Monday, January 10, 2011

Window on Eurasia: Middle Aged Faithful Increasingly Dominate Russia’s Islamic Communities

Paul Goble

Staunton, January 10 – In Soviet times, elderly believers formed the public face of Islam. Then in the 1990s, they were overshadowed in many places and many minds by the influx of the very young. But today, 20 years after the end of the USSR, a leading Muslim commentator says, middle aged believers are increasingly predominant within the Islamic community of Russia.
That change reflects the maturation of the Muslim community there as a whole, Abdulla Rinat Mukhametov, the deputy chief editor of, the largest Muslim portal in the Russian Federation, both reflects the maturation of the umma in Russia and entails serious consequences for its future development (
Russia’s Muslim community, Mukhametov says, “is developing whether anyone wants to think about this or not,” but its obvious “quantitative” growth will not become “qualitative” until there is greater understanding of what is taking place and new and effective institutions are put in place.
“The process of the Islamic awakening in Russia is slowly but truly gathering force. It is already impossible to stop it.” Indeed, the portal editor says, “it appears that the point of non-return has already been passed” and a kind of “social chain reaction” is taking place and making the Islamic “way of life” a “concrete social model, at times positive and attractive.”
“In the sea of chaos, the monetarization of human relations, the commercialization of everyone and everything, the atomization of society, economic difficulties, and the pressure of mass culture, an ever larger number of people find for themselves in this [Islamic] way of life a way out and salvation.”
Indeed, he says, “people are turning to Islam when they see that its observance is not just the realm of marginals … but a way of life which guarantees stability, spiritual and physical comfort, and the chance to educate one’s children to respect their parents and moral and ethnic norms.”
According to Mukhametov, this represents a major shift from the first post-Soviet decade when religions of all kinds attracted people who were “particularly inclined to the mystical and ascetic model of religiosity.” Now, people are turning to Islam because it is “a way of life rather than a means of departing from life.”
This is, “so to speak, practical religiosity,” and into mosques are coming ever more often people of middle age” with responsible jobs, high pay and status and family responsibilities, a shift in the composition of the umma that the editor suggests seems to him to be “very important.”
Unlike young people who may be drawn to the mosque because of youthful enthusiasms and the elderly who may see it as a way station for the withdrawal from life, such middle-aged people with their responsibilities, Mukhametov says, “introduce a health conservatism and pragmatism into the umma,” thus helping it to overcome reaction and revolution.
And as more such people become active in the faith, he continues, others like them follow, allowing for what he calls “the velvet Islamization” of traditionally Muslim societies as well as others. That is what has taken place in the Middle Volga already, and it is occurring elsewhere as well.
In addition to discussing this generational change, Mukhametov also talks about the role of the Internet in changing the Russian umma, the impact of immigration from Central Asia on Russia’s faithful, and the challenges ahead for the quasi-state Muslim Spiritual Directorates (MSDs) and the state itself.
Because of the Internet, he says, Russia’s Muslims are far less insular than they were. Instead, those who go online regularly “feel themselves part of the great organism of the global umma.” That means they do not practice “traditional Soviet Islam” and are not like those who did so in the past.
Migration from Central Asia and the Caucasus is changing Russia, and no one will be able to stop that process, “even if there were to be constructed a wall on the border with Kazakhstan like the one the US is building along its border with Mexico.” And the new arrivals are changing the Islamic community inside Russia.
According to various projections,” he says, “the number of Muslims will form from a quarter to a third of the population of the country in the coming two or three decades,” and this part of the population will be healthier because it will drink less and have more children than the current Russian residents.
“The experience in the West has shown that Muslim immigrants do not assimilate in any final way. In the extreme case, in two or three generations there is an outburst of processes of return to their earlier identity and its awakening, although less ethnic than religious” in most cases. “There is no reason to suppose that the situation will be different with us.”
Finally, Mukhametov focuses on the problems of Muslim administrations and the state. The current MSDs have not been able to deal with the problems of the last two decades, and “there are not many reasons to think that they will cope with the still more serious challenges of the Islamic awakening and migration.”
If the MSDs don’t modernize, they will be threatened with marginalization, something that is already happening to the detriment of the umma which needs leadership and the Russian state which needs to “create mechanisms of including the social energy” of the Muslims into a constructive path for the society as a whole.

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