money because Moscow has taken it all away, they will say that “Moscow has eaten it all” and then there will be “destabilization.”
Like the political figures they are or aspire to be, both men were optimistic about the amount of support they will get for their enterprise, suggesting that the movement will attract and even include as members not only Muslims from across the Russian Federation but non-Muslims as well.
But “Kommersant” questioned several experts on the matter, and they suggested that this movement is likely to prove stillborn. Not only is it certain to attract the attention of the procuracy and the FSB, but there are problems with the movement’s leadership and especially with Dil’mukhametov.
Ufa political scientist Al’bert Miftakhov told the paper that Dzhemal should have “more carefully selected his partners.” Dil’mukhametov will “discredit” the movement because he is given to extremist statements: In 2006, he was given a suspended sentence for calling for the overthrow of the Bashkir government.
And in June of last year, he was given a two-year suspended sentence for pushing articles in one Bashkir newspaper on how to carry out a revolution in the event that demonstrations spread. Those suspended sentences give the authorities all the power they need to remove him from the political scene if he should go too far in this case.
That judgment is probably correct, but the appearance of this group, as ephemeral as it may prove to be is a reminder of two things that are often ignored. On the one hand, there is support among some in the Muslim community for political radicalism that is not Islamist or fundamentalist in the usual sense.
And on the other, there is a sense, possibly growing, among Muslims that they are being actively excluded by Russian leaders from political life and that their regions are being subjected to particular discrimination, a sense that will power additional radical groupings in the future even if this one falls flat.

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