Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Russian Regime’s ‘Lack of Neutrality’ an Obstacle to Integrating Muslims

Paul Goble

Vienna, July 14 – Official claims to the contrary, Moscow now faces more problems with integrating Russia’s Muslims into the broader society because no one Muslim or non-Muslim views the powers that be as neutral arbiters capable of promoting either a radically secular society like France or a multi-cultural one like Britain, according to a Moscow commentator.
In an article in today’s “Gazeta,” Boris Falikov points to the opening in Moscow and other major Russian cities of fitness centers, clinics, beauty salons, and restaurants specifically designed for Muslims as evidence of the “growing religious self-consciousness” of the followers of Islam (www.gazeta.ru/comments/2009/07/14_a_3222275.shtml).
From one point of view, he writes, everything appears not only in order but even quite positive: Russia’s Muslims “are adapting to contemporary life but at the same time they are not losing their identity.” But from another, the approach they have adopted is setting them apart from the rest of society and leading them to focus on their own “interests and problems.”
Obviously, he continues, “religious identity is intensifying, but what is taking place with regard to secular identity? Is it not moving toward second place?” And that is necessarily worrisome because “radical Islam is always ready to cleverly insinuate itself into any opening crack.”
Many in Moscow believe, Falikov says, that unlike West Europeans, who have to cope with the influx of Muslims from former colonies, Russians need only deal followers of Islam who have for a long time lived in their country. But he points out that radical Islam does not make this distinction and argues that the Russian government should not either.
In his article, Falikov discusses the approaches that two European countries have adopted to the integration of Muslims, France and Great Britain. The French government has outlawed the wearing the hijab and other public displays of religious attachment in order to ensure that “everyone is first and foremost French and only then Muslim, Christian, Jewish or Zoroastrian.”
Some Muslims in France have protested against this, but most appear to accept secularism as “one of the underlying principles” of their country and “not a bad idea.” But that view is possible only because the French state is “neutral” with respect to all faiths, thus precluding “discrimination against the minority by the majority.”
Russian Muslims, however, reacted to the French government’s prohibitions “much worse” than their French co-religionists. Not surprisingly, the Russian Muslims viewed what Paris has done as opening the way to discrimination because they could not imagine “the neutrality of the state in such questions” because Russian Muslims have not experienced it.
The British government and people have adopted a different approach than France, one that Muslims in Britain and in Russia are more supportive of but also one that entails problems that the French system does not. The British have promoted tolerance and multiculturalism, something that has strengthened minority identities possibly at the cost of national ones.
As the British have learned, “the absolutization of tolerance has its own shortcomings.” The French people never have to ask what it means to be French. But in Britain now, “the difference between religious identity and the identity of a subject of the British Crown has been largely wiped out.”
And to no one’s surprise, radical Islamists have been able to take advantage of this situation of division with “the public space” in Britain and the grievances that inevitably involves and attract support among those who feel aggrieved in comparison to their more successful and religious different fellow citizens.
Russia today faces “an analogous division” of the public space, Falikov says, but “with this distinction;” No one expects any objectivity from the authorities. [And] consequently, there are more who feel offended are more numerous and there is thus [a greater opportunity] for radicals to develop” their movements.
Up to now, the Russian powers that be have assumed that they can crush Islamist extremists by force and that will end the problem, but the situations in France and Britain show that is not the case. The challenges are deeper and broader, and Moscow, given its increasing ties to Orthodox Christianity, faces a more difficult task than many would like to think.

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