Friday, December 11, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Plan to Unite Russia’s Muslim Hierarchies Collapses as Consequences Become Obvious

Paul Goble

Vienna, December 11 – A Kremlin- but not necessarily Moscow-backed plan to unite Russia’s Muslim spiritual directorates (MSDs) under a single mufti broke down this week because the Muslim leader who proposed it realized it could cost him his position and because Russian officials recognized just how dangerous combining these institutions might become.
Although its mufti, Talgat Tajuddin, had proposed the creation of a single Muslim power vertical to be headed by his rival Council of Muftis of Russia head Ravil Gainutdin as recently as last Saturday, on Monday, Tajuddin’s Central MSD decided not to take part in the Thursday session to prepare for unification (
Instead, the presidium of the Central MSD, which is based in Bashkir capital of Ufa, reiterated what had been its and Tajuddin’s previous position that “the unification of Muslims of Russia is possible only through the inclusion of [all of Russia’s] Muslim organizations into the Central MSD under the leadership of Talgat Tajuddin.”
Other muftis either allied with Tajuddin or especially dependent on the security agencies rapidly fell into line. Ismail Berdiyev, the head of the Coordinating Center of Muslims of the North Caucasus, despite his support for unification last weekend, said that he “did not consider especially important the unification of the three leading Islamic structures of the country.”
And those muftis either because of opposition to Tajuddin personally – he is known as “the drunken mufti” in many quarters for his extravagant behavior – or because of concerns about what unity might mean for their own position took the opportunity of this shift to express their concerns.
Gusman Iskhakov, the head of the Tatarstan MSD, for example, said that “one must not proceed toward unification spontaneously and at any price; it is necessary to consider all aspects of the situation [in such a way that] no one involved will feel himself to be reduced [in status and preferment].”
Because this is only the latest of a series of proposals by Tajuddin to fail to gain support and because relations -- personal, political and religious -- among the 64 muftis of the Russian Federation are historically tense, most observers appear willing to accept the suggestion that this effort broke down because of personal conflicts.
That conclusion was advanced this time as it has been in the past by Roman Silantyev, a specialist on Islam with close ties to the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church whose various books, articles and interviews have sought to portray the leadership of Russia’s Islamic community in a negative light (
Already on Tuesday, he said that he was “inclined to evaluate the declaration of Mufti Talgat Tajuddin” about unity as the latest gambit of that Muslim leader to “raise the authority of his organization among Russian Muslims,” all the more so because this time Tajuddin proposed his rival as the head of a single Muslim hierarchy.
Tajuddin, Silantyev suggested, either believed that his proposal would fail, in which he could claim credit for an idea that others had rejected, or in the event of success would allow the Central MSD, whatever else happened, to remain the most important Muslim organization in the Russian Federation.
But both because the idea of unification was so clearly backed by the Kremlin and because Tajuddin’s own organization disowned it even before it could take off, Silantyev’s explanation, while not entirely implausible, is almost certainly incomplete. And three other reasons for the collapse of this project suggest themselves.
First, in what is a clear example of the “not invented here” principle, it appears likely that the Russian security agencies, which have a long history of involvement in the MSDs in general and the Central MSD in particular, did not want to see President Dmitry Medvedev steal a march on Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
Seeing that the Kremlin had gotten behind Tajuddin a week ago, Putin and the FSB likely would not be unhappy to see the plan fall through, not only because it would maintain their influence but also because many people in Russia would see this outcome as yet another income of the relative power of Putin and Medvedev.
Second, it may have dawned on some in Moscow that Tajuddin’s plan would have a very unwelcome consequence by changing the center of Islamic life in Russia. In tsarist, Soviet and post-Soviet times, Islam, unlike Orthodox Christianity, has had its headquarters outside of the Russian capital.
If Gainutdin became the head of the united muftiate, that organization would have its headquarters in Moscow, a development that could make it more difficult for the Russian authorities to ignore Islam and that would certainly allow the new supreme mufti to exert greater influence in Russian affairs than any of the many muftis outside the capital.
And third, the process of unification itself could prove explosive, even if a united “Muslim power vertical” might appeal to the Russian powers that be because of its symmetry. That is because several Muslim leaders have proposed a road map for this process that could threaten the controls Moscow now has over Islam.
Yesterday, Galimzhan Bimullin, the head of the MSD of Tyumen, said that he supported the unification of the countries Islamic structures but believed that “the supreme mufti and the chief kazi and all the other leading positions of the structures of a Unified MSD of Russia must be chosen by a free vote of a general assembly of Muslims.”
Such a vote either directly or by representatives of the 20 million plus Muslims of the Russian Federation would not only make those leaders far more democratically legitimate than the heads of other religious and secular organizations but campaigns for these offices would mobilize the Muslim community there as never before (
For all these reasons, the latest plan for the unification of the MSDs of the Russian Federation was killed in its cradle, but the way it was launched and the way it has been ended likely means that both those behind it and those who opposed it are not going to forget anytime soon just how this all happened.

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