Vienna, January 5 – Roman Silantyev, a specialist on Islam who has offended many of Russia’s Muslim leaders but who enjoys continuing support from the Moscow Patriarchate, says that the creation of a new Muslim Spiritual Directorate (MSD) in the Russian capital subordinate to Mufti Talgat Tajuddin, the head of the Central MSD in Ufa, strengthens “traditional” Islam.
Silantyev’s comment on the Russkaya liniya site (rusk.ru/newsdata.php?idar=45879) together with an otherwise inexplicable comment Tajuddin made to Interfax about building more mosques last year (www.interfax-religion.ru/islam/?act=news&div=38964) may provide an insight into how Moscow now defines “traditional Islam,” the kind officials say they favor.
In his interview, Silantyev suggested that Tajuddin’s latest moves in Moscow not only “destroy finally and completely” what he described as “the complete monopoly of the radicals” of Ravil Gainutdin’s Union of Muftis of Russia (SMR) and create a situation in which “the number of traditional Muslims in Moscow will increase.”
And not only did Silantyev stress that Tajuddin’s man in Moscow, Mufti Albir Krganov, has built “more than 40 mosques” in Chuvashia where he had been working up to now, but Tajuddin himself told the media that “in this year,” his Central MSD had “opened” more than 30 mosques across Russia.
Opening new mosques especially in the Russian capital is an extremely sensitive topic. Many Moscow residents oppose any new mosque – and at least some of them, it must be said, oppose the construction of new churches as well -- and most officials have been willing to follow their lead.
That makes the timing of Tajuddin’s remark intriguing because such a statement appears likely to spark more opposition to opening mosques in the capital and thus make Krganov’s and Tajuddin’s task more difficult, even though Prime Minister Vladimir Putin recently promised to ensure that Moscow’s Muslims would get another mosque.
But considered from another perspective, Tajuddin’s boast together with Silantyev’s celebration of what the Ufa mufti’s moves in Moscow mean for “traditional Islam” make perfect sense, especially if one recalls Soviet-era discussions about Islam in the USSR and especially the divisions officials saw or imposed on the followers of that faith.
In the decades leading up to the collapse of the USSR, Soviet writers regularly divided Muslims into what they called “the mosque trend” and “the non-mosque trend.” The former consisted of the small number of officially sanctioned mullahs and MSDs who at Soviet insistence reduced Islam to a set of rituals conducted within the mosque.
The “non-mosque trend,” in contrast, included all Muslim practices from Sufism to fundamentalism that were opposed and persecuted by the state and that of necessity generally took place outside the mosque, thus earning this trend the label “underground” Islam in Western treatments of Soviet Muslims at that time.
That divide is at the source of the distinction post-Soviet Russian officials and commentators make between “traditional” Islam which both demonstrates loyalty to the state and cooperates with other “traditional” religions, the Russian Orthodox Church, the Jewish community, and the Buddhists.
Up to now, both officials and commentators like Silantyev have laid stress on loyalty and cooperation as the hallmarks of “traditional” Islam, but now, there appears to be a shift, one that focuses again on Islam as a set of rituals within the mosque as against those who operate outside the mosque and hence outside of official control.
Tajuddin, the last of the senior Soviet muftis, appears to be quite ready to accept that division and to place himself at the head of “the mosque trend” in Russian Islam, something that would give him and his Central MSD bureaucratic control and official approval even though it would drain much of the religious content of Islam away.
It seems clear that precisely such a bargain is what officials from Putin on down, experts like Silantyev, and not unimportantly the Russian Orthodox Church would like to see. But there are at least three reasons why this deal if that is what it is almost certainly won’t work in the way those who appear to be behind it hope.
First, what might be called “the non-mosque trend” in Russian Islam is far larger and more dynamic than its predecessors, and any attempt to control or suppress it will produce an explosion, something that even the application of massive force would be unlikely to be able to control.
Second, if Moscow and Tajuddin really hope to view traditional Islam as in effect “the mosque trend,” such an effort will call into question the entire MSD system, a governmental or quasi-governmental structure that has no basis in Islam. Indeed, Tajuddin’s “counter-attack” could presage its demise or at least make it increasingly irrelevant.
And third, such a deal creates problems not only for Muslims but also for Russian politicians who enter into such arrangements. Not only does it raise expectations that the state will be more forthcoming, but it also will generate anger among those who oppose helping Muslims or even helping religion in general.