Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Central Asian Migrants Increasingly Filling Ranks of Russia’s Mullahs

Paul Goble

Vienna, October 6 – Migrants from Central Asia and the Caucasus are now playing a major role in the revival of Islamic life in the Russian Federation, providing both the congregants and even the imams in many Muslim parishes there and changing the language and culture of these communities.
In the years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russian officials and experts focused on the role that Muslim missionaries from the Middle East and South Asia were playing among Russia’s Islamic community and paid little attention to what may ultimately prove to be a more important source of change, migrants from the former Soviet republics of Central Asia.
In an article posted on the Ferghana.ru site, Aleksey Starostin of Yekaterinburg offers a corrective, describing in some detail the way in which “educated migrants from Asia are becoming imams and mudarris in Russia,” particularly in the many places where the Soviets had shut down public Islamic life (www.ferghana.ru/article.php?id=6313).
In his own Urals region, Starostin reports, “where in the years of Soviet power, Islamic traditions were essentially broken off, arrivals from Tajikistan and Uzbekistan who had a deep knowledge of Islamic doctrine became some of the first spiritual teachers for the Muslims of the region.” A similar pattern, he says, obtains in Siberia and the Far East.
According a recent study, “the influence of these people on the religious revival has been so great that today, arrivals from the countries of Central Asia form almost seven percent of the total number of the leaders of [Muslim] spiritual [directorates (MSDs)] and kaziat institutions of Muslims operating in Russian regions.”
Such people, Starostin continues, “are distinguished by their high-level religious education and enjoy the respect of local Muslims. Therefore,” he says, “there is nothing surprising in this trend,” and the journalist devotes the rest of his 4500-word article to portraits of four such “Central Asian” imams.
Among them is Mukhammad Faizov from Tajikistan who now serves as the leader of the Al-Bukhari Mosque in Verkhnyaya Pyshma. Born in Dushanbe in 1968, Faizov grew up in a religious family, studying at home as a child and with a sheikh once he became a teenager.
Unlike in many parts of the USSR, Faizov recalled, “in Soviet Tajikistan, the powers that be did not particularly persecute people for the faith and understood that Islam has such ancient roots in the Tajik land that it is absorbed with a mother’s milk.” As a result, active believers gave their children an Islamic education but “no one advertised” what they were doing.”
At 15, Faizov joined a circle of nine young Muslims who studied with sheikhs and religious leaders, and he said that he “considers that the education which we received from them was even better than that which they provide in medressahs or Islamic universities,” because the instructors dealt with each student individually.
Faizov spent 12 years in this program, one that was interrupted only by two years of service in the Soviet army in the Moscow military district. On his return, he found a job in the secular economy that allowed him to spend five days a week receiving more Muslim training and ultimately becoming a teacher himself.
When the Soviet Union disintegrated, Tajikistan dissolved into civil war. “The intelligentsia was pleased by the proclamation of freedom and independence,” Faizov now says, “but the majority of people, the working class, could not adequately comprehend them and did not understand what to do with this freedom.”
“Many in Tajikistan hoped that the Union would be restored but this didn’t happen,” and when the war began, Faizov said, his own formal lessons came to an end, but “in order not to forget what I knew, I read religious books three or four hours a day,” while working in the construction trades.
In August 2004, that work took him to Yekaterinburg in the Russian Federation, a path many from Tajikistan followed. Having arrived in Russia, they wanted to be able to attend Muslim services at a mosque, and Faizov was drawn into that community because of his education and knowledge.
For the last five years, he has worked as the imam of this mosque, leading prayers, delivering sermons, teaching in the mekteb, and training young people in Koranic studies. And he has reached out to Muslims from Russia, even though “more than 50 percent of [his] parishioners” are Tajik migrants like himself.
Faizov considers himself a teacher above all and under his supervision more than 200 students have attended the mekteb over the last four years. And he says that he “constantly” calls on his multi-national community to work together because “all Muslims are brothers and sisters and they must feel themselves as one family.”
In his report, Starostin highlights precisely those messages that Russian officials hope such people are delivering. He does not mention three other aspects of their presence that such officials may find more problematic. First, these Central Asian imams are clearly playing a key role in solidifying the identity of migrants in Russia.
Second, their understanding of Islam reflects a more demanding Sunni legal school than that followed by Muslims in Russia outside of the North Caucasus. And third, such immigrants, because Russian is the language they use in the mosques, are helping to spread the faith both in their own ethnic community and in others whose members do not know Tatar, let alone Arabic.
All those contributions of the imams from Central Asia are helping to change the Muslim community in Russia, quite possibly in a direction equally radical and unifying in its long-term implications to those that Moscow is more worried about, the Salafite and Wahhabi traditions that have entered Russia from the Middle East.

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