Thursday, September 23, 2010

Window on Eurasia: Russia Now at Risk of ‘Religious War’ Across the Country, Experts Warn

Paul Goble

Staunton, September 23 – Increasingly sharp disputes in many cities of the Russian Federation over whether Muslims should be allowed to build a mosque, disputes that have already spilled over into violence in Syktyvkar and Moscow this week, threaten to unleash “a religious war” across the country, experts say.
The number of people now directly involved in these disputes is small and “real tensions” at the societal level” are not intense, but Aleksey Levinson, a sociologist at Moscow’s Levada Center, argues that the situation could easily get out of control because of the way the media is playing up these disagreements (
Speaking to “Svobodnaya pressa” journalist Anton Razmakhnin, Levinson suggests that “those who have decided now to play the anti-Islamic card are taking a great risk.” In response to such “aggressive” opposition to mosques, Russia “can get not just a war in the Caucasus but something much worse a full-scale jihad in every city where there is a conflict of this kind.”
In both the Moscow and Syktyvkar cases, Razmakhnin notes by way of introduction, the number of people involved on both sides of the disputes has been small. Moreover, these disputes have been going on for some time without attracting much attention. But coverage of massive Muslim participation in the Uraza-Bayram celebrations triggered something
When Razmakhnin asks Levinson why he was so pessimistic about the future, the latter replies that was “because “fundamentalist Islam and precisely this trend is becoming more active … after the protests is a very strong organizing and cementing phenomenon,” one that has “all the signs of a young, active and militant religion” and that no one knows how to stop.
Levinson dismisses the idea that the increasing activism of the Russian Orthodox Church could block this. In his view, the sociologist said, “the mobilizing potential of Christianity [in general and not just the Russian Orthodox Church] now is much weaker than that of Islam,” something the followers of all confessions need to understand.
“To launch a new crusade now,” he argues, “would be insanity – under current circumstances of Christian civilization, such a response would be equal to a battle between crowds of peasants and old women with an organized army. No, contemporary Christianity should not play at such a war.”
Instead, Levinson says, the best outcome is likely to be achieved by “the tactic of the soft assimilation of Islam, its integration into a secular and ecumenical civilization. Such a course of events would allow [Russia and the world] to avoid the escalation of force and new religious wars. To stand above religion and to lift the Muslim up to this level is our chance.”
“Unfortunately,” Levinson continues, the world at present is skittering “toward confrontation. And Russia is no exception. I see that a clash is very probable but we will hardly win it. But with the help of ecumenism, we could achieve a good peace, but this variant of development of events still is not very probable.”
Razmakhnin then asked another expert for her views on the clashes over the construction of mosques. Valeriya Porokhova, a specialist on Islam who has translated the Koran into Russia, says that it is important to draw a distinction between the lumpen elements that are taking part in the clashes and the leadership of the Moscow Patriarchate.
The Church’s upper echelons, she says, “are more friendly to Islam for these are two traditional religions which have common interests and face common challenges.” But “at the lower level, especially among lay Orthodox activists, hostility to Islam is strong: why are there so many of them? Why are they so well-organized?” And that “threatens” peace in Russia.
She suggests that one needs to look beyond the emotions of the moment because they reflect not just religious differences but the ways in which the powers that be conduct their relations with people of faith. Instead of holding public hearings and discussions, Porokhova says, officials do everything in secret, something that sparks anger in and of itself.
“In other words,” she suggests, “the problem which really threatens peace in Russia is not in the mosques as such but in the authoritarian way in which cities take decisions, including on the most sensitive issues.” Whatever decision is reached in this way will be “insufficiently legitimate” to those on the losing side who were not able to participate in reaching it.
That reality can be seen, the specialist says, if one compares the tensions over mosques in Russia with those in European countries. There, “if a case involves a decision about prohibiting or permitting the construction of a mosque in a particular region, this decision will be taken by democratically elected authorities, and the level of trust in this decision will be greater.”
Unfortunately, Porokhova concludes, this, “the main question,” is one that in Russia, “none of the key players has raised. Instead of democratization, practically all somewhat powerful forces are pushing Russia to a new civil but now already religious war,” when the application of democracy could prevent that.

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