Sunday, November 7, 2010

Window on Eurasia: Religion More Important than Nationality for Moscow’s Muslims, Imam Says

Paul Goble

Staunton, November 7 – The imam of Moscow’s Memorial Mosque says that those attending his religious center are increasingly diverse in ethnic terms but that particularly in the case of indigenous Muslims, religious identity is far more important than nationality, something that largely eliminates any ethnic tensions among them.
That is a summation of the many observations Shamil Alyautdinov made during an extended and highly unusual interview he gave to S.V. Ryzhkova, an expert at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Center of Ethnic Sociology (
According to the imam, “for the indigenous Muslim population of Russia, the religious factor is much more a rallying identity than it was,” while nationality in contrast “over the last 15 years has experienced a declining influence.” Those new arrivals identify with nationality and Islam “at approximately the same level.”
At the present time, Alyautdinov said, “parishioners at the Memorial Mosque on Poklonnaya Hill in Moscow [include] Russians, Tatars, Ukrainians, Chechens, Ingush, Koreans, Avars, Dargins, Azerbaijanis, Armenians, Jews, Tajiks, Uzbeks, Kyrgyz, Kazakhs and others” as well.
During his 13 years at the mosque, however, the imam said that he “never divided people into the categories of Russian and non-Russian. For me,” he continued, “there are Muscovites and guests of the capital, citizens of Russia and those who have come from abroad.” And he has maintained that approach despite the influx of people from the Caucasus and Central Asia.
The imam said that “despite this ethnic diversity, the probability of tense relations in the Muslim milieu of Moscow is extremely low, in contrast to the situation of the city more generall where under the influence of the mass media, the probability of conflicts on an inter-ethnic basis is somewhat higher.”
But because Muslims are also members of different ethnic groups, he continued, there is the possibility that there could be ethnic clashes among them, something that can be avoided if the Muslims from abroad are integrated into the umma of Russian believers rather than treated, as the Russian media often do as “not ours.”
One of the reasons why the Moscow umma can be so multi-ethnic, the imam said, is that “95 percent of the services in the capital’s mosques are [now] conducted in Russia, the language which the majority speak and understand.” That is a major change from Soviet times when services were held “only in Tatar.”
Given the positive integrative role that such mosques can play, Alyautdinov said, it is important that more be build, “whither people can come and listen to sermons in Russian.” In that way, the arrivals, both Russian Federation citizens from the North Caucasus and Muslims from Central Asia and the South Caucasus, will feel more at home.
Asked about the presence of Shiite Azerbaijanis in Moscow, the imam responded that “not all Azerbaijanis follow the Shiite tradition.” Moreover, he said, “the difference between Sunnis and Shiites is not large. In [his] mosque, there are Shiite Muslims” and “they feel themselves quite comfortable and fulfill the rituals together with us.”
Unfortunately, Alyautdinov said, the positive message of the mosque is often overwhelmed by the anti-Muslim and anti-non-Russian approach of the Moscow media, which appear to believe that if these groups are criticized enough, “they will russify themselves and accept Christianity, a utopian view and an extremely short-sighted policy.”
At the same time, the imam acknowledged that some of the arrivals who come from abroad do keep to themselves “in order in the first instance to preserve their culture, language, and customs.” But it is important to remember that most of them “do not intend to remain in Moscow for long.”
“There is not particular necessity to enlighten non-Muslims about Islam,” he said. But “there is a great need at the state level to declare more often that Russia is not an Orthodox but a multi-confessional state and that Russia is not for the ethnic Russians but for all the peoples who have been living hundreds and thousands of years in its current borders.”

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