Thursday, July 1, 2010

Window on Eurasia: MSD System Key to Stability among Russia’s Muslims, New Study Suggests

Paul Goble

Vienna, July 1 – The Muslim Spiritual Directorate (MSD) system in Russia has no canonical basis in Islam, but it does have deep roots in Russian Imperial and Soviet history. And a new book argues that historically it has played a key role in preventing ethnic and religious explosions in Muslim areas of the Middle Volga and elsewhere.
A new book by A.Yu. Khavbutdinov, “The History of the Orenburg Muslim Spiritual Assembly (1788-1917): Institutions, Ideas and People” (in Russian, 2010), is of more than historical interest Damir Mukhetdinov says in a review because that organization, the predecessor of the MSDs of today, kept the Muslim regions it was responsible for stable.
Mukhetdinov, himself deputy head of the MSD for European Russia, argues that the Orenburg body is “the common property of all Russian Muslims, except for those in the North Caucasus,” and helped them develop “their strategy” of development and cooperation with the Russian state and Russian society (
The study of the Orenburg institution shows that “the number of mosques grew more than a hundred times” during its existence. But more important for Russia’s Muslims, “during this time there was the almost complete end of assimilation and an insignificant number of cases of departure for residence in other countries.”
“And today we see,” Mukhetdinov says, “that the strong points of the Russian umma are primarily those cities and auls which became centers of Islam during the epoch of the Orenburg Assembly,” all things the mufti says those who “criticize the system of MSDs and the activity of their presidents” should take into consideration.
Of course, he concedes, “there are no ideal institutions and people.” The end of the tsarist Russia clearly demonstrated that, as Khavbutdinov shows. But “it is necessary to consider which regions became zones of inter-ethnic and inter-religious clashes and ethnic purges which were no rarity in Russian history” and which were not.
If one does that, he or she can see that “the enormous region that the Orenburg Assembly oversaw, from Petersburg to Chita and from Astrakhan to Arkhangelsk remained free from these bloody conflicts,” something that “unfortunately,” cannot be said of the Transcaucasus, the North Caucasus, Kazakhstan or Central Asia.
The only exception to this pattern within the region whose religious life was overseen by Orenburg in the revolutionary period was in a section of the Urals where Bashkirs and Slavic settlers clashed over the control of land, as the new book documents clearly. And that history helps to explain why during the 1990s, there were no bloody clashes there.
All the muftis who led the Orenburg Assembly, the reviewer points out, promoted the policy of peaceful relations with neighboring groups, and it is worth noting that the first mufti, Mukhammedzhan Khusain was “a contemporary of the Pugachev revolt, the last great conflict among those which affected the Volga-Urals region after the collapse of the Golden Horde.”
Moreover, as the new study demonstrates, “the Orenburg Assembly was one of the rare ‘administrations,’ which with a minimal expenditure of funds satisfied the requirements of the population to a maximum degree,” not only in religious rituals but also education. And the Assembly kept the mullahs and imams from becoming separate from the population.
As both the author and the reviewer note, there is a widespread view that “the Orenburg Assembly and its members were only bureaucratic executors who did not see the all-Russian situation from their Urals backwater.” But that is clearly not the case given the statements they issued and the proposals they made.
And their proposals and the experience of the Orenburg Assembly in tsarist times, Mukhetdinov concludes, “have not lost their importance in the new millennium when the Russian umma is again raising questions about its unity, about the development of finances and education, and about the personality of the Muslim in a changing world…”

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