Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Window on Eurasia: Russia’s Muslims Seek Return of Religious Property Seized by Soviets

Paul Goble

Vienna, March 2 – The Russian Orthodox Church’s efforts to secure the return of property seized by the Soviet state have sparked controversy not only because any such restitution would make the Moscow Patriarchate the largest property owner in the country but also because it could create problems through the displacement of individuals and institutions.
But the impact of the Church’s push for legislation that would gain that end, legislation long under consideration and supported by both President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, has had the unintended consequence of prompting the leaders of other faiths and Muslims in particular to demand restitution as well.
And Muslim efforts to take advantage of what the Orthodox are seeking create serious problems because the kinds of the property and the locus and nature of ownership in Islam are very different. As a result, this Muslim push could complicate Moscow’s plans to restore Church property and create new tension both between the two faiths and between them and the state.
If there has been a great deal of coverage of the Orthodox effort, there has been much less attention to the Islamic one. But that gap is partially filled by an interview with Damir Khayretdinov, the editor of the encyclopedia dictionaries on “Islam in the Russian Federation in the current issue of “As-Salam” (www.assalam.ru/arhiv/2010/assalam_04_2010.pdf
Khayretdinov begins by noting that the draft legislation on the restitution of religious property represents “an enormous leap forward in the restoration of historical justice” even though in the first instance it is intended to serve “the interests of the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church” more than other faiths.
Prior to 1917, he points out, religious organizations, including both Orthodox Christian and Muslim groups, owned enormous amount of property of the most varied kinds. In the 1920s an 1930s, the Soviet state seized much of it, so much that most Russians believe that such confiscation ended by the time of World War II.
In fact, the Muslim scholar notes, it continued albeit “on a significantly lesser scale,” at least in relation to Islam until at least 1987, when the Soviet authorities liquidated a mosque in the North Ossetian village of Khaznidon and confiscated both the building and the land on which it was standing.
Khayretdinov notes that “Shariat law clearly and unambiguously supports private property, and [suggests that] this is one of the many reasons why Islam was an opponent of the Soviet system. And he points out that that law vested property in corporate bodies rather than individuals to ensure that there would be continuity of ownership.
Equally important, Muslim law viewed and views property as a system and thus supports the idea that each Islamic institution should have the kind and amount of property needed to support its activities. The property of this kind is called “waqf,” a term which can refer either to physical property directly controlled or an ownership interest in that of third parties.
In discussion restitution of Islamic property, he continues, the Russian powers that be must address not only the need for reviving that kind of property but also take into consideration the range of properties involved in Islam, some of which are not to be found among followers of other faiths.
In addition to mosques and medressas, Khayretdinov says, Muslim property involved prayer houses (masallas), self-standing minarets, primary religious schools (mektebs), Sufi assembly sites (tekis), and holy places (mazars), in addition to all the kinds of property within these institutions and the often large waqf land supporting each of them.
Creating legal support for the restitution and subsequent operation of these various kinds of property and especially the waqfs is critical, Khayretdinov argues, all the most so because the Russian state has clearly identified its interest in “supporting traditional Islam” in order to prevent the spread of radicalism.
Coming up with that legislation will not be easy, the Islamic scholar says. Waqf property was something that the Russian Imperial State allowed to exist but never created a legal framework within which it could operate, an arrangement that the current government will have to rectify given the increased complexity of post-Soviet life.
At the same time, Khayretdinov continues, the Muslims themselves are going to have to do a lot of work. There is a great deal of information in the archives of the Muslim spiritual directorates (MSDs) about property that was seized, and there is some in his own “Islam in the Russian Federation” series, although not for the entire country.
Moreover, to achieve the restitution of Muslim property that the umma deserves, he continues, Islamic groups will have to advance “literate leaders who like Patriarch Kirill will work for their community.” And they will have to meet with senior Russian politicians not so much to demand as to explain.
And as a first step toward that end, Khayretdinov suggests, Muslims should seek the restitution of Islamic property at a regional level, perhaps in Daghestan or Chechnya in the North Caucasus or in Tatarstan in the Middle Volga. And they should insist that the law under which this occurs must allow for financial compensation when the actual property cannot be returned.

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