Vienna, March 11 – An unprecedented survey of 102 Muslim leaders in Russia, ranging from officials in the Muslim Spiritual Directorates (MSDs) to “imams of small communities in distant regions” has found they believe that convening an all-Russian Muslim conference rather than negotiations among the senior leaders is best path to the unity they overwhelmingly seek.
That Muslims are overwhelmingly in favor of unity is no surprise: such attitudes reflect one of the core values of Islam; but that they are no longer willing to defer to their leaders in achieving it but rather want to have the chance to elect delegates to Muslim congress that would then make key decisions likely comes as a shock to many in the MSDs and in Moscow.
Such a meeting like the all-Russian Muslim congresses held in the early years of the 20th century almost certainly would shake up relations between the Russian umma and the Russian state, quite possibly leading to the replacement of the MSD system itself by an Islamically more correct democratically elected leadership.
The survey, which was conducted by Russia’s League of Muslim Journalists, is extraordinarily detailed, and its results have now been published in full in a 12,000-word article at www.muslim-press.ru/articles.php?lng=ru&pg=4576. The survey’s findings are accurately and usefully summarized at www.islam.ru/rus/2010-03-09/#31453.
In its write-up on the survey, the Islam.ru portal says that 55 percent of the Muslim leaders support without qualification the establishment in Russia of “a single religious structure with a single mufti at its head,” while it reports that “a little more than 20 percent” support that idea “with one or another qualification.”
Still another seven percent of the Muslim leaders sampled said that they believe that unifications “necessary” but that they are uncertain what form it should take. And at the same time, “approximately 15 percent say that the level of unity they would like to see would be satisfied by the creation of “a coordinating council” of the kind some MSD chiefs have proposed.
But as Islam.ru noted, “a more unexpected result” than the 75 percent support for a single organization with a single mufti was that more than 60 percent supported the convention of an all-Russian congress of Muslims “for the legtitimation and optimization of the unification process,” with another “more than 15 percent” supporting this idea with some qualification.
Indeed, support for holding such a congress was so widespread, the survey found, that those few who opposed it, perhaps fearful of the consequences such a meeting could have, were accused by others of seeking to engage in a fundamentally illegitimate action that several of the Muslim leaders surveyed denounced as being a kind of Muslim “coup committee.”
Intriguingly, many of backers of a congress were inspired by the slogan “Yes, We Can” associated with the campaign of Barak Obama and argue Muslims in Russia must control of their own destiny not only because the Koran requires democratic procedures but also because the MSD system, created by the Russian state to control Muslims, is no longer appropriate.
“People understand,” the League of Muslim Journalists said, “that only a congress can give the necessary legitimacy to ‘a single mufti’” and to take the kind of steps that will mean that the new Muslim structure, whatever form it eventually takes will become not something “amorphous” and “virtual” but rather “an influential force and a real center of the umma.”
Just how much of a challenge to the existing leadership that such an all-Russian Muslim congress might present is suggested by the comments of Yamalo-Nenets chief kazi Zakir Sagitov to the Islamnews.ru agency this week on what must be done to make the unification of Russia’s Muslims a success (www.islamnews.ru/news-23045.html).
He said that the very first thing Muslims must do is set a retirement age for their leaders. When a mufti, mullah or head of a Muslim organization reaches that age, Sagitov said, the individual must retire, although he could be allowed to remain in the council of elders of the particular organization.
Such a step is necessary, he argued, because “elderly muftis, who think in worn-out categories, are freezing the development of the umma.”
And the other step he called for was the complete democratization of religious life: “Imams must be assigned not by order from above but selected by members of the particular community from the number of the most worthy believers.” Similar elections should be held for muftis, and the number of terms they can serve should be limited to two or three.
Such proposals would garner a lot of support at an all-Russian Muslim meeting, but their adoption would end the careers of some of the current top leaders in the Russian MSD system and seriously reduce the ability of the Russian state to control Islam, a faith without a clergy and without a hierarchy.
As a result, many in the MSDs and in the Russian government are certain to oppose the convention of such a congress whatever they say about supporting unity. And that makes new clashes between Russia’s Muslims and the Russian powers that be far more likely, with potentially explosive consequences on both sides.