Sunday, August 29, 2010

Window on Eurasia: Muslims Divided on Whether Mosques in Russia Should Follow Ethno-Linguistic Lines

Paul Goble

Staunton, August 29 – Muslims in Russia are divided over the question of whether mosques should be organized along ethno-linguistic lines as they are in Western Europe in order to help national communities survive or whether they should be non-ethnic, something many believe Islam requires but that would mean the increasing use of Russian in them.
At a Kazan forum this weekend on “The Importance of Religious Values in the Preservation of National Identity,” the ways in which Islam has contributed to the survival of many ethnic groups on the territory of what is now the Russian Federation was at the center of discussion (
Ildus Faizov, the first deputy mufti of Tatarstan, led off the discussion and argued that “only by holding fast to the Hanafi school will Muslims be able to preserve their religion and their national coloration in it,” something that legal school of Sunni Islam gives greater scope for than do the other three.
A second speaker, Valiulla Yakupov, a deputy mufti of Tatarstan, called himself “a positive nationalist” and proposed that the Muslim communities in the Russian Federation “open mosques on a national basis (Tatar, Russian, Turkish, etc.) in order that each who attends will be comfortable where services are conducted in his native language.”
Yakupov’s argument sparked a sharp dissent from Renat Bekin, editor of “Chetki,” who said that “the preservation of the Tatar language and the rebirth of national unity must not become a goal in themselves of Muslims since [their] main obligation is to call to Islam everyone including people of other nationalities.”
This is an increasingly sensitive issue, especially in Russia’s largest cities where there are large numbers of immigrants from Central Asia and the Caucasus, and it is one that not only divides Muslims but also links those on each side with some interesting political bedfellows beyond the faith.
Until a generation ago, outside of the North Caucasus republics, the mosques of the Russian Federation were in most cases Tatar mosques. Most of the mullahs and imams in them were Tatars (or less often Bashkirs), and most of the services in them were conducted in Tatar, even if that was not, as in Moscow for example, the language of the surrounding community.
That pattern had two diametrically opposed consequences. On the one hand, it meant that the mosques in these places were among the most powerful sustaining forces of Tatar national identity. But on the other, it meant that non-Tatar-speaking Muslims often felt excluded and sometimes turned to Muslim fundamentalist leaders outside of the mosques.
Over the last two decades, many of the mosques in Moscow and other Russian cities have gone over to the use of Russian, a practice that has allowed them to reach out to and draw in many non-Tatars and thus boost the number of practicing Muslims even while reducing the role of the mosque as the center of Tatar life.
For Russian officials and commentators, as a result, the language question among that country’s Muslims has also been a divisive. Some Russian officials have supported the shift from Tatar to Russian either out of simple nationalism or in order to reduce the influence of independent fundamentalists.
But others, more comfortable with the earlier situation in which Tatars and Muslims were almost synonymous in many parts of Russia, have been worried that this shift has allowed the influence of Islam to grow not only among “ethnic Muslims” of various kinds but also among ethnic Russians and other groups that have not traditionally chosen Islam.
And they have thus opposed the shift to the use of Russian, even at the price of the intensification of Tatar national identity and of the growth of the Islamic component of that identity, a trend that result in Russia’s second largest nationality playing an increasing role in the larger Muslim community there.

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