Monday, December 28, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Moscow Uncertain How to Deal with Newly Consolidated Russian Umma

Paul Goble

New York, December 28 – Russian governments up to now have managed the Muslim population under their control by playing one part of this extremely diverse group off against another, but as the umma there becomes increasingly united “by a multitude of visible and invisible threads,” Moscow faces a new set of challenges in the future, a Muslim analyst argues.
In an essay entitled “The Birth of the Russian Umma as a Serious Occasion for Reflection” this week, commentator Abdulla Rinat Mukhametov argues that as a result of both domestic and international trends, the process of “umma construction” [“ummastroitel’stvo”] in Russia reached “a point of no return” in 2009 (
Consequently, while the powers that be can and do play on differences within the faithful as they have been doing with regard to the possibility of combining the various Muslim spiritual directorates (MSDs) into a single body, Mukhametov says, the government and its advisors are increasingly considering the adoption of policies about Muslims as such.
At present, the longtime observer says, these can be broadly and “crudely designated as ‘dissolution,’ ‘adaptation,’ and ‘restraint,’ although he acknowledges both that there is a range of options within each of these and that ultimate policy outcomes may reflect a combination of ideas drawn from more than one.
The primary advocate of the first of these approaches, Mukhametov suggests, is Roman Silantyev, a Russian Orthodox activist who has written several controversial books about Islam and who argues that “the assimilation of ethnic and religious minorities is an inevitable process in any society, and in Russia it is accelerating because of the actions of the extremists.”
According to Silantyev’ “after every terrorist act, thousands and perhaps even tens of thousands of people from among the ethnic Muslims are baptized” and that ‘”Orthodoxization’ and Russification” are the inevitable fate of everyone living on the territory of the Russian Federation.
Because that is what is going to happen, Silantyev argues that “there is no sense” in reaching out to Muslims or seeking to integrate them as a community into the “fabric” of Russian life. And consequently what some call “the Islamic revival in Russia,” he continues, should be viewed as inherently “negative” and even fraudulent.
In Silantyev’s understanding, there is no place for Islam in the “new Russia,” and the powers that be should support its “gradual dissolution” into Orthodox Russian society and the removal of Islam as such from the territory of the country. In this way, the Orthodox specialist on Islam this, “the problems with the Muslims will resolve themselves on their own.”
In many respects, Mukhametov argues, this position represents “a return to the pre-
Catherine policy toward Islam,” which sought to “Christianize” the population “by any means including force,” or to the policy of the Soviet regime from the 1920s to 1942, with the difference that the communists attacked all religions and not just Islam.
The second possible government approach to the Muslim umma, “adaptation,” is very different because it involved “a practical recognition by the state and society of the role of Islam and Muslims in [Russia]” in “the construction of a common home,” a policy that requires the rejection of “Islamophobia in all its forms.”
Such a strategy, Mukhametov suggests, will require “if not a national project than at least a national program” in order to heal the deep wounds “built up over hundreds of years” and fully integrate the Muslim community “finally and in a positive way” into Russian life. And this approach requires the complete rejection of the first.
The third approach, Mukhametov suggests, has arisen “spontaneously” and is “directed at the preservation of the status quo, at the holding back of the development of Islam, at the conservation, freezing and delaying the resolution about its final status and role for as long as possible.”
This approach, less disturbing that the one advocated by Silantyev but less hopeful than the integration project, is, “one must acknowledge,” Mukhametov says, the “dominant” one among Russian political leaders and ordinary Russians at least at the present time, although the more thoughtful of these recognize that it is not sustainable.
In many ways, he continues, this third strategy is “a contemporary reworking” of the approach adopted by Catherine the Great when she created the Orenburg Spiritual Assembly and of the Soviets after Stalin changed the policy of the USSR toward religion during World War II, something possible to a large extent because Muslims have not offered something better.
But the Russian umma will need to do so soon, the commentator concludes, because otherwise there is a danger of a serious collision between a Russian government that may listen to the ideas of Silantyev and a growing Muslim population increasingly united in response and affected by the worldwide rebirth of Islam.

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