Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Immigrants Working in the Urals to Unite in a Muslim Trade Union

Paul Goble

Vienna, December 30 – Immigrants working in the Urals region of Russia “belong to various nationalities” – most of them are from the former Soviet republics in Central Asia – “but they are united by their [Islamic] faith,” and as a result, local trade union officials are promoting the idea of forming a Muslim trade union for them.
Vasily Derkach, the development director of the Federation of Trade Unions of Sverdlovsk Oblast, said yesterday that his group supports the idea of creating such a union and the notion that its leadership should consist of “a protégé of the Muslim clergy” with ethnic deputies (www.islam.ru/rus/2008-12-30/#24524).
The group, which Derkach indicated would begin operating in January once leaders for the group have been identified and recruited, would involve only legal immigrants and would seek to defend the rights of workers in a conventional way but also insist on the right of Muslims to pray during working hours or have time off for religious activities.
The federation has approached the imams of mosques in Verkhnaya Pushme and Pervoural’sk to help the union body identify those who would be most capable of leading the new Muslim union, a task made more complicated by the skepticism about the idea of this union expressed by some Islamic leaders.
Sibgatulla Saydullin, the chairman of the Muslim Spiritual Directorate (MSD) of Sverdlovsk oblast, says that “labor law should not consider nationality and faith. If we put a mufti at the head of a trade union, what would happen next? Would immigrants from Moldova have to form their own, Orthodox trade union?”
But there is sufficient interest in forming the group that employers are already thinking about what it might mean. Most of them, Islam.ru said, believe that the creation of such a union won’t have much of an impact because the financial crisis has reduced the number of workplaces and immigrants desperate for income will be willing to work “under any conditions” offered.
These employers may be right with respect to their own interests, but the prospect of the formation of such a Muslim trade union is likely to have at least three major consequences, all of which will have a serious impact on Russian society and on Russian political life in the coming months and years.
First, this idea is likely to spread, undermining the “divide and rule” principle on which both Soviet and Russian officials have long relied. Playing members of one non-Russian group off against another has given Moscow the whip hand in dealing with them, and it has reduced the threat that ethnic tensions will take the form of clashes between Russians and non-Russians.
Moreover, the emergence of Muslim unions will reinforce the efforts of some radical Orthodox Christian groups to promote “Christian” unions, a development that will further divide Russian society not on the ethnic lines of the past but on the religious lines of the present and future.
Second, such organizations will promote communication among members of different ethnic communities, who will increasingly see attacks on one group as attacks on all, and make it more difficult for the government to compartmentalize information as the authorities are now seeking to do in the case of the spate of ethnic Russian attacks on Kyrgyz and Tajiks in Moscow.
And third – and this may prove the most interesting consequence of all – such bodies will simultaneously promote greater attachment to Islam among the migrants and provide new content to the community of the faithful (umma) within the Russian Federation, thus limiting assimilation and making the gastarbeiter experience a seedbed for activism based on religion.
For all these reasons, many Russian officials are likely to oppose the rise of such unions. But the level of violence now directed at immigrants, the inability of the Russian government to protect such migrants there, and deteriorating economic conditions which sometimes lead employers to treat immigrants worse than native workers combine to make such unions attractive

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