Monday, May 18, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Fall of ‘Southern Berlin Wall’ Opened the Way for Rise of Russia’s Muslims

Paul Goble

Baku, May 18 – Most specialists on Russian affairs have focused on the impact of the opening of the western border of the Soviet bloc, but a Moscow scholar argues that “the fall of the Southern Berlin wall” between the USSR and the Islamic world may prove as fateful because of the role that event played in the development of Russia’s Muslim community.
In an essay published in “Nezavisimaya gazeta” at the end of last week, Aleksey Malashenko, a specialist on Islam at the Moscow Carnegie Center, suggests that a major shortcoming in the study of Islam in Russia is that there is a plethora of works devoted to aspects of that issue but few providing an overview (
To help begin to correct that problem, he offers a number of “theses about Islam in Russia.” First of all, he argues that Islam, although it had never “died” in Soviet times, began its revival in 1990 with the formation of the Islamic Party of Rebirth, a step that marked the formation of an independent and public face of the faith.
That “Islamic identity,” Malashenko continues, in the years since that time has been “expressed more intensively than Orthodox identity” because Muslims form a minority in the population and consequently “attachment to their religion is for them a natural form of self-defense.”
But in addition to this minority status, the Muslims of Russia for the first time since 1917 began participating in the trans-national process of “’the globalization of Islam,’” the project of reaffirming the existence of an international community of believers of umma that affected Russia’s Muslims with particular intensity.
On the one hand, the Moscow specialist notes, Islam in Russia has always been on “the periphery” of the Muslim world. And on the other, during the Soviet period, Islam there was almost completely cut off from the broader umma and hence largely unaffected by developments in it.
“After the fall of ‘the southern Berlin wall,’” the clash between Islam as it existed in Russia and Islam as it was developing elsewhere was “inevitable both for political as well as for purely religious reasons” -- all the more so because “Tatars, Bashkirs, but especially Caucasians strove to escape the image of ‘bad Muslims’ which they had inherited from Soviet times.”
After the initial shock wore off and after Muslims in Russia began to understand that they shared many views with Muslims elsewhere, the initial hostility wore off and Russia’s Muslims began to display a willingness for “dialogue with ‘the opponent’ if not in the field of religious doctrine then in the sphere of ideology.”
At the same time, there appeared what Malashenko describes as “a new tendency: the politicization of Islam,” especially in Daghestan and Chechnya, and the striving of Muslims in Russia to form “their own kind of ‘Islamic space’” in which Muslim rules would guide the life of the community.
Where Muslims form majorities, the waqf system is being restored Islamic banking is making an appearance, and Islamic dress for women is becoming more common. But when Muslims living in non-Muslim areas pursue these goals, can represent an effort to set themselves apart, something that is “disturbing,” Malashenko continues.
Last year, he notes, some began to begin talking about the creation in Moscow’s Butovo district of a Muslim micro-rayon and “even about the organization in it of ‘Muslim patrols’ for the defense against attacks by non-Muslim nationalists.” If such efforts go forward, it is “horrible to think” what that could mean for the country as a whole.
Because of the speed of these processes, Malashenko points out, there have appeared in rapid succession several competing generations among the leadership of Russia’s Muslims. The first generation, now over 80, was the product of the Soviet experience and was largely unaffected by the umma beyond Russia’s borders. It is largely passing from the scene.
The second, which consists of men in their 50s and 60s, was both formed by the Soviet experience but profoundly affected by the external world after “the fall of the southern Berlin wall.” They were more open to change, and in the main they have been successful in accommodating both sides of this divide.
In addition, there is a third generation, younger still, who are “more dangerous.” “Their level of knowledge is higher” than that of the other two because they have studied abroad, and they spoke Arabic well. To date the second generation has generally held them off, but it is unclear whether it will be able to do so in the future.
And finally, there is a fourth generation, the very youngest, which did not grow up under Soviet conditions and does not see why Russia’s Muslims should be different from the Muslims of other countries. What the members of this group will do when they gain influence and power also remains to be seen.
Just how many Muslim believers there are in Russia now is a matter of dispute, but it is possible to speak about the three major trends – the “non-traditional” including radical, Arab-centric, Wahhabist and so on – the “traditional” Russian Islam “and … religious indifference,” the last a trend few Muslim leaders want to talk about.
By way of conclusion, Malashenko makes three additional observations. First, he says, the number of radicals is reality small “but very active,” especially in the North Caucasus. Second, the Kremlin has given up attempts to create “an ‘Islamic vertical’” recognizing that organizationally Islam in Russia is “polycentric and cannot have a single leader.
And third, he points out, “Islam remains a factor in foreign policy,” not only for Moscow but also and perhaps more importantly for the heads of Muslim republics and regions who see themselves as full members of the Muslim world and regularly interact with religious and political leaders from them.
At present, these two levels of interaction typically work in parallel, but Malashenko warns, “under crisis conditions, when the regions will become more independent, this tendency [of great activity by the Muslim republics and regions in the Russian Federation] could receive an additional impulse,” with unknown consequences for the country as a whole.

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