Saturday, August 8, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Russia’s Muslims Give Putin Mixed Reviews

Paul Goble

Vienna, August 8 – Like their compatriots who follower other faiths or none at all, Russia’s 20 million Muslims vary widely in their assessment of Vladimir Putin on the tenth anniversary of his rise to the highest levels of power, but most appear to give him a largely positive but far from uncritical assessment.
To gain a better idea of their assessments of the former president and current prime minister,’s Asya Kapayeva interviewed six leading Muslims from various walks of life not only about their personal views but also about their sense of how Russia’s Muslims in general view the Putin years (
Ali Visam Bardvil, the head of the Muslim Spiritual Directorate (MSD) of Karelia, suggested that there had been “major changes” in the life of Russians and Russia’s Muslims during the Putin years, with the latter welcoming his frequent statements that “Russia is a poly-confessional and multi-national state.”
Bardvil, a Palestinian by birth, added that Muslims are especially pleased by Putin’s efforts to “improve relations with Muslim governments” and his efforts to secure observer status for Russia in the Organization of the Islamic Conference. And although Putin’s approach in the North Caucasus was “very harsh” to start with, it has turned out to be “quite wise and correct.”
Fatukh Garifullin, the chairman of the Qaziyat Administration of the Muslims of Tyumen oblast, said that the Putin years had been a time of “enormous steps forward” in religious enlightenment with the construction of numerous mosques and medressahs and with greater religious awareness among Russia’s Muslims.
The Tyumen qazi said that he and other Muslims had been concerned by the efforts of the Russian Orthodox Church to introduce only instruction on that faith in Russian schools and thus were pleased that “the leadership had declared that teaching about “all religions” including Islam would take place.
Ruslan Kurbanov, an Islamic specialist at the Moscow Institute of Oriental Studies, gave the most nuanced and at the same time the most critical assessment of Putin and his policies. While Putin is clearly a remarkable figure, he said, “the number of challenges” facing the country has “clearly exceeded the ability of one man to respond to them effectively.”
As a result, he continued, many policies Putin launched during his presidency “either were not realized as intended or were not carried through to the end.” In support of this contention, he pointed to what had taken place in the North Caucasus, with the Muslim world, and with the oligarchs.
In the North Caucasus, Putin “set himself the goal of finishing off Chechen separatism.” He may have been able to do that in terms of what he saw at the start of his presidency, but now, in part as a result of his approach, Russia is challenged by those who are prepared to struggle against Moscow “under ‘jihadist’ banners.”
With respect to the Muslim world, Kurbanov argued, Putin sought a rapprochement, but even as he did so, “inside the country, the persecution of Muslims was increased, [Islamic] literature prohibited, and the number of falsified charges against imams increased,” either because of his policies or because of subordinates who acted without reference to him.
And regarding the oligarchs, the Moscow Orientalist said, Putin clearly sought to distance the oligarchs from power, but his actions resulted “to a certain extent in the oligarchization of the powers that be themselves,” almost certainly not what he intended but equally certainly what his policies entailed.
Because of this record, Kurban concluded, “it is difficult to assess his administration” one way or the other. But he suggested that for Muslims as for others, what is particularly important is “to try to understand the phenomenon of his popularity among the people and also the complete lack of initiative of the critics of his power.”
Almira Adiatullina, the chairman of the Organization of Muslim Women of Tatarstan “Muslima,” told that “the years of the administration of Vladimir Putin are viewed positively in the umma” because Muslims were able to “freely profess their religion, conduct their rituals and holidays, [and] build mosques and medressahs.
Abdulla Rinat Mukhametov, the deputy chief editor of itself, said that Putin’s approach to Islam had been “more tactical than strategic” and that the former president had not elaborated “an integral policy in relation to the entire complex of problems of Russia’s Muslims.”
But he added that “in comparison with being ignored, manipulated or put down” as Muslims in Russia were at the end of the 1990s and the beginning of the 2000s, “this is undoubtedly progress.” At the same time, however, he suggested that it is unfortunate “the positive decisions” took so much effort to secure and thus may not be followed up.
And finally, Suletta Kusova, the president of the Association of Ethnic Issues in the Union of Journalists of Russia, suggested that Putin had pursued “a hidden” agenda with regard to Muslims, “constantly calling for dialogue with Islam but doing little to make that happen” and using Islam as a bridge to the Muslim world rather than treating it as valuable in itself.
In some respects, however, the Muslims have only themselves to blame, she said. While the role of Orthodoxy in the life of the state has increased dramatically in the last decade, Muslims have not worked equally hard to defend and promote their community, thus on occasion ceding the field to others.

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