Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Islamic Centers in Russian Areas Invite Violence Because of Conflicts among Muslims, Stavropol Residents Say

Paul Goble

Vienna, August 5 – The leaders of three public organizations in Stavropol kray have called on the governor there to block the opening of any Islamic institutions there lest violent conflicts among various Muslim groups erupt and undermine stability and progress in that predominantly Russian region which adjoins the North Caucasus.
The groups, including the Stavropol Protest Committee, the Historical-Patriotic Club of Stavropol, and the Union of Slavic Organizations of Stavropol kray, said in an open letter posted on the Internet last week that they are not against Islam or the Muslim leaders who seek to open mosques and Islamic centers there (
The authors of the appeal said that they know and respect Mufti Ismail-Haji Berdiyev, who heads the officially recognized and “traditional” Muslim communities in Karachay-Cherkessia and Stavropol kray, but they fear that allowing him or others like him to open a mosque or office in Stavropol would invite violent attacks from his Wahhabi opponents.
And such attacks, even if they are the work of outsiders, the writers say, inevitably will lead to the spread of violence within Stavropol kray, making it less attractive as a place for outside investment and hence less likely to have the kind of economic and political development in the future its residents currently hope for.
In support of their contention that Stavropol could become the site of “a real war” between traditional Islam under Berdiyev and Wahhabi extremists, the authors of the letter point to the fact that “religious fanatics in the North Caucasus have killed approximately 50Islamic religious leaders in recent years.”
One of the authors, Igor Markelov of the Stavropol Protest Committee, insisted to “Vestnik Kavkaza” that he and his colleagues “are not in any way against Islam and do not oppose the creation of an Islamic center as such in Stavropol.” But he and they feel, he continued, that violence within Islam, something not seen among Christians, makes that unwise.
“In our view,” he continued, “it would be more correct to create an [Islamic] center on the territory of one of those republics where 90 percent of the population professes Islam.” Otherwise, he continued, Stavropol “could become a place of inter-confessional clashes,” which “the enemies of Russia” hope for.
Consequently, if Muslim leaders, however acceptable any one of them may be, continue to press for the construction of Islamic centers in Stavropol, Markelov and his fellow authors said that they expected the governor “as the guarantor of stability” in the kray to stand “firm” and defend the interests of the population of the kray.
On the one hand, this appeal is little more than the latest variant of the kind of NIMBY – “Not in my back yard”—arguments that opponents of the construction of mosques and other Muslim institutions in predominantly Russian cities and regions have employed for years in order to limit the spread of Islam.
But on the other, the argument used in the Stavropol kray appeal is likely to be picked up by Russians elsewhere, something that will create problems for Muslims in the Russian Federation, for the Russian government at various levels, and for Russian and Western religious rights groups that have sought to protect Muslims.
Given the existence and even intensification of intra-Islamic violence in the Caucasus and elsewhere, Muslims in Russia are likely to find it difficult to counter the argument that any Islamic institution, however “traditional” and non-violent its leaders and members are, might not end by attracting the attention of other radical Islamist groups and hence leading to violence.
Moreover, both this possibility and the likelihood that more Russians will use this argument are certain to make it more difficult for the Russian powers that be in Moscow and elsewhere to promote “traditional” Islam as a counterweight to radical elements lest Russians respond as they have in Stavropol.
And because objections like those offered by the writers of the Stavropol appeal are explicitly or at least ostensibly supportive of “traditional” Islam, rights activists will find it more difficult to counter such claims than they have the more openly Islamophobic statements typically offered by opponents of Muslim groups.
The way out of this impasse of course would involve improved police protection of Muslim institutions and leaders prepared to live within the law – the overwhelming majority in Russia as well as elsewhere – against the violent minority. But doing that will be difficult, all the more so because of the anti-Muslim attitudes of many Russian siloviki.

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