Vienna, July 16 – President Dmitry Medvedev yesterday made the first visit ever by a sitting Russian leader to Moscow’s century-old Cathedral Mosque, meeting with the country’s top Muslim leaders, reaffirming his interest in working with them, and offering some tantalizing hints about how he sees the further evolution of Muslim structures in Russia and the CIS.
At the mosque, the Russian leader met with Ravil Gainutdin, the chairman of the Council of Muftis of Russia (SMR), Mufti Talgat Tadjuddin, the head of the Central Muslim Spiritual Administration (MSD) from Ufa, and Ismail Berdiyev, the head of the Coordinating Center of Muslims of the North Caucasus, as well as nine other muftis who are subordinate to them. (For a transcript of the meeting, see kremlin.ru/appears/2009/07/15/1630_type63376_219717.shtml.)
In his remarks to the group, Medvedev said that it is “the responsibility of the leader of our state, of the president of the Russian Federation whoever he may be to always devote attention to all confessions. Above all to the largest ones, including the Muslim,” a faith which by his count 57 of the 182 ethnic groups in the country practice.
And this responsibility is reinforced by two other factors, he continued. On the one hand, the Muslim population of the country is rapidly growing relative to others. And on the other, “Muslim organizations are making a major contribution to the support of civic peace, spiritual-moral upbringing, and the struggle with extremism and xenophobia.”
That struggle is especially important, Medvedev said, because “unfortunately in Russia, extremist organizations are extremely active, [and] in these conditions, our most important joint task is the dissemination of the ideas of tolerance … and respect for the spiritual values and traditions of the peoples of our multinational country and its cultural multiplicity.”
After thanking the president for his attentiveness, each of the Muslim leaders responded with requests for help. The SMR’s Gainutdin asked for presidential authorization for a mosque in Sochi, the site of the planned 2014 Olympics as well as for help with the completion of the reconstruction of Moscow’s Cathedral Mosque itself.
Medvedev said he was positively disposed to the Sochi idea, and one report suggested the Russian president even backs providing funds for the Moscow mosque, although with some strings attached. The North Caucasus Muslim leader Berdiyev told “Gazeta” that “Ravil asked for help and there will be help (www.gzt.ru/topnews/society/249389.html).
But Medvedev’s response did not come during the public portion of the meeting, and Berdiyev noted that “the President did not say from where the help would come from but said that there will be help. Everyone told him that this is not a mosque for Ravil and not a mosque of the SMR but a common central mosque for all, and therefore it will be beautiful.”
Whether that represents a tilt away from Gainutdin toward the others or simply a dig at the SMR leader is uncertain, especially since the Moscow electronic media gave more attention to Gainutdin’s meeting with Medvedev than to the others and since the reported exchange took place with no journalists present.
Meanwhile, Mufti Tadjuddin asked for help in building and maintaining more mosques around the country. He noted that before 1917, there were more than 7,000 mosques in Russia and that during the 1920s, about that many more were built before almost all were destroyed. Consequently, he said, “it is not true that today too many mosques are being built.”
But many are either of poor quality or lack the money to function properly. As a result of the shortage of funds, more than half of mosques rural areas have not been able to pay for heat and light in winter months and thus cannot operative effectively. Medvedev responded by saying that he would explore what might be done to help.
And the North Caucasus leader Berdiyev asked for help in overcoming official resistance to the construction of mosques, help in organizing the haj and other pilgrimages, and help with supporting Islamic institutions like banking. Again, the Russian president said he would consider what the government could do and get back to them.
But the most interesting part of the meeting may have been the one about which the least is known. Several Moscow outlets noted that when the Chechen Mufti Sultan Mirzayev raised the question about specific forms of cooperation to counter radical Islam, journalists were asked to leave the room.
Despite the lack of specifics at the session, one commentator, Roman Silantyev, the Orthodox activist who has often infuriated Muslim leaders in the past with his writings about them, nonetheless suggested to Interfax that Medvedev had delivered three clear messages at this meeting (www.interfax-religion.ru/islam/?act=news&div=31090).
First of all, Silantyev said, the way in which Medvedev had organized the meeting and the content of his talk suggested a clear Kremlin tilt away from the SMR’s Gainutdin, who had been riding high in the media in recent months, toward Mufti Tadjuddin who had been in eclipse and toward Berdiyev who heads the smallest and most troubled part of the Muslim community.
Second, the Orthodox Islamic specialist argued, the meeting suggests that Medvedev will continue the policies of the Putin era toward Islam within the Russian Federation. But third, he said, Medvedev clearly views the Consultative Council of the Muslims of the CIS and its head, Sheikh ul Islam Allashakhur Pasha-zade, the head of the Transcaucasia MSD, as important.
Silantyev suggested that Medvedev’s comments would force Gainutdin to cooperate with Pasha-zade, something the SMR leader has refused to do up to now and possibly introduce more discipline in and among the often fractious leaders of the Islamic community of the Russian Federation.
That notion is intriguing, but it raises more questions than answers. And perhaps the most important of these is the following: Why would Medvedev choose to involve someone from beyond the borders of Russia and a Shiite at that to rein in Russia’s Muslims, almost all of whom are Sunni?
Given Silantyev’s record of highlighting the differences among the Muslim leaders in the Russian Federation, it may very well be that his words are nothing more than a provocation designed to ensure that there will be even more infighting among the top officials of Russia’s MSDs, an outcome some in the Moscow Patriarchate where he used to work would welcome.