Friday, April 10, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Kazan Tatars, Muslims and Shamans Present Three New Challenges to Moscow

Paul Goble

Vienna, April 10 – Three very different actions by the Kazan Tatars, a major Muslim Spiritual Directorate, and the shamans of the Russian Federation both reflect the unintended consequences of Moscow’s approach to ethnic and religious issues and present new challenges to the Russian government that it may find difficult to dismiss out of hand.
First of all, having secured Moscow’s agreement to declare Kazan “the third capital” of Russia, some Kazan Tatars are now seeking to have the central government declare their language “the second state language of Russia” because the Tatars are the second largest language community there and serve as Russia’s bridge to other Turkic-speaking peoples.
The World Forum of Tatar Youth, which has organized this effort and put up a special website ( to press its case, seeks more than just recognition. It hopes to use this campaign to reverse recent cutbacks in Tatar language use outside of Tatarstan because unlike other nations in Russia, most Kazan Tatars live beyond their republic’s current borders.
And to that end, the group plans an online petition campaign, something that will both raise national awareness among young Tatars (another goal of the group) and challenge Moscow’s policy under Putin and Medvedev of cutting back the national component of education in many areas (
Second, the Muslim Spiritual Directorate (MSD) of the European Part of Russia has pub two books by Said Nursi on its list of “approved Islamic literature,” even though these and other works of the Islamic writer have been declared “extremist” by Russian courts and are included in the Federal List of Extremist Materials (
On the one hand, this action by the MSD reflects a widespread view among many Muslim leaders that Russian courts lack the expertise to decide who is “extremist” among Muslims. And on the other, the timing of this action appears to be a protest against the composition of the new justice ministry group that is supposed to provide such testimony.
However that may be, at least some Muslims close to the Russian government, including Mufti Mukhammedgali Khuzin, who is himself a member of that new justice ministry group, say that the MSD’s actions represents “a challenge to the leadership of the country” (
Such “a demonstrative approval of materials which form the ideological foundation of the Nurjilar organization, which the Supreme Court recognized last year as extremist, is an unconcealed challenge and may be considered as spitting in the face of the Russian powers that be,” Khuzin told Interfax.
At the very least, this decision of the MSD for the European Part of Russia, especially given the prominence of that group within the Union of Muftis of Russia and its authority among many Muslims as a traditional rather than radical forum, will spark new tensions between the government and Muslim leaders, at a time when Moscow would like to avoid them.
And third, there is another emerging challenge, although it may seem extraordinarily distant from Russia’s corridors of power. The shamans of Russia have announced plans to hold the “first popular elections of the Supreme Shaman of Russia,” thus creating a leader who could speak for them in Moscow (
In recent months, shamans in Siberia and the Far East have been among the leaders of protests against the destruction of the environment by Russian officials and Russian firms, and with a popularly elected leader, they are likely to demand that they should be represented in Russia’s Inter-Religious Council as one of the country’s “traditional” religions.
Patriarch Kirill, who in his earlier incarnation as the head of the Moscow Patriarchate’s External Affairs Department took the lead in organizing that group and using the term “traditional” to embrace only Orthodoxy, Islam, Judaism and Buddhism, will thus face a new test, especially since many in Russia see shamanism as part of their heritage.
But Moscow is unlikely to make a concession on this point because many would see the addition of yet another “traditional” religion as opening the way for the inclusion of other groups, including Catholics and Protestants, and that could destroy precisely the exclusionary, religious “power vertical” in which both Kirill and the Kremlin have invested so much.

No comments: