Vienna, January 4 – The revival and growth of Islam is typically portrayed as a threat to Russia, but a leading Muslim commentator in Moscow argues that “the only global force which is interested in the rebirth of Russia as a great super power is the Islamic world,” a category that he insists includes Muslims within the Russian Federation itself.
Shamil Sultanov, the president of the Moscow Center for Strategic Research on Russia and the Islamic World, makes this provocative and controversial argument in the course of a lengthy essay on the state of the Muslim community in Russia now and over the next 20 years that was posted online today on the IA-Centr.ru portal (www.ia-centr.ru/expert/6841/).
As the leftwing analyst notes, estimates about the number of Muslims in the Russian Federation vary widely, with the Orthodox Church putting the figure at no more than 14 million, while the Russian government typically suggests there are 20 million, and some experts abroad have put the number as high as 30 million.
In fact, Sultanov says, “if one accepts 20 million as a mid-range figure, then that number certainly will include all ethnic Muslims and migrants,” even though it is certain that not all Tatars are Muslims and that not all Kyrgyz Gastarbeiters now in the Russian Federation are followers of Islam.
Sultanov says that on the basis of his own observations, “only 2.5-3 million people [in the Russian Federation] put their Muslim identity on the first place in the scale of self-identification. For the rest, this identity is in second or more often in third or even fourth place, yielding pride of place to corporate, professional, clan or ethnic identity.”
Because this is so, the most important division among Russia’s Muslims is not in terms of the legal school of Sunni Islam to which they attach themselves but rather “by the quality of their religious orientation.” Viewed from that perspective, he says, the Muslim community in Russia divides into three groups.
First out of the 20 million figure he cites are the 2.5-3 million Muslims who fulfill all the requirements of the faith, although Sultanov suggests that “of these three million, possibly only one in ten has a deep knowledge of Islam, an Islamic way of thinking and follows and pursues an Islamic way of life.”
Second, he continues, are the approximately six million Muslims who “from time to time observe sincerely or not very sincerely certain Muslim rituals.” And the third – the remaining 11 million – follow a largely “secular way of life and only from time to time recall their Muslim roots.”
Together, Sultanov says, the Muslims of Russia participate in approximately 3,000 registered jamaats (communities) and 3,000 unregistered ones, numbers that are significantly lower than the ones offered by the Muslim Spiritual Directorates (MSDs) or even Russian officials.
The leadership of the overwhelming majority of cases, Sultanov says, is weak because of “the incompetence, hypocrisy, greed, lack of principles, and kleptocracy” of its members and the presumption of unqualified people to serve as muftis even though they know little or nothing of the Koran.
There is one group that represents an important exception to this pattern, Sultanov continues. It includes the more than 100,000 “so-called ‘new Muslims’” as converts to Islam from historically non-Islamic nations like the Russians, Ukrainians, and Chuvash are typically referred to in Russia.
According to Sultanov, this group, despite all its diversity, is marked by two special characteristics: On the one hand, it manifests “a high level of passionate attachment” to the faith, and on the other, “the intellectual level of ‘Russian Muslims’ significantly exceeds the average IQ of the other Muslims of Russia.”
Over the next generation, Sultanov says, there is no question that the number of Muslims will increase and that the intensity of their attachment to Islam will expand as well, but instead of posing challenge to Russia as some have suggested, the rise of Islam there will help Russia recover its status as a great power.
For Russia’s Muslims, he argues, “the motherland is part of [their] faith.” Second, he continues, “Russia’s Muslims possibly have a greater basis for considering Russia their Motherland than do the Orthodox,” because Islam arrived there earlier and because Russia even now is “the heir to the traditions of the great Muslim Golden Horde Empire.”
And third, there is a geopolitical reason for that. “Russia and the global Muslim umma have a common enemy – Western civilization. If Russia is the main enemy for the West in the medium term, then Islam [including the Muslims within the Russian Federation] is its strategic and metaphysical enemy for the entire 21st century.”
One of the reasons Muslims look to Russia in this way, Sultanov argues, is that they remember that the Soviet system was opposed to the kind of interest-based capitalism of the West. “And the prohibition on interest is one of the unqualified foundations of Islamic economics.”
Consequently, “the only global force which is interested in the rebirth of Russia as a great super power is the Islamic world.’ (Sultanov acknowledges that there are “ultra-radical Muslims” who disagree with this analysis, but he says that their number is “happily, not great” and can be ignored.)
This means, Sultanov concludes, that “the historical mission of the Russian Islamic community is still ahead. Even if all the other peoples will be infected by consumerism, a lack of will and defeatism, and their cultural code will be rewritten in a negative way, Russian Muslims on their own will struggle for a great Russia as their Motherland.”