Friday, September 24, 2010

Window on Eurasia: Russia Caught between ‘Asiatic’ and ‘European’ Models of Relations between a Secular State and a Muslim Minority, Analyst Says

Paul Goble

Staunton, September 24 – Most Russian commentators compare how Russia deals with its Muslim community to the ways in which European countries treat theirs, but a leading Muslim editor in Moscow says that a far more suggestive comparison at least for the present is between the situation in Russia and that in Asian countries with significant Muslim minorities.
In an essay posted on, Abdulla Rinat Mukhametov, that site’s deputy chief editor, notes that many Russian specialists on Muslims, including Ruslan Kurbanov, have focused almost exclusively on the European experience when discussing the status of Muslims in the Russian Federation (
But in his view, Mukhametov writes, “one should compare Russia as far as its relations with its domestic Muslim community is concerned not with Europe but with Asia or more precisely with those Asian countries in which a significant Muslim minority lives” and in that way avoid the mistake of assuming that Russia’s situation is “in principle unique.”
“The experience of European and more generally Western Muslim minorities, despite its brief history, today has turned out to be much more studied that the analogous processes in Asia,” the editor says, a reflection of the fact that their appearance “at the center of the world concerns experts far more than the rest.”
“But for us living in Russia,” Mukhametov continues, “it is extremely important to know how Islam has existed and exists in such countries as China, India, Thailand, the Philippines, Sri Lanka and even Burma and Vietnam to a certain degree” and even “with certain qualifications,” in the Balkans, Ukraine, Poland, Belarus and Lithuania.”
That is because historically Russia “has much in common with these countries as far as its dealings with Islam. First of all, as in them, “Islam is a traditional, historically rooted religion.” In Russia as in the others, Muslims are “indigenous residents on the land where they live and not migrants or their descendents as in Europe.”
Second, again in these countries and in Russia, “the Muslim minority has problems with the government of one or another level of intensity.” Third, in all of them and in Russia, “Islam and Muslims have played in the history of their countries a much more important and positive role than that which the governments are prepared to acknowledge.”
Fourth, “in all these countries,” Muslims are split between the loyal and the integrated, on the one hand, and those in open and often armed conflict with the central government, on the other. In Russia, Mukhametov points out, this divide runs between “the community of Muslims of the Volga-Urals region” and the Muslims of “the destabilized North Caucasus.”
Moreover, he notes, in all these countries as in Russia itself, these problems are not always strictly religious. They also reflect “the political-territorial separatism of some Muslims and disagreement with this position by another part of the faithful,” a divide with roots extending far back into history and not always based in the first instance on Islam.
And finally, in all these countries as again as in Russia, “Muslims are a kind of ‘younger brothers,’ who de facto do not have equal status with the majority,” even if de jure they do. That lower status typically reflects the reality that “at one time, their ancestors suffered an historical defeat and have remained in a subordinate position.”
Viewed from this “Asian” perspective, he continues, “the Russian Federation is crudely speaking the best government of an ‘Asiatic’ type of interrelationships with [its] Muslim minorities.” But unfortunately, the situation is changing, and Russia may soon acquire “the most problematic” aspects of the ‘European’ relationship while losing the best of the ‘Asiatic.’
Because of the enormous flows of immigration from Central Asia and other “former colonies of the Russian Empire … Islam in the Russian Federation increasingly recalls the ‘European’ type where the overwhelming majority of followers of Islam are immigrants or their descendents of the second or in the best case third generation.”
And as a result, Mukhametov says, “the centuries-old ‘Asian’ identity of Islam in Russia is rapidly changing before our eyes,” a shift that represents “the main challenge, above all for the indigenous Muslims” of Russia but also for Russian society and the Russian powers that be who must respond.
Until the end of the Soviet period, most Russians had good reason to associate Muslims with “the Tatar neighbor” who may have lived next door for decades. But after that time, with the violence in the North Caucasus, that image of the Muslim of Russia was replaced for many by that of “the Caucasus militant” or of “the illiterate and scruffy gastarbeiter.”
The influx of Muslims from Central Asia and the Caucasus means, he continues, that “after 20 to 30 years, the indigenous Muslim population of Russia, the communities of the Volga-Urals and North Caucasus regions will become minorities in relation to the Central Asian majority—a long-term trend which it is impossible to change whether one likes it or not.”
It is already the case in some Russian cities where there are more Uzbeks, Tajiks and Kyrgyz than indigenous Russian Muslims in the parishes of the mosques, and anger about that both among ethnic Russians and indigenous Muslims is helping to transform the Muslim community of Russia into something “it never was before.”
Mukhametov says that he believes that “in the 21st century, the Russian Federation will be not that country of ‘the Asian-Muslim’ type as it was,” but rather “will become ‘Europeans,’” in that “the problem of Islam and migration [will be viewed as] one and the same thing. With one distinction, [Russia’s] situation will be an order of magnitude worse.”
The reason for that, he suggests, is that “Russia is not prepared for such a turn of events and what is still worse, it does not want to get prepared.” Instead, people continue to act “as if nothing is happening or as if someone else is responsible for our problems and that someone consequently must resolve them.” Unfortunately, there is no reason to expect anyone will.

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