Friday, May 1, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Saudis Turn Down Moscow’s Request to Boost Russia’s Haj Quota

Paul Goble

Vienna, May 1 – The Saudi officials responsible for setting national quotas for Muslim pilgrims to Mecca announced the allocation of 20,500 slots for hajis from the Russian Federation in 2009, the exact number that country is supposed to have on the basis of existing formulas but 4500 fewer came from Russia last year and fewer than Moscow wanted to send this.
The Saudis have long allocated haj quotas on the basis of one-tenth of one percent of the estimated number of Muslims in a particular country, but in recent years, the Russian government has sought and received a higher allocation, arguing that there is pent-up demand because few Muslims were able to make the pilgrimage during Soviet times.
Saudi deference to the Russian government on this point in the past, however, angered Muslims in other countries, many of whom have been forced to wait years if not decades for the change to make the haj required of all believers capable of going on it at least once in the course of their lifetimes (
But Moscow’s failure to get a higher quota this year creates three problems for the Russian government. First, given that many more Muslims in the Russian Federation want to go than there are slots, at least some of them are going to see the new lower number as an indication that their country did not press hard enough.
That is especially likely because a majority of Russian hajis come from the North Caucasus -- and especially from the extremely unstable republics of Chechnya and Daghestan. Indeed, it is almost certain that anti-regime activists will point to this decline in the haj quota as one more reason for local people to support them.
Second, the number of Muslims from Russia who will actually perform the haj is likely to be larger than the number of slots, creating a problem for both Moscow which will thus be faced with losing control of the situation and the Saudis. Indeed, in announcing quotas this year, the Saudis said that Moscow must ensure that all hajis from Russia return when the haj is over.
Indeed, in both of the last two years, there were problems with Russian hajis who came on their own, did not march under the Russian flag, and sometimes remained long after the haj was completed, creating problems for all concerned and prompting the Russians to beef up their offices in Saudi Arabia to deal with the problem.
And third, both because Moscow wants to present its Muslim face to the Islamic world and because Muslims in Russia want larger quotas, the latter are likely to press for an acknowledgement by Moscow that there are in fact more than the 20.5 million Muslims in Russia the current haj quota is based on.
That sets the stage for a serious debate between Russian nationalists and the leaders of the increasingly influential Russian Orthodox Church who want to minimize the size of the Islamic community in Russia and the increasingly numerous Muslims who want recognition of the growth of their community.
As Moscow discusses plans for a census next year, such discussions are likely to intensify because given recent cutbacks in the amount of money allocated for that enumeration, there will be pressure from many Russians to eliminate questions that would highlight the growth of the Muslim community and alternatively from Muslims to do the opposite.
Meanwhile, in another development in the Muslim world that is likely to resonate in the Russian Federation, officials at the Organization of the Islamic Conference have announced plans to “impose order” on the increasing flow of fetwas, legal opinions about particular cases for Muslims but documents often treated by others as having broader applicability.
This week, at the 19th conference of the OIC’s International Islamic Academy of Fihta (IIFA), officials and scholars said they wanted to end “the current chaos in the publication of fetwas, which in part contradict one another” and thus represent a source of confusion rather than guidance for the faithful (
Whether the OIC can achieve its goal in this regard is far from clear given that the number of fetwas being issued around the world is now running at the rate of 1600 a week, according to scholars at Cairo’s Al-Azhar University who are computerizing them but without yet making a concerted effort to prioritize them.
But this action of the OIC is likely to find an echo in the Russian Federation where both the Russian government and the leaderships of the Muslim Spiritual Directorates (MSDs) are certain to see this effort by the Islamic community abroad as both a model for and a justification of greater control over fetwas, both those issued in Russia and those from abroad.
And to the extent that Russian officials and Russian Muslims do so, that could lead to a tighter “power vertical” within the Islamic community of that country, contradicting the radically decentralized nature of the Muslim faith and reinforcing the government-backed MSDs at a time when ever more Muslims there are asking whether they should continue to exist.

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