Monday, June 1, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Moderate Islam of Tatarstan Can Be ‘Exported,’ Moscow Scholar Says

Paul Goble

Vienna, June 1 – While some Western analysts argue that it is nearly impossible to “export” moderate Islam to other segments of the Muslim community, an increasing number of scholars have begun to focus on those parts of the Muslim world where “moderate” Islam is practiced and where leaders are interested in the spread of this trend.
Most have focused on Malaysia with its concept of “Islam hadari,” but Ruslan Kurbanov, a senior researcher at Moscow’s Institute of Oriental Studies who earlier worked at the RAND Corporation, argues in a new article posted online this week that the moderate Islam of Tatarstan could prove to be an equally successful “export” (
No one should be surprised by this, Kurbanov says, given the commonalities between the two: Both Tatarstan and Malysia “are today among the leaders not only in the economic modernization of traditional Muslim societies but also examples of the achievement by Muslim peoples of high levels of education and integration in a broader and more developed region.”
The Tatars and the Malaysians are also, he continues, “examples of the most successful models of the combination of traditional Islamic values with the demands of the contemporary world and of the promotion [in their respective societies] of the ideas of moderation, tolerance and openness to the external world.”
Moreover, both peoples, Kurbanov notes, “came to Islam by a peaceful path in the course of the adoption of the new faith by an aristocratic hierarchy and the soviet Islamization [of the remainder of their societies] ‘from above.’” And both have lived for many centuries in close proximity to “major non-Muslim communities.”
Not surprisingly, the Muslim leaders of these two societies and in their wake the political leaders of them as well have begun to talk about the kind of Islam their peoples profess as a model for others, even to the point of suggesting this in speeches delivered in Saudi Arabia, the country where Islam began.
Because Malaysia is an independent country, its political leaders have had a greater opportunity than have those in Tatarstan to promote their ideas more internationally, with that country’s prime minister, Najib Razaq, even telling senior US State Department officials that Malaysian Islam represents “a model” for all other a Muslims.
But Tatarstan’s version of moderate Islam, Kurbanov insists, deserves attention too as a possible “export commodity” both within the Russian Federation and CIS and more generally, all the more so since an increasing number of Tatar Muslim leaders and political ones as well have been pushing that idea.
In March of this year, he notes, the Muslim Spiritual Directorate (MSD) of Tatarstan held a roundtable on “The Export of Russian Islam,” a meeting which Kurbanov regrets “did not attract a great deal of attention from the media, although some of the presentations there are beginning to spread through the expert community (
One reason that this session did not attract more attention at the time, the Moscow scholar suggests, is that Russia’s Muslim leaders have insisted for decades that “traditional” Russian Islam is by its very nature “moderate.” Consequently, many observers likely assumed that the meeting in Kazan did not represent an innovation.
But, Kurbanov insists, what makes this meeting and the intellectual ferment that produced it something new and important to attend to is that “until recently practically no one advanced the idea that the traditional Russian version of Islam could and should be exported to the rest of the world.”
The March meeting proposed precisely that, with Rustam Batyr, the deputy head of the Council of the Ulema of the MSD of Tatarstan, saying that “our obligation is to show the entire world just what Russian Islam is and what solutions it offers” to the problems which face the worldwide umma.
Indeed, Batyr continued, “in our republic has already long been found a model of peaceful cooperation [with people of other faiths] and therefore now, Tatarstan is one of the centers where the future of humanity is being decided,” even if many people elsewhere are not yet aware of that reality.
According to Kurbanov, the Tatars believe that a major “channel” for exporting their version of Islam consists of the works of the brilliant pleiade of Muslim theologians who formed what is sometimes called the Jadid movement at the end of the tsarist period. But those who seek to promote these writers are limited by the small print runs of their works.
If that changes or if a new intellectual renaissance begins in Tatarstan, Kurbanov suggests, then the impact of moderate Tatar Islam on the Muslims of the world could quickly become far great than many expect, a development that could justify Batyr’s contention that Kazan is where “the future of humanity” is in fact being decided.

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