Saturday, February 19, 2011

Window on Eurasia: Russians Must Acknowledge that Muslims Made Russia Possible, Gainutdin Says

Paul Goble

Staunton, February 19 – The problems that exist between Orthodox Christians and Muslims in Russia will only be overcome when the former acknowledge that the latter have the right to call themselves “representatives of the Russian state and indigenous residents and to demand equal treatment,” the head of the Union of Muftis of Russia (SMR) says.

In an interview published in “Kommersant” today, Ravil Gainutdin points out that “Muslim peoples made possible the creation of the Russian state, that without Muslims there wouldn’t have been a Rus or a Russia and that in Russia [today] live more than 20 million Muslims” (

On paper, he adds, the Muslims of Russia have “never had such rights as [they] have today,” but there are problems because “many Orthodox consider that theirs is the majority and that Russia is an Orthodox country.” To which, he says, Muslims respond “No, Russia is both Orthodox and Islamic” and note that “if we Muslims had not helped organize the Russian [principalities], there wouldn’t have been a Russian state.”

But most of his interview is devoted to the situation within the Russian umma and especially to the organizational structure of the leading Muslim institutions there. After the end of the Soviet Union, he notes, the unified system that had existed collapses in a way that can only be described as “chaotic and not systematic.”

“In every republic and region of the Russian Federation,” Gainutdin continues, there began to be established local spiritual administrations.” As a result, at present, there are “more than 70” MSDs, often competing with one another in particular regions and working at cross purposes more generally.

Over the last 20 years, three “major centralized” MSD-type structures have assumed a prominent role, subordinating most but not all of the 70 others. These are Gainutdin’s own SMR, the Central MSD based in Ufa and led by Talgat Tajuddin, and the Coordinating Center of Muslims of the North Caucasus, with a headquarters in Cherkessk and led by Ismail Berdiyev.

A few months ago, Gainutdin says, “the powers” attempted to create a fourth structure alongside these, the Russian Association of Islamic Agreement (RAIS), a body that was intended not to help Muslims unite but rather to contribute to further divisions among “the already existing regional muftiates.”

“Unfortunately,” the mufti said, “the fate of the Muslim umma for a long time has not depended on the Muslims themselves” both organizationally and financially. “First in the Russian empire and then in the Soviet Union for the administration of the affairs of Muslims was created and preserved a system” which was intended to divide rather than unite the umma.

“Russia is the only country in the world among those countries of the traditional distribution of Islam where there is not a single leadership for Muslims,” a lack of unity that the followers of Islam suffer from and that they would like to overcome if and when that becomes possible.

There have been various attempts at unification among the three main organizations, Gainutdin points out, and none of these three have backed away from talking about unity, even though that is difficult and even though the authorities, as they have done with the creation of the RAIS group, have thrown up roadblocks to the unity even they say they want.

Unfortunately, the Muslim groups cannot act independently because financing remains a problem, the SMR head said. First, these institutions lack the ability to finance themselves. Second, the waqfs have not yet been restored in sufficient number to ensure fiscal stability. Third, the government, being secular, cannot finance them directly.

And fourth, the funds that these groups had received from foreign Muslims in earlier times are now being funneled through a government-controlled Foundation for the Support of Islamic Science, Culture and Education, which gives the powers that be rather than the Muslims control over where such monies go.

Gainutdin adds that relations with the top leaders of the country, President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin are quite good. They “very clearly know the mechanisms and ways of working with the MSDs. And Muslims of Russia always feel support from the side of the political leadership of the country.”

But the mufti says, “one must acknowledge that there are cases when this general line is not carried out locally.” Instead, there “the local leadership, at times functionaries of mid-rank, considers it possible to dictate to the leaders of Muslim organizations their actions with regard to internal issues of the umma.”

Among other things, Gainutdin was asked about Wahhabism. He acknowledges that that trend within Islam “exists” internationally and in Russia, adding that “Wahhabism in the form of terrorism is a harmful ideology which is spreading in the North Caucasus.” But it remains “only an ideology” until it “promotes force and the shedding of blood.”

And in a final comment, Gainutdin points out that “the majority of Russians do not have a sufficient understanding about what kind of a religion Islam is and are invariably surprised when they hear that Islam recognizes Jesus Christ and in general together with Christianity and Judaism is an Abrahamic religion and that the three have common roots.”

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