Vienna, November 20 – Despite predictions in the Moscow press and on Muslim websites that the economic crisis or the threat of swine flu would significantly reduce the number of hajis from the Russian Federation this year, Muslim leaders there say that country will fill or possibly even exceed its Saudi-established quota of 20,500.
But even if that proves to be the case, two other developments this year are sparking controversy over the haj in the Russian umma. First of all, the Saudis earlier this year announced that they would not continue to allow Russia to send more pilgrims than the 20,500 set by Riyadh’s formula of one haji per 1000 Muslims each year.
That special arrangement was worked out by then-President Vladimir Putin who argued, as have Muslim leaders in the Russian Federation for some years, that Russia should be allowed to send more – the Saudis agreed on 4500 additional slots – because of “pent up demand,” since few Muslims from Russia could perform the haj in Soviet times.
In fact, as various observers have suggested, the number of Muslims from Russia making the haj in recent years has exceeded even that, perhaps by even more than 10,000 annually. And consequently, Saudi Arabia’s insistence that Russia live according to the same rules as all other Muslim countries represents a serious problem for some Muslims there.
But far more serious, the Russian Haj Commission has shifted the allocation within the country away from the North Caucasus to the Middle Volga. That will allow Tatarstan, for example, to send 3500 people on the haj, far more than the 100 to 120 it had been sending in recent years (www.blagovest-info.ru/index.php?ss=2&s=3&id=30978).
Tatarstan Mufti Gusman Iskhakov, not surprisingly, is delighted by that development, but equally unsurprisingly, many Muslims and political leaders in the North Caucasus are furious. As recently as last year, Daghestan alone sent 16,000 of Russia’s hajis; this year, officials have cut their quota to only 6,000 (dagestan.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/162168/).
In addition to the drastic cut, two other aspects of this year’s haj program have sparked real anger in Daghestan and may lead to public protests, Kavkaz-Uzel.ru reports. On the one hand, many people there have already paid tour firms for the haj but now find they cannot get the needed documentation from either Moscow or the Saudi embassy.
And on the other, there are suspicions that the chief reason Moscow has take this step is because of financial considerations: Firms can make far more from hajis who fly to Mecca than from those – and in Daghestan, these form the overwhelming majority – who make the trip by bus overland.
(Other republics in the North Caucasus also appear to have had their quotas reduced, although not by nearly as much -- Chechnya is slated to send 3,000 pilgrims; Kabardino-Balkaria, 200; Karachay-Cherkessia, 300; and Adygeya, 50 – and consequently, there appears to be less anger in any of them.)
The situation in other post-Soviet states varies widely. In Azerbaijan, the number of Muslims slated to make the haj this year is 4,000, up from earlier years, while in Ukraine, the number is only 131, a figure lower than in earlier years and one that perhaps reflects economic problems there (www.islamrf.ru/news/world/w-news/10736/).
But the situation in Turkmenistan is perhaps the most intriguing. The government there decided that the dangers of swine flu were so great that it banned anyone going on the haj this year. But in doing that, Ashgabat officially organized pilgrimages to domestic Muslim holy places (www.gundogar.org/?022500000000000000011062009110000#8688).
Because such places are frequently associated with Sufi leaders or with radical Islamist individuals and groups from the past, these pilgrimages could have the effect of spreading a different kind of “infection” in that Central Asian country, one potentially far more difficult to cure than the swine flu.