Monday, March 2, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Nizhny’s Muslims Want What Orthodox Have -- Religious Signs to Mark Their Neighborhoods

Paul Goble

Vienna, March 2 – The Muslim Spiritual Directorate of Nizhny Novgorod wants the authorities there to allow them to erect Islamic symbols to mark neighborhoods where Muslims form a majority, a request that mirrors efforts by the Russian Orthodox Church but one that is certain to spark new concerns about the increasing number of Muslims in Russian cities.
On Friday, the presidium of the Nizhny Novgorod MSD announced that it was preparing an appeal to the deputies of the local legislature and the administration of the Red October District of the city to erect symbols of Islam around a region where Muslims now form 90 percent of the population (
Damir-khazrat Mukhetdinov, the head of the MSD’s ulema council, noted that “in recent years, in the majority of districts of [the oblast] Orthodox crosses have been set up, and the efforts of the Russian Orthodox Church in this direction are continuing. We decided to draw on the example of our Orthodox brothers.”
But in contrast to the Orthodox whose crosses have sometimes been erected with state funds, the Muslim leader said that the Islamic community, once it gained official permission, was ready to “use its own means to set up Islamic symbols on the borders of the Red October District where the overwhelming majority of the population consists of Muslims.”
Sources in the MSD told that Islamic leaders want to employ the Muslim injunction on these signs declaring in Arabic script that “There is no God but Allah.” They want such signs to be comparable in size to Orthodox crosses, which are sometimes nine meters tall and thus to declare to all visitors that they are entering a Muslim area.
The same session of the MSD leadership also proposed introducing restrictions on the sale and advertising of alcohol in that region, noting that Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov had done just that in his republic where alcohol can be sold only from eight to ten o’clock in the morning (
Although it is unlikely that officials in Nizhny will approve either of these requests – the Orthodox Church continues to dominate the political scene there even though the number of Muslims is increasing – the decision of the Nizhny Novgorod MSD to make them highlights three important and more general trends.
First, the number of Muslims in Russia’s cities is increasing rapidly, both as a result of higher birthrates among historically Islamic peoples than among historically Orthodox ones like the ethnic Russians and the influx of Gastarbeiters from predominantly Muslim areas of Central Asia and the Caucasus, changing the ethnic face of Russia’s cities and sparking xenophobia.
(That influx may be slowing somewhat given rising unemployment in those sectors of the economy such as construction where immigrants have played a key role in recent years. According to a report from Bashkortostan, ever more immigrant workers there are settling in rural areas rather than cities, reversing the earlier pattern (
Second, by invoking the Chechen example, the Muslims of the Middle Volga are calling attention to something many in Moscow have preferred to ignore: Their willingness to defer to Kadyrov in all things in the name of stability in his republic is prompting Muslims elsewhere to make similar demands on issues like these.
And third – and perhaps most seriously -- efforts by the Russian Orthodox Church to promote its values in alliance with the Russian government are rapidly becoming a model for other faiths. That puts the civil authorities in a difficult position: If they agree to Muslim demands, the Orthodox will be offended. If they don’t, Russia’s Muslims will be radicalized.

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