Vienna, November 4 – For the first time since the end of the Soviet Union, the number of Muslims from the Russian Federation making the pilgrimage to Mecca is set to fall significantly, the result of a financial crisis that has cut incomes, increased prices and reduced private and government subsidies for those who want to go.
Last year, more than 25,000 Muslims from Russia made the haj, and this year, approximately the same number had been expected to go. But the impact of the financial crisis has changed that, although no Muslim leader or Russian government is yet willing to say what the actual number will be.
Andrey Sebentsov, the Moscow culture ministry official who deals with religious organizations, suggests that the number of hajis will fall because of the rising cost of air and bus tickets, the inability of individuals and governments to subsidize travel, and the unwillingness of insurers to protect travel firms against risk (www.islamnasledie.ru/news.php?id=1345).
He suggests that the collapse of the insurance system is having particularly serious consequences. As in past years, many Muslims from Russia had planned to travel to Mecca by bus or car, but now, Sebentsov says, “no one will insure them from the possible lack of fuel, the possible increase in the cost of hotel rooms and other circumstances.”
But the culture ministry official also pointed out that declining incomes and future uncertainties are leading many Muslim businessmen to significantly reduce their contributions to foundations that allow others to travel. One of them, Sebentsov continued, had reduced his contributions by more than 80 percent.
Some numbers are beginning to come in from the North Caucasus, the region of the Russian Federation from which a majority of Russian hajis has come. Approximately 3,000 Chechens have signed up to go, but Grozny now says that the number receiving free passage will fall from 1600 last year to 500 this year. As a result, fewer will be able to make the haj.
The impact of the financial crisis in Daghestan may be chaos but no reduction in the total number of those who go. That is because more than 15,000 Muslims there signed up to go, even though the quota is 8,000. As a result, the places of those on the list who now cannot afford the haj are likely to be filled by others (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/newstext/news/id/1232444.html).
Any significant decline in the number of Muslims from Russia will have significant consequences. First, for many Muslims in Russia as for many Russians in general, the ability to travel abroad is one of the most highly valued results of the collapse of the Soviet Union. If that becomes less possible on something as important as this, many are likely to be infuriated.
Second, there is a near certainty that those who cannot make the haj to Mecca will as they often did in Soviet times go to holy places inside Russia instead, bringing them into closer contact with precisely the kind of Muslim radicals that the Russian government has worked hard, if largely unsuccessfully, to isolate.
And third, a decline will tarnish the Russian government’s reputation among some Muslim states because Moscow has worked so hard to boost its national quota and at the same time lead some of these Muslim states to step up their assistance programs to Muslims in Russia, developments that at the very least will create some new problems for the Kremlin.
UPDATE on November 6 – Officials at the Union of Muftis of Russia (SMR) have projected that the total number of Muslims from Russia making the haj in December will be 20,500, 6,000 fewer than last year. That decline, they say, reflects both a decision of the Saudi authorities not to allow as many Muslims from Russia to come this year as last and the impact of the economic crisis (www.newsru.com/religy/06nov2008/haj.html).