Sunday, January 13, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Russia’s ‘Cyber-Muslims’ Challenge Moscow, Islamic Leaders

Paul Goble

Baku, January 13 – Muslims who turn to the Internet as part of their religious thought and practice – a group some call “Cyber-Muslims” – are playing an increasingly significant role in the life of the Russian Federation’s Islamic community, according to a leading Tatar specialist on the web.
In an online interview posted on the “Islam in the Russian Federation” portal last week, Aynur Sibgatullin, a computer specialist who has helped to develop many sites and is the author of the forthcoming book, Tatarskiy Internet, describes how and why this has happened (
While Muslim websites on the Runet still have a long way to go to come up to current Internet standards, the Tatar expert says, they nonetheless are attracting an increasing number of Russia’s Muslims who have made them into an essential part of their own religious life and hence of the life of the community as a whole.
Four years ago, he notes, American professor Robert A. Saunders published an article in the Moscow journal “Russia in Global Affairs” entitled “Nationality: Cyber-Russian” (available in English at and in Russian at
In that article, Saunders suggested that ever more Russians – both within the Russian Federation and especially among ethnic Russians living in the other former Soviet republics -- are both defining who they are and participating in the larger ethno-political community by making use of the Internet.
Muslims within Russia are doing the same thing, for the same reason, and in much the same way, Sibgatullin argues. Those “Cyber-Muslims,” who are “’consumers’” of the Muslim Internet, may in fact now constitute “’the silent majority’” of Russia’s faithful.
But increasingly, as they and the web grow in sophisticated, the activity of the Cyber-Muslims is rising to “a qualitatively new level.” Not only do they turn to the Internet for information they may not be able to get locally or for a sense of community, but they actually use Muslim lights as part of their personal religious practice.
In a few places – Voronezh, for example -- Muslims have begun to create their own “virtual mosques” online “where they will assemble [online] for regular prayers five times a day.” Muslims in some other countries are already doing that on a small scale, but Sibgatullin argues that conditions in Russia will make such efforts especially popular.
That judgment reflects his appreciation of both the country’s enormous size, throughout which Muslims are scattered in small communities, as well as the difficulties even many larger groups of Muslims have had in getting state approval for the building of a mosque or finding a mullah to lead them in prayers.
And it also reflects some dramatic improvements in Internet technology. Not only can Cyber-Muslims interact via e-mail and chat rooms, they can also use web cameras to view others who are taking part in the same prayers or meetings, a possibility that allows this virtual space to approach a real one.
While this technology contributes to the growth of the country’s Islamic community, not all members of the “traditional” Muslim hierarchies are happy about it. On the one hand, it threatens their ability to control the situation in their areas. After all, Cyber-Muslims can link up with mullahs and imams thousands of miles away.
And on the other, it means that Cyber-Muslims can use the Internet to expand their ties with the worldwide umma, something that guarantees they will be exposed to ideas and approaches that the leaders of the Muslim Spiritual Directorates have tried to prevent.
Such international linkages perhaps an even greater concern for the Russian government, which over the last decade has worked hard to limit both the number of Muslims studying abroad and the number of Muslim missionaries coming in from abroad and bringing with them versions of the faith very different from those Moscow prefers.
The Internet reduces the impact of those efforts almost to nothing, and that in turn helps to explain why the Russian authorities, sometimes with the help of traditional Muslim leaders like the Central MSD head, Talgat Tajuddin, are doing what they can to block this channel.
Efforts of that kind are likely to be successful in the particular but to fail over all, and consequently, the number and even influence of Russia’s Cyber-Muslims is likely to continue to grow, with consequences for their community and country that are as yet difficult to predict.

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