New York, June 18 – For the first time since the end of the Soviet Union, Moscow this week is hosting senior Muslim leaders from eight post-Soviet states to discuss the formation of a coordinating council among them, a step Russian government officials said would “correspond” to Moscow’s foreign policy goals.
Yesterday, 40 Muslim leaders from eight of the CIS countries, the leaders of the other “traditional” confessions of Russia and senior Muslim leaders from the “far abroad” participated in a scientific-practical conference in the Russian capital entitled “The Muslims in the CIS for Inter-Confessional and Inter-National Accord.”
The meeting, the possibility of which has long been discussed, was organized at the Initiative of the of the Muslim Spiritual Directorate (MSD) of the Caucasus and the International Islamic Mission, with the backing of the Russian government Foundation for the Support of Islamic Culture, Science and Education (www.islam.ru/rus/2009-06-17/#27296).
In a message to the conference, President Dmitry Medvedev noted “the importance of the rapprochement of the Islamic communities of the CIS and the contribution” of this meeting to that end. And Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Aleksandr Saltanov said that coordinating the efforts of the Muslims of the CIS “corresponds to [Moscow’s] foreign policy line.”
The moving spirit behind both the meeting and the idea of creating a consultative council of Muslims of the CIS was the chairman of the Baku-based Muslim Spiritual Directorate (MSD) of the Caucasus, Sheikh ul-Islam Allahshukur Pasha-zade, whose institution in Soviet times administered all Shiia Muslim communities in the USSR as well as the Sunnis of the Caucasus.
In his opening address, Pasha-zade said that a consultative council for Muslims of the CIS would reflect the reality that “the CIS is the homeland for Muslims who sometimes were citizens of a single state” and who recognize that “good relations between the peoples of the CIS is an important historical achievement” (news-ru.trend.az/society/religion/1489413.html).
“We, the spiritual leaders of the CIS decisively oppose forces which seek to undermine the territorial integrity, security, and stability of states,” Pasha-zade said, because he and his colleagues are “deeply convinced that “only by uniting our forces and religious organizations will we be able to effectively respond to the ideological aggression against the space of the CIS.”
In addition to the support Pasha-zade received from Russian officials and leaders of the Orthodox Church, the Azerbaijani Muslim leader was given enthusiastic support by the Muslim leaders in attendance. Talgat Tadjuddin, the head of the Central MSD, said that united, the Muslims of Eurasia could never be defeated.
And Ismail Berdiyev, the head of the Coordinating Center of Muslims of the North Caucasus, was even more supportive. He said that such unification should have taken place “yesterday,” and he denounced those Muslim leaders from across the region for failing to take part (www.islam.ru/rus/2009-06-17/#27296).
That Moscow is interested in building a single “power vertical” not only across the CIS but within Russia was suggested earlier this week when Kremlin ideologist Vladislav Surkov met with the leaders of the MSDs of the North Caucasus and said that uniting the community of believers was something Moscow wants to see (www.islam.ru/rus/2009-06-17/#27294).
That the Russian authorities would like to have a single structure for Islam within the Russian Federation is no surprise, although most Russian experts have stressed that the creation of such a structure is almost certainly impossible given the very different ideas and interests of Muslim communities in various parts of the Russian Federation.
Consequently, Moscow’s new interest in promoting Muslim “unity” across the former Soviet space must be understood less in terms of any Russian belief that there is a single Muslim community there, whatever Pasha-zade and the other say, than in a conviction in Moscow that such cooperation could promote Moscow’s political interests.
On the one hand, using Muslim groups to extend Moscow’s interests in these former Soviet republics, in particular Ukraine and Azerbaijan, is an obvious tactic. And on the other, by playing up certain ideas such as opposing extremism, Moscow appears to be seeking the good opinion of the secular governments of these post-Soviet states.
But if those goals make sense from Moscow’s point of view, the Russian government is taking a very serious risk by playing in this area. First, there is the danger that Muslims inside the Russian Federation will use such contacts as a lever against Moscow, a danger already in evidence this week in Kazan where there was a meeting of Islamic cities from around the world.
Second, there is the chance that Muslims in the former Soviet republics and the governments of these states will view any such cooperation as a means of putting pressure on the Russian government, especially when Moscow cracks down on Muslim groups that it views as a threat or when Moscow has a different view on issues like self-determination than Muslims do.
And third, and perhaps most important, Moscow’s playing with the concept of Muslim unity in the former Soviet space will represent a challenge to Russian nationalist thoughts and open the way to the rise of a Muslim-Christian Eurasianism that at the end of the day – or even at the beginning – the Russian Orthodox Church will feel itself compelled to oppose.