Sunday, May 4, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Moscow’s Funding of Islamic Institutions Violates Russian Law, Expert Says

Paul Goble

Baku, May 4 – The Russian government’s funding of Muslim educational and other institutions there in the name of combating Islamist extremism violates the principle of separation of church and state enshrined in the Russian Constitution, the provisions of specific laws, and good sense, according to a senior Moscow legal specialist.
In a detailed study, a 5,100-word excerpt of which has now been posted online, Igor Ponkin, a doctor of juridical sciences and member of the Social Chamber for Education in the Russian capital, not only documents what the Russian government is doing in this area but also compares its steps with Russian law (
In the last year alone, he writes, the Russian government has spent “not less than 300 million rubles” (13 million U.S. dollars) and has announced plans to spend equivalent amounts each year into the next decade, figures that may understate its commitment because much of the money being used to support Islam is “hidden” in other accounts.
(Some but far from all of this funding is channeled through the Foundation for the Support of Islamic Culture, Science and Education that President Vladimir Putin created a year ago. For details on that mixed public-private institution, see the materials on its extensive website at
The government’s effort in this area is based on the idea that the government will provide the Muslims of the Russian Federation with “financial support in exchange for their loyalty,” create a new generation of mullahs and imams who can effectively combat the works of extremist Muslim leaders, and thus protect Russia from terrorism.
But however worthy these goals may be in principle, Ponkin says, the government’s efforts to meet them violate the Constitution, existing law and financial accountability and are certain to be exploited by Muslims for their own purposes regardless of what the government officials want and think can be achieved.
Ponkin describes in detail the 36 projects in this area the Russian government has committed itself to, the amount of money Moscow is spending on each, the various ministries and educational institutions involved, and the legal problems that these raise both individually and collectively.
He focuses in particular on Moscow’s backing of an Islamic website devoted to promoting religious understanding amount Muslims and of various Muslim educational institutions, support that both directly helps the Islamic community to promote its ideas and because money is fungible allows them to spend on other things the government opposes.
Over the next five to seven years, the Russian government’s program for Muslim education is supposed to produce some 2000 Muslim leaders with mid-level Islamic education and 1300 with higher Islamic training, including 800 imam-khatybs, 300 instructors for these institutions, and 200 specialists to staff the Muslim spiritual directorates (MSDs).
It is not yet clear -- and Ponkin himself does not say -- whether his report was prepared on the basis of a request by the government or whether it simply reflects his own personal interests and concerns. But however that may be, his report will certainly be used by those who oppose the government’s program during this period of presidential transition.

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