Friday, March 27, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Moscow Muftis Tighten Control over Muslims from Russia Studying Abroad

Paul Goble

Tallinn, March 28 – The Union of Muftis of Russia (SMR) is working to tighten its control over Muslims from the Russian Federation who choose to study at Muslim educational institutions abroad in order to prevent these institutions from training what the leader of this effort calls “enemies” of Russia and the countries where these students area.
Following the collapse of Soviet power, Muslims in the Russian Federation and other post-Soviet states sought to establish contact with the broader Muslim world, and organizations in the latter ranging from traditional Islamic educational centers to radical medrassahs returned the favor not only dispatching missionaries to these countries but actively recruiting students.
For the first decade, this process was largely unregulated by either the post-Soviet government whose officials often did not know who was going out and to where or who was coming. And it was not subject to any effective controls by the Muslim Spiritual Directorates (MSDs), few of whom had anyone with experience with international relations.
Beginning in the late 1990s and especially since 2001, however, both governments and MSDs, fearful of what these flows might involve, have tried to control both missionaries coming in and students going abroad. But in most cases, the mechanics of this process have remained obscure even though both government and MSDs have claimed success in regulating these flows.
Now, in the course of an interview concerning the wide range of activities of the SMR’s International Department, Rushan-khazrat Abbyasov provides details on exactly what that Muslim body has been doing to regulate the flow of Muslims from the Russian Federation to Islamic educational centers abroad (
The International Department has six sections: one for international ties, one for the haj, one for economic programs, one for planning, one for translation work, and one for education abroad. If the latter perform precisely the functions that their titles suggest, the section for education abroad is playing an unprecedented role in the life of Islam in Russia.
Initially, Abbyasov said, the education abroad section was involved only in the preparation of documents for Muslims who wanted to study in or who were already studying in Islamic educational institutions abroad. But that limited technical role was clearly not enough given the problems with this process that soon arose.
“Unfortunately,” Muslim leader continued, “practically all our Muslims sent for study abroad did not have even an introductory education which created no small number of problems in our society since they returned with completely changed world views, saying that the Islam practiced in Russia is incorrect and the Islam which they studied in Arab countries is correct.
That was particularly the case with Muslims going abroad from the North Caucasus, and their return led to serious splits in society. As a result, the SMR’s department felt it had no choice but “to take under its control and systematize the process of sending students to Islamic higher schools abroad.”
At present, he said, the SMR has introduced as a requirement that those who want to receive Muslim training abroad must first have completed “a minimum of secondary religious education” in the Russia. That requirement reduces the amount of time students must spend abroad, but more important it gives Russia’s Muslim leaders the chance to screen them.
In addition, the section has proposed “a whole number of educational programs abroad,” ranging from short and long-term Arabic language courses, courses designed to improve the qualifications of imams and teachers already working in Islamic institutions in Russia, and special relations with some Muslim universities allowing students to go back and forth.
The most developed of these exchange programs has been developed with the International Islamic University of Malaysia, where Muslim students from Russia learn English and Arabic from the very beginning of their coursework. In addition, Muslims from Russia are also studying at the Qatar State University and at Cairo’s Al-Azhar University.
But the SMR’s international studies section does not limit its activities to making arrangements with foreign institutions. It also “constantly maintains contact” with these students, and when problems arise, Abbyasov said, “we try to find a constructive resolution” together with the administrators of these schools.
And at the present time, he added, the SMR is thinking about trying to get an agreement with each of these institutions under the terms of which they would admit Muslims from the Russian Federation only those students who have been recommended by the MSD of the European Part of Russia and the SMR.
Such accords if they are signed would represent a major step forward in the consolidation of central control over Muslims from Russia studying abroad, and the appearance of this interview now almost certainly is intended to suggest to the Russian government that the SMR is far ahead of all other MSDs in the country in supporting “traditional” Russian Islam.
That could give SMR head Ravil Gainutdin a leg up in his competition with Central MSD and self-styled Supreme Mufti of Holy Rus Talgat Tajuddin for the preeminent position in the Islamic community of Russia – unless of course Tajuddin takes up this challenge and announces that he will do the same or even more.

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