Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Migrants from Central Asia and Caucasus Returning to Islam as a Result of Their Experiences in Russia

Paul Goble

Vienna, October 7 – The dramatic increase in the number of Muslims taking part in religious services in various Russian cities on Id al-Fitr this year reflects more an increase in religious awareness and activity among formerly “ethnic” Muslim migrants from Central Asia and the Caucasus than an upsurge in religious life among the faithful of Russia itself.
In this, Daniyal Isayev argues in an article entitled “Migrants and Islam: A Return to Truth Through Experience in an Alien Land,” immigrants from Central Asia and the Caucasus are following in the footsteps of their co-religionists in Western Europe who became more Islamic after leaving their homelands behind (
If Isayev is correct in drawing this parallel, then Muslim migrants may present an even more serious problem than many Russians have assumed not only because their new religiosity may turn some of them to radicalism and violence but also because it may become a model for many of the more than 20 million “ethnic” Muslims in the Russian Federation itself.
“The sharp increase in the number of Muslims visiting mosques and observing religious requirements has become an unexpected surprise not only for the Moscow city powers that be but also for the leaders of the umma itself,” Isayev says, with thousands of Muslims praying in the streets around the mosques because they could not get inside.
That this was the case in Moscow, he continues, reflects the fact that there are only a handful of mosques for the roughly two million Muslims living there. But it was true in other cities as well. In Saratov, for example, where officials and imams had planned on 5,000 to 6,000 of the faithful, more than 50,000 turned up.
Why this increase now? Isayev asks rhetorically. He proposes the following answer: “It is completely obvious that such a remarkable growth of those taking part in prayers were not new Muslim converts but rather ‘ethnic’ Muslims who have begun to remember their faith and decided to visit the mosque on this holiday.”
But unlike many observers of the Muslim scene in Russia, Isayev does not stop there. Instead, he argues that “ethnic” Muslims who are citizens of the Russian Federation were a less important source of the increase than “ethnic” Muslims who had come to Russia as migrants from the former Soviet republics in Central Asia and the Caucasus.
Even the dramatic increase this year, he writes, would be “a drop in the bucket” compared to the total number of “ethnic” Muslims in Russia, most of whom, including “the enormous number of representatives of the middle generation (our fathers) and the younger generation (we ourselves)” have “not yet” had their Islamic faith reawakened.
Instead, he argues, the “sharp rise in the number of visitors to the mosques” this year reflected increased Muslim activism by “labor migrants from Central Asia and the Transcaucasus,” a development Isayev suggests Russians should have been prepared for because of what has happened in Western Europe already.
The explanation, he continues, is to be found “in the psychology and behavior of an individual cut off from his motherland.” In his homeland, such an individual may pray because it is customary, but once he moves abroad, he will begin to experience “a spiritual hunger,” a sense that he is alone in a hostile environment, and turn to Islam for sustenance and solace.
That is what has taken place in Europe. There, Isayev recounts, “the first generation of immigrants tried to show in every way their complete loyalty and inclusion in local society, including giving up parts of their identity. But the second and third generations experienced a revival of their religious values.
Those in the second and third generation spoke the language of their new countries without an accent, studied in European schools and had professional qualifications often the equal of those around them, and they supported the idea and ideals of European integration even more than the latter.
But then, Isayev continues, “many young Muslims began with bitterness to be convinced that they were caught between two worlds: an old motherland which did not need them, which they did not know and whose language they often spoke worse than the European one they had adopted,” and a new country which was not prepared to treat them as complete equals.
In such circumstances, “it is not surprising,” Isayev argues, that young Muslims “began a search for their identity and this inevitably led them to identification not with an already distant ‘motherland of their ancestors’ but rather with something incomparable more significant – with Islam.”
Exactly the same thing is taking place “today before our eyes with our brothers from Central Asia and the Transcaucasus who having lived and worked several years in a different cultural milieu are beginning suddenly to recognize that they are different, that they have better values and traditions and a purer relationship to girls, parents and the surrounding world.”
“Of course,” Isayev adds, “it is not appropriate to make generalizations here, many as life shows really are recalling that they are Muslims” in a more direct and intense way than they ever were before, the products of the kind of experience of strangeness that lies at the basis of most self-identifications.

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