Washington, September 16 – One of “the lessons of the recent terrorist attack in Vladikavkaz,” a Russian religious affairs expert says, is that Moscow’s long-standing policy of dividing religious groups into “traditional” ones which it recognizes and supports and others which it does not has had the effect of increasing “the terrorist threat” in the Russian Federation.
In a commentary on the Portal-Credo.ru site, Sergey Buryanov points out that “if religious organizations which are useful to the powers that be are given government ‘gingerbread,’ the powers that be give the others ‘the knout,’ particularly in the case of Islam (www.portal-credo.ru/site/?act=comment&id=1782).
The notion of the existence of “traditional religions of Russia” is nowhere enshrined in law. Instead, it is a practice which has developed over the last 15 years at the urging of the Russian Orthodox churchman who is now Patriarch Kirill and which has attracted increasing support from Vladimir Putin and even more Dmitry Medvedev.
In Kirill’s view, Russia has four traditional religions: Russian Orthodoxy, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism all of whose officially recognized structures deserve support from the powers that be. All other religious groups, both those which are part of these faiths and those which are part of others, are not to be given support but rather opposed as more or less alien to Russia.
With regard to Muslims, the powers that be argue that they must adopt a tough line to “unofficial” Islam in order to “protect society from ‘religious extremism,’ ‘Islamic terrorism,’ ‘Wahhabism,’ Hizb ut-Tahrirism,’ ‘Nursiism,’ and so on,” thus treating as one and the same negative thing all parts of the faithful who are not part of the “officially approved” structures.
Sometimes that leads to simple absurdities: the powers that be say they are combating Wahhabism, apparently ignorant of or at least oblivious to the fact that no Muslim in the Russian Federation has ever identified himself in that way. But increasingly often as terrorist event in Vladikavkaz and Moscow’s reaction to it showed, this division has more negative consequences.
Among the most serious, Buryanov continues, is that “in fact” people are being “subjected to persecution for [their] world view and not for illegal actions.” And this anti-extremist impulse has become the basis for actions by the powers that be against the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Russian Orthodox Autonomous Church, Protestant churches and Scientologists.
But even more serious than that have been the consequences for Russia of the ever tighter relations between the officially recognized portions of the four “traditional” faiths and both the institutions and personalities of the Russian state and even more the campaigns and other activities of the ruling United Russia party.
Among the examples of this coming together of the “traditional” religions and the powers that be are: United Russia candidates in Yekaterinburg conducting campaign work together with Muslim religious, calls to support United Russia in mosques, and statements by “official” Muslim leaders in support of the policies of United Russia and the state.
And as they develop ever closer ties with and seek to exploit the authority of the leaders of the officially recognized traditional religions, the powers that be secular and religious are increasingly inclined to engage in actions such as compiling lists of extremist literature or persecuting missionaries or leaders of all other religious groups.
“The deep cause of the tension between state power and believers,” as a result, Buryanov continues, “is rooted in the inadequate and/or criminal policy of ‘the knout and gingerbread,’ as a result of which many citizens feel themselves discriminated against or even entirely alienated in Russia.”
That is especially evident as a result of “the efforts [by the powers that be] to manipulate Islamic leaders,” political efforts that only increase “the split in the Muslim milieu and contribute to the intensification of the positions of its radical segment,” who hate not only the official Muslim establishment but its link with the secular powers that be.
Indeed, the religious affairs analyst argues, “the incompetent and criminal policy [of the secular powers that be and the willingness of “official” religious leaders to go along with it] leads to the violation of human rights, separatism, and threats to the security of the citizens and the state itself.”
And that means that today, “the situation in the North Caucasus which certain experts call a civil war is the direct consequence of the policy of the violation of freedom of conscience and the secular nature of the state” as mandated by the Russian Constitution, something those concerned about the state and about religious freedom need to oppose.
If Moscow is to make progress in the North Caucasus, it must observe “the constitutional principles of freedom of conscience and the secular nature of the state” and “government officials must stop playing with religious leaders. And at the same time, ‘anti-extremist’ laws, lists of literature and corresponding structures must be disbanded.”