Thursday, January 7, 2010

Window on Eurasia: Russian City Wrestles Not Just Whether to Have a Mosque but Where It Should Be

Paul Goble

Vienna, January 7 – Residents in cities in various parts of the Russian Federation are wrestling not only about whether to allow Muslim communities to erect mosques but also over where those mosques should be located lest they lead to the emergence of ethnic enclaves in traditionally non-Muslim areas and become centers of radicalism and conflict.
In the Komi capital of Syktyvkar, some residents reportedly are totally opposed to the construction of any mosque for the Muslims who form a small but increasing fraction of that city’s population, but other are divided over whether the mosque should be located near the city center or put on the outskirts of town (
Those who favor putting it in the city center, according to “Vera,” an Orthodox newspaper for northern parts of the country, believe that the Muslims will thus have a place of worship but the mosque will not become the center of a new ethnic neighborhood or ghetto as might happen if it were placed in a residential area on the outskirts of town.
The current debate in Syktyvkar was spared when the city government last fall approved giving land to the Muslim community there for the construction of a mosque and an Islamic center. A group of lay Orthodox activists gathered 2000 signatures on a petition against that decision and sent copies to the city and to Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
The petition read in part: “We, the residents of Syktyvkar, are disturbed that without our agreement, the city government gave permission for the construction of a Muslim mosque in the capital of the Komi Republic. Syktyvkar is considered the most peaceful city of northwest Russia, and its residents are tolerant to representatives of other nationalities and faiths.”
But despite that, the appeal continued, “the construction of a mosque which workers from Turkey will build” is something that “we consider a mistake and evidence of a lack of farsightedness on the part of the local powers that be. Such actions can lead to a deterioration of inter-ethnic and inter-confessional relations.”
That petition drive, the paper continued, has sparked widespread public discussion over whether there should be a mosque, who should decide the question and what those opposed to the construction of a mosque will do next, including the possibility of demonstrations – one has already been held in front of the United Russia offices and a republic referendum
Articles about this issue, “Vera” says, “have appeared in all city and republic media outlets and on the Internet pages of certain publications there has been an active discussion of this problem,” with “the most varied” views being expressed, ranging from total opposition to the construction of a mosque to complete support for the Muslim effort.
The first Muslims appeared in the Komi Republic in Stalin’s times when many of them were first sent to camps and then released and decided to remain in that northern area. The first Muslim community there was registered only in 1991 in Usinsk, and it was able to open a mosque even before the Orthodox were able to open a church.
From the perspective of the “Vera” journalist, however, the situations in Usinsk and in Syktyvkar are completely different: “Usinsk is a young city founded in post-war Soviet times” and “lacks historical traditions. But Syktyvkar is “a city with a 300-year cultural tradition” which was exclusively Orthodox.
And Orthodox people remain predominant: “Of the city’s 231,000 residents, only 1200 believing Muslims are registered.” As a result, “Vera” says, “it is far from an accident that between the supporters and opponents of the construction of a mosque in ‘the most peaceful city of northwest Russia’ has broken out a real ‘war’ albeit, it is true, only on Internet blogs.”
The Muslim community in Syktyvkar has been seeking land for a mosque since 2001 but had turned down several offers before this. Now, with the city’s approval and having arranged for the necessary funds, it plans to begin construction of both a mosque and an Islamic center in the second half of this year.
Leonid Zilberg, the head of the Jewish National-Cultural Autonomy of the Komi Republic, supports the Muslim effort but with one important qualification. “To prohibit the construction of a mosque in Syktyvkar,” he says, “is a crime.” And he believes that the city should provide the Muslims with some prime real estate in the center of town.
That has apparently provoked some Orthodox activists, who say they can tolerate a mosque only if it is put on the edge of town. Doing that, the Jewish leader argues on the basis of the experience of other cities and countries, would be a big mistake, not so much for religious reasons as for cultural and political ones.
“If the mosque will be on the edge of town, a ghetto will appear and [outsiders] will go there. What is needed,” he says, “is a beautiful building in the city where respectable people will go” because in that event, they and not some radical fringe will be “the leaders of the Muslim community.”
Many Orthodox share the same concerns, “Vera” says, believing that “around the construction of the mosque may unite radically inclined Muslims, intolerant not only toward the Orthodox but in general toward Russians as well.” And consequently, the conflicts which have occurred elsewhere, such as in Kondopoga, may be repeated in Syktyvkar.
Local Orthodox clerics are more circumspect in what they say. One insisted that “we do not oppose and will never oppose” the construction of a mosque. “It is simply,” he said that “Orthodox people in their majority have insisted that in the first instance it is necessary to reestablish destroyed Orthodox churches, and only then, if you like, all the rest.”
And the local Orthodox archbishop, Aleksii, said that “we support ties with traditional religions there where this is really necessary.” But given how few Muslims there are in Syktyvkar, he continued, “here it is necessary to be concerned above all else about the preservation of our nation and about what underlies the construction of our culture.”
As for the Muslims, they too are divided, “Vera” says. The Muslim religious organization to which the Syktyvkar authorities have offered land represents only “about 200” of the Muslims of the city, and some of the others “have signed the petition against the construction of a mosque, saying that even if it were built, they would never go to it.”

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