Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Window on Eurasia: ‘Five or Six Bureaucrats’ Make Moscow’s Nationality and Religious Policies, Muslim Scholar Says

Paul Goble

Vienna, January 12 – Moscow’s policies on nationality and religion are controlled by a group of “five or six bureaucrats” in the Presidential Administration and council of ministers staff, an arrangement that must be changed if the country is to overcome its increasingly serious ethnic and religious problems, according to a leading Muslim scholar.
While some of those involved are entirely competent, Abdul-Vakhed Niyazov, the president of the Islamic Cultural Center, told, both their small number and the closed nature of decision making in these areas are major sources of the country’s difficulties (
On the one hand, the current arrangement allows members of “the anti-Muslim lobby” to influence outcomes without being forced to defend themselves in the course of the free flow of debate. And on the other, he says, it means that Moscow’s decisions are both less well-formulated than they might be and inevitably less legitimate in the eyes of the population.
Recent events and commentaries show, Niyazov says clarly show that in Russia today, “there is a very strong anti-Islamic lobby. Islamophobes are represented in the power structures, in the law enforcement system, in the mass media, and unfortunately in the system of the fraternal for us Russian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate.”
“And what is still more surprising,” he continues, is that there not a few supporters [of this lobby] in the Muslim structures as well.”
The lobby consists of two groups “the ultra-liberals” and “the chauvinists and ultra-nationalists,” who agree on little else except “their dislike and even hatred of our religion,” a reflection of their limited knowledge about Islam and either “nearsightedness or conscious lack of a desire to see Russia strong, united and whole.”
One of the most publically prominent Islamophobes, the Muslim educator continues, is Roman Silantyev, but he is “not an independent figure” but instead serves as the mouthpiece of “the extreme Islamophobic wing of the Russian political and information elite.” In sum, he is “the tip of the iceberg” consisting of those among the powers that be who are opposed to Islam.
A segment of this group has found its way into “key information resources such as Interfax-Religiya,, “and certain others.” And these people enjoy “a definite protection from the site of certain bureaucrats in the Presidential Administration and among the representatives of the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church.”
Asked to name names, Niyazov demurs, preferring instead to talk about those within the upper reaches of the Russian power elite whom he considers to be sympathetic and supportive of Islam. Among those he singles out is Vladislav Surkov in the Presidential Administration who Niyazov says plays a central role in ethnic and religious policy making.
“Despite the lack of a systemic and strategically constructed nationality policy in [Russia], Niyazov says, the relative inter-ethnic and inter-religious peace that exists is largely due to “the social-political construction developed [over the last decade] with the immediate participation of Surkov.”
“I personally know Vladislav Yuryevich very well,” Niyazov continues, “and know him as a tolerant individual,” the product of “a multi-naitonal and multi-religious family” and thus someone who “understands all the importance” of approaching the sphere of inter-ethnic and inter-religious relations with extreme care.
Some of those who work around Surkov have shown less sympathy and understanding, Niyazov suggests, and points to the creation of the new Muslim inter-religioual organization, RAIS, as an example of their work. And when asked why Surkov met with the leaders of that group, Niyazov suggested that the Presidential aide wanted to assess the situation personally.
In the course of the extensive interview, Niyazov comments on many things ranging from the state of Islamic practice in the North Caucasus and the Middle Volga – he sees positive trends in both – to the recent attacks on Ravil Gainutdin, the head of the Union of Muftis of Russia (SMR), who the Muslim educator says has been misunderstood.
But he concludes his comments by pointing to three major problems for Muslims in Russia today. First, there are the conflicts arising from efforts to build new mosques in major Russian cities. Second, the banning of Muslim books by local courts who often act without expertise is troubling.
And third, there is the key problem of how policies in this sector are made. According to Niyazov, there needs to be “a systemic elaboration of [policies about] inter-ethnic and inter-confessional relations in [Russia],” something that will involve a large number of people and not just “five or six bureaucrats” in the top ranks of the Kremlin and the government.

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