Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Window on Eurasia: Unity of Russia’s Muslims Must Come from Below, SMR Head Says

Paul Goble

Vienna, June 16 – Frustrated by the often unseemly struggles of the leaders of Russia’s Muslim Spiritual Directorates (MSDs) and convinced that both Russia and Russia’s Muslims would benefit from the formation of a united Islamic organization, Mufti Ravil Gainutdin, head of the Council of Muftis of Russia (SMR) says that such unity must come from below.
In an interview in today’s “Rossiiskaya gazeta,” Gainutdin thus challenges not only the MSD system created by the state to control Muslims but lacking any canonical basis in Islam but also the leaders of the other “super MSDs” – the Central MSD of Talgat Tajuddin of the Central MSD and Ismail-Haji Berdiyev of the Coordinating Center of Muslims of the North Caucasus.
And while he is careful to say that Muslims “must consider the opinion” of such leaders, Gainutdin says that, given that “Islam is a very democratic religion,” it is absolutely essentially that the unification process take into consideration “the opinion of the multi-million-member umma of Russia itself (
When Russia’s Muslims in the early years of the 20th century first sought to escape from the control of the MSDs set up by the tsarist authorities, they convened three major all-Russian Muslim congresses where an enormous range of ideas were offered before that entire process was stopped by the Soviets and the straightjacket of the MSDs re-imposed.
Because of the likelihood that a broader public discussion of Islamic arrangements would reduce the leverage of the state on the Islamic community, undermine the power of current MSD leaders, and quite possibly lead to the airing of radical sentiments, Gainutdin’s project is unlikely to win much support among the political and religious establishments.
But the arguments the SMR chief makes are sufficiently numerous and compelling that they may lead others to change their minds, agreeing to a more democratic approach to Islamic governance in order to gain the benefits that the creation of a single Islamic body would provide, despite the risks that his proposed process of getting there might entail.
Gainutdin refuses to say which Russian Muslim organization is the “leading” one today, arguing that “both the umma itself and out society as a whole know who is who in the Muslim community,” especially given the behavior of some of the supposed leaders which has had the effect of “discrediting” Islam in the minds of many.
“Muslims today,” the SMR chief continues, “are mature and literate” to make up their minds, and it is “not necessary to artificially proclaim” someone a leader or impose him on the community. That is not only offensive to the spirit of Islam, but it guarantees that such a leader will have less influence than he might otherwise have.
Gainutdin bases his argument on what he says is the “democratic” nature of the faith. “Among Muslims, scholars and leaders are possible various opinions on one and the same question. The Prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him) said: ‘A different in opinions in my community is a gift.’ But this involves customs and daily affairs.”
In those cases “on which depends the fates of the entire umma and the entire people or state,” the SMR leader continued, “the scholars of Islam have tried to achieve a consolidated opinion, which in Arabic is called ‘ijma.’ And in the Islamic intellectual and legal heritage there are an enormous number of such decisions…”
But all of them point to the need for a united umma, especially in the situation the Russian Muslim community finds itself today, Gainutdin argues. “Unification would permit getting rid of odious and unpredictable figures in the MSDs, to increase the authority of the leaders of traditional Islam,” and thus allow Muslims to contribute more fully to Russian life.
Unity, of course, would allow Russia’s Muslims to “achieve a more adequate conception of Russia and an increase of its authority in the Muslim world” abroad, as Russia’s civic leaders have clearly understood. But Muslim unity, built on a democratic basis, would do even more for Russia at home.
It would make it possible for the Muslims of Russia to play “a more effective role in the resolution of the problems of the adaptation of the continually growing number of immigrants from the Trans-Caucasus and Central Asia.” And that is no small thing, Gainutdin argues, as the unfortunate experience of a number of European countries shows.
Moreover, unification would help in “the ideological struggle for the souls of our young people.” At present, and in part because of divisions within the bureaucratic MSDs, that struggle “unfortunately is not everywhere and always going well.” Instead, in all too many cases, “victory” is going to the radicals who are “supported from abroad.”
Unification from below would help “create all the conditions necessary for the inclusion of young people in the fight against extremist ideas.” At present, many extremist ideologues are young. They are “charismatic and convincing.” And if Russia and the Russian umma are to defend traditional Islam, Russia’s Muslims must train a new generation of leaders.
In recent years, he notes, Russia’s Muslim leaders have done a great deal to promote the unity of the six or seven million Muslims of the North Caucasus. Now, it is time to extend that idea to “the more than 20 million” Muslims of Russia as a whole, Gainutdin suggests, something that no bureaucracy can do but that the participation of the umma itself can make possible.

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