Friday, October 23, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Kremlin Seeks Control over Russia’s Muslims Studying Abroad

Paul Goble

Vienna, October 23 – Aleksey Grishin, a senior advisor to President Dmitry Medvedev, says that Moscow is working on plans to provide both greater financing for and greater state supervision of Muslims from the Russian Federation studying at Muslim universities and medrassahs abroad.
Speaking to a Moscow conference this week on “The Use of Contemporary Technologies in the Development of Religious Education,” Grishin said that Moscow also intended to ensure that on their return to Russia, such Muslims would be required to obtain additional training that would take into account “Russian realities” (
Ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russian officials have been concerned about the impact of Muslims trained abroad on their co-religionists at home. Various estimates of the number of people with such training range upwards from 20,000 over that period, and many have said that such people return with radical versions of Islam incompatible with Russian traditions.
Some in Russia – both government officials and leaders of the traditional Muslim Spiritual Directorates (MSDs) – have sought to restrict the number of Muslims going abroad to study either to prevent the introduction of Islamist messages or to make the argument that the Russian government should expand Islamic education inside the Russian Federation.
Over the last five years, Moscow has increased state support for Muslim training inside the Russian Federation, but Russian officials have had relatively little success in preventing those Muslims who want to study abroad from doing so, all the more so because even Russia’s Muslims who oppose their doing so admit the training abroad is often superior to that in Russia.
Grishin’s comments are the clearest indication yet that the Russian government, having concluded that it cannot stop the flow of Muslims from Russia to Islamic training centers in the Middle East and South Asia, has decided to try to play a larger role in funding them, supervising their work while they are abroad, and examining them on their return.
The Kremlin aide that that “the system being worked out” calls for providing financial support to such students, expanding contacts with them when they are abroad, and ensuring that they receive “additional training” in Russia’s own Muslim schools on their return “not in the context of Islamic doctrine but rather in that of ‘Russian realities.’”
“The time has come,” Grishin continued, “to move to a higher level of cooperation with our foreign partners” in order to establish “a system of sending young Muslims from the Russian Federation for study abroad,” a system that he said could be realized at either the inter-governmental or inter-university level.
“We, that is the religious organizations of Russia,” Grishin said, “would like to participate in the preparation of our future imams abroad in order that there will be links with our students studying there – perhaps through the embassy or perhaps through religious organizations – so that we will understand and know the needs and desires of our students.”
Grishin said that he had become convinced of the need for this step on the basis of trips to “certain Arab states” where the “leaders of [Islamic] universities, where Russian students are studying said that there was no need for [the Russian government] to connect with the students because they have [everything] they need.”
“’We are preparing them and we will send them back to you,’” the heads of some Islamic schools told him, but Grishin pointed out that this approach is one that does not suit the needs of the Russian state, which insists that there be “constant links” between Russian diplomatic missions and Russian students studying abroad.
“At a minimum,” the Kremlin advisor said, Muslim schools abroad must not “prohibit Russian students from visiting official Russian institutions.” Such contacts, he continued, will allow Russian officials to find out before an individual returns, “with what thoughts he is returning and how he will work [and] where we can find a place for him.”
Anticipating possible objections from his audience, Grishin said that the system he is working up is not seeking “total control” over the future mullahs and imams. “We simply want to understand where and how our students are studying” when they are enrolled in Muslim educational institutions abroad.
But he noted that when such people return, the Russian government wants to see that they pass through “a program for retraining” at one of Russia’s Islamic universities, “not for retraining in the Islamic faith,” he said – “no one will interfere in this sphere” – but so that they will be able to work within “Russian realities” of cooperation among various religions.
Some of the heads of Russia’s own Muslim universities can be expected to support this: the government’s program would give their institutions additional students and additional funding. But many Muslims in the Russian Federation are certain to see this as government interference in matters of the faith.
That could lead to an even deeper split between the official Islamic establishment of the MSDs and state-registered Islamic universities and unofficial Muslim groups, a division that could further sap the authority of the first and contribute to the greater radicalization of the latter, exactly the reverse of what Grishin and his colleagues seek.

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