Staunton, November 27 – Some Muslims in the Russian capital have decided to organize their own prayer rooms given that Moscow officials are responding to ethnic Russian objections to mosques by banning their construction, a step that -- if the Muslims carry through with it -- will have negative consequences for both officials and the Muslim community.
On the one hand, officials will lose one of their best means of regulating religious life among Muslims by driving the faithful underground. And on the other, and because of that, Muslims are likely to be subject to even more persecution than now by the siloviki who will view such underground activity as inherently threatening.
And as a result, tensions between the ethnic Russian and Orthodox communities, on the one hand, and the increasingly large Muslim community, on the other, seem to be moving to the point of explosion, a danger that some on both sides appear to recognize and that at least a few hope to exploit for their own purposes.
Nafigulla Ashirov, the outspoken head of the Muslim Spiritual Directorate (MSD) of the Asiatic Part of Russia and co-chairman of the Council of Muftis of Russia (SMR), said this week that no mosques are going to be built in the Russian capital anytime soon because of the decision of officials to defer to public attitudes (www.rusnovosti.ru/programms/prog/70601/120800/).
“For the present,” he said, “the question of the construction of mosques is closed because it has been declared that any construction of a mosque must be agreed to by local residents. Opposition to mosques today will be in any place in Moscow” and will be just as effective as it has been in Tekstilshchiki.
But in words that suggest he wants to make sure that these victories are Pyrrhic and that the Islamic community there will be even more vibrant, Ashirov called on Muslims to organize their own independent religious groups, set up prayer houses wherever possible, and thus achieve independently what the current powers that be think they are preventing.
Not all Muslim leaders agreed with Ashirov. Damir Gizatullin, the deputy head of the MSD of the European Party of Russia, said that the SMR had not approved Ashirov’s remarks and that what his proposal is “not a way out of the situation.” Instead, Muslims must work with the city authorities (www.kommersant.ru/doc.aspx?DocsID=1545851&NodesID=7).
Meanwhile, Roman Lunkin, the director of the Moscow Institute of Religion and Law, suggested that Ashirov’s proposal was “the natural result of the conflict in Takstilshchiki, the inaction of the Moscow powers that be, and the lack of willingness of bureaucrats to engage in dialogue with a broad circle of religious communities in th capital.”
“It is obvious,” he told “Kommerant,” that if the powers that be allow the Russian Orthodox to build 200 new churches but do not permit the Muslims to build even one additional mosque, the religious needs of the Islamic community “will not diappear.” Instead, Muslims “will go into basements and garages.”
Even though Ashirov’s proposal is in no way illegal, Lunkin continued, “the setting up of prayer rooms will [inevitably] attract the attention of law enforcement organs, the FSB, and militia units [who will view such places as seedbeds of extremism] and will generate many times more anger among the surrounding population.”
Lunkin is not the only expert who has entered this dispute. Leokadia Drobizheva, the director of the Center of Inter-Ethnic Research of the Academy of Sciences Institute of Sociology, provided an unusual justification for building more mosques rather than blocking their construction,
In an interview with “Vremya novostey,” the internationally recognized expert said that “when there are many [mosques], fewer people visit them,” a comment that refers at a minimum to the large crowds that assemble in and around the few mosques in the Russian capital on Islamic holidays (www.vremya.ru/2010/216/51/265431.html).
Also this week, two authorities on Russia’s Muslims spoke about the specific problems of the Muslim community in Moscow. Akhmet Yarlykapov, a senior scholar at the Academy’s Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology, argued that Russians need to distinguish between Muslim believer and members of ethnic groups who practice Islam.
According to him, only 50 percent of members of Muslim nationalities from the Middle Volga and 70 percent of those from the North Caucasus are in fact Muslim believers; the rest simply carry out festivals and practices because these are ethno-national traditions of the places from which they come (www.blagovest-info.ru/index.php?ss=2&s=3&id=37980).
Consequently, “when people say that ‘the Muslims have suddenly become a problem in Moscow,’ who precisely do they have in mind?” According to Yalukpapov, the Muslims are divided among the main Sunni and Shiite schools as well as ethnically and historically but also include various “exotic” trends, especially among the young.
Despite these qualifications, Yarlykapov said that “it is possible to speak about two million followers of Islam in Moscow.” But the other participant in the seminar disagreed. Olga Vendina, a specialist on migration at the Academy’s Institute of Geography, said that Muslims in Moscow numbered only 700,000 to a million depending on the time of year.
But even those smaller figures, she argued, are large enough that the city authorities must treat this community as a major component of Moscow’s population and one that should have sufficient religious facilities to meet its needs rather than being forced to satisfy them in an unofficial and underground way.
But even more important, she argued, is the following reality: Muslims, rather than Russians are “the moving force” pushing Russia in the direction of a civil society, one in which all people can enjoy the rights guaranteed to them by the Constitution. Consequently, she said, “I consider that the future of Russia belongs to the Muslims.”
“Ethnic Russians are inclined very pessimistically and paternalistically. But Muslims, even if they toil in difficult circumstances, are inclined more optimistically. They see their future in our country.” Besides, she added, there is the demographic factor: Russians are an aging and declining population while the Muslim one is far younger and growing.
Another perspective was offered yesterday by Roman Silantyev, a specialist on Islam with close ties to the Russian Orthodox Church. He suggested that the conflicts over the construction of new mosques in Moscow might require the introduction of NATO forces to keep things from exploding (www.interfax-religion.ru/islam/?act=news&div=38424).
Given Silantyev’s reputation of hostility to Muslims, his words probably should not be taken at face value but rather as a means to call attention to his fears and perhaps those of some in the Moscow Patriarchate as well that by allowing Russian activists to block a mosque, Moscow officials have made the situation worse for Russia both at home and abroad.
As he put it, if the Muslims want a mosque, it is better to give them one than to allow the impression to be created that Russia is currently dominated by xenophobic extremists and thus to invite the kind of international scrutiny at European Court in Strasbourg and in the United Nations Security Council.