Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Window on Eurasia: Recent Converts, Returnees to Islam in Russia Joining Radical Sects, Experts Say

Paul Goble

Vienna, February 2 – Because of the continuing impact of Soviet anti-religious policies, many of those converting to Islam or returning to the faith of their fathers are joining radical sects which use religion as a cover for political goals or terrorism rather than becoming followers of “traditional Islam,” according to an advisor to the Union of Muftis of Russia (SMR).
In a comment broadcast on the Russian News Service, Vyacheslav Polosin says that most of those converting to Islam or returning to it lack “elementary knowledge about their religion,” as a result of “70 years of state atheism) and thus have their heads turned by those who deal in superficial slogans (
These people are thus ready to be “lead by the hand into dark basements” where their new instructors tell them that “the most radical things” are the essence of Islam, the kind of assertion that their own ignorance prevents them from being in a position to reject or at least challenge.
What Orthodox Christians call “the churchification” of believers, the process of bringing believers into a particular parish, is something for which “unfortunately,” Polosin says, there is no analogy in Islam in the Russian Federation. Such arrangements did exist before 1917, but they were destroyed by the Soviets and “have not been restored.”
As a result, the SMR advisor says, “part of the young people [who turn to Islam in Russia] fall under the influence not of normal Muslim teachers and not of traditional Islam but rather of sects or bands which are prepared to make use of religion and to carry out terrorist tasks.”
Appearing on the same broadcast was Roman Silantyev, a prominent Russian specialist on Islam with close ties to the Moscow Patriarchate who has often offended Muslim leaders by his criticism of them and their activities. He said that he completely agreed with Polosin on this point.
“People who accept Islam for ideological reasons in the overwhelming majority of cases go into sectors which in most cases are terrorist or extremist,” Silantyev said. He said that his data show that there are no more than 6,000 ethnic Russian Muslims in the Russian Federation, and that 70 percent of these were women who had married Muslim men.
The 1800 other ethnic Russian converts have turned to Islam for ideological reasons, and many of them have taken part in terrorist and criminal actions. That pattern is not the case for ethnic Muslims who return to Islam, he said, noting that “the Tatars who number four million have given the terrorists and extremist much less than have ethnic Russian Muslims.”
“If we ask ethnic Russian Muslims about the organizations of which they are a part and the direction these organizations are directed,” Silantyev said, “then we find that in practice there are almost no bearers of traditional Islam among them: These are some kind of extremist, terrorist sects, sects of Shiite origin,” and others like the Ahmadi and Bahais.
A third participant in the broadcast, Vasily Derevyankin, the president of the Muslim religious organization ‘The Direct Path,” noted that “the majority of new ethnic Russian Muslims come to Islam not from Christianity – “such people one can count on the fingers of one hand” – but rather from atheism, paganism, secular humanism, or “their own view of monotheism.”
Without getting into the question as to whether Silantyev’s figures are accurate – many Muslims and non-Muslim scholars would say they are far too low – this discussion is notable for three reasons. First, it suggests that Moscow does not believe there are that many ethnic Russian Muslims but very much fears even the few that exist.
Second, it highlights the ways in which Soviet atheism has had the effect of opening the way to radicalism among Muslims not only by destroying the basic infrastructure of the mosque but also by making it impossible for three or more generations of people to learn even the basics of the faith.
And third, Polosin’s implicit suggestion that Muslims would benefit from the kind of “churchification” that the Russian Orthodox have could mean that Moscow may seek to promote such a process among Muslims, an effort likely to be counterproductive not only by further delegitimating the official hierarchy but by leading more Muslims to escape its net altogether.

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