Vienna, February 1 – Just as he has after every major terrorist act, Vladimir Putin has expressed his support for “traditional Islam,” an invocation that most analysts have seen as the Russian leader’s backing for the hyper-loyal leaders of Russia’s Muslim establishment and opposition to any versions of Islam, in particular fundamentalist ones, imported from abroad.
And to the extent that these analysts have discussed the term at all, they have seen it as a reflection of a desire by Moscow in Soviet times and since to make Islam inside Russia into faith with much the same hierarchy, loyalty and control over congregants that the Russian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate displays.
But a new analysis of the term itself and Putin’s own comments in support of particular Islamic traditions suggests that he may be interested in giving it new content, either as part of an immediate electoral tactic to reach out to Muslim voters or as a strategy to cope with the aspirations of the increasing share of the Russian population made up by the faithful.
In an article on the Portal-credo.ru religious affairs site, Mikhail Zherebyatyev pointedly asks “what does Putin’s call to support ‘traditional Islam’ after the explosions in Domodedovo mean?” And he provides one of the clearest definitions yet of what that phenomenon consists of and what Putin means by it (www.portal-credo.ru/site/?act=comment&id=1830).
As the religious affairs commentator points out, “both Muslims themselves and bureaucrats of various levels have a very cloudy idea about what are the characteristic signs of ‘traditional Islam’ and what other kind of Islam exists.” But their general attitudes about the two are more or less well-known.
At the most general, Zherebatyev suggests, “everything [in the minds of both groups] reduces to the opposition of ‘Wahhabis’ and ‘moderates’ and to the identification of ‘traditional as everything that is ‘our own’ and ‘non-traditional’ as everything which has been brought into [Russia] from abroad.”
But the term “traditional Islam” if one takes into account “the Russian historical background” is anything but homogenous. “At a minimum,” it involves three “independent phenomena:” popular Islam “filled with superstitions,” “enlightened Jadidism” which is sometimes called “Euroislam” and traditional society regulated by adat or shariat.
In reality, Zhyerebatyev says, none of these is found “in a pure form in contemporary Russia.” Each has an admixture of the others, and consequently, when someone talks about “traditional [Russian] Islam,” he is actually talking not about one thing but about a whole category of things.
Consequently, about the only thing most people mean when they speak of “traditional” Islam is a faith which follows the structure, loyalty and discipline of the Russian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, something that for Islam as a religious faith is a contradiction in terms, whatever Soviet or Russian officials believe.
Unlike Orthodox Christianity in its Muscovite variant, Islam is radically democratic, with elected mullahs and muftis. Moreover, because it does not have a clergy, it cannot have a clerical hierarchy by definition except by the total perversion of what Muslims are told to believe. And it is not Caesaropapist in its political conception.
That in turn means, Zherebatyev argues, that there is inevitably a growing divide between the often desiccated official Muslim structures in the Russian Federation, structures whose loyalty is the chief characteristic Moscow officials are referring to when they talk about “traditional Islam” and the wide range of religious phenomena affecting younger Muslims.
Indeed, he continues, “the politically protest nature of the choice of young people from the Caucasus and now already from the Middle Volga as well” who are following “’non-traditional Islam’” is “quite obvious.” And its radicalism is fed by the close ties between the politically accepted “traditional” Muslims and the Russian state.
“The distance between these two worlds is step by step increasing, and it is not clear what methods could be effective for promoting ‘traditional Islam’ among those who consciously are choosing ‘the non-traditional’ variant.” As a result, Moscow is rapidly losing control over and even influence on the latter.
That makes any effort by the Moscow authorities to try to give a new meaning to “traditional Islam” especially intriguing. As the Forum-MSK.org site pointed out on Saturday, Putin recently came out in support of increasing the size of kalym or bride price in the North Caucasus (forum-msk.org/material/economic/5375599.html).
As Mikhail Delyagin, the head of the Forum-MSK site editorial council said, “this is not a joke.” Putin put it on his official site and thus sent a signal to his subordinates that they should follow his lead in supporting an Islamic “tradition” that until recently Russian officials have almost unanimous denounced as “a survival of the past” that should be done away with.
Putin, however, is supporting it, something that Delyagin suggests raises the question as to whether he is prepared to accept even more such “traditions” as part of “traditional Islam.” But however that may be and however far the premier is prepared to go, it seems clear, Delyagin concludes, that Russia is being driven back “to the Middle Ages” by Putin’s approach.