April 5, 2007

Russia's Muslims: A Benign Growth

There's a significant article about Russia's Muslim population in this week's Economist magazine.

A Benign Growth
Apr 4th 2007

Russia's fastest-growing religious group is its Muslims. But they are not much like their counterparts in other countries

MUSLIMS in Russia—or at least the politically active among them—are rejoicing. On March 30th a human-rights case that had become a touchstone of Muslim concerns was dramatically resolved. The story concerned a Russian who had adopted Islam, prefixing his Slavic name of Anton Stepanenko with a Muslim one, Abdullah. Thriving in his adopted faith, he became an imam in the south Russian town of Pyatigorsk. But in January 2006, say friends, he was arrested on sham charges of kidnapping and theft.

Senior Muslims across Russia used their access to the pro-government press to make a public appeal to President Vladimir Putin for his release. Suddenly, just as Muslims were about to celebrate the Prophet's birthday, the imam's fortunes changed: the charges against him were reduced and he was freed. His release came just in time for this “exemplary, heroic figure for all the nation's Muslims”, as one report called him, to go to the mosque and lead his flock in Friday prayers.

The imam's travails, and ultimate release, exemplify two features of Muslim life in Russia. One is the state's pragmatic combination of authoritarianism and flexibility towards minorities. Another is the emergence within Russia of an active but ultimately loyal Muslim community. Muslims want a fair deal and growing influence to match their rising numbers.

Whatever the Stepanenko case was about, it had nothing to do with the bloody war for the independence of Chechnya, which most people outside Russia—including many Muslims—see as the biggest quarrel between the Russian state and Islam. Not that Chechnya is easy to sweep aside. For the world's Muslims, the troubled region is usually listed with Palestine, Kashmir and Bosnia as one of the places in which Islam has been under attack. The repression of the Chechens, as well as sputtering violence in the entire neighbourhood, is the biggest albatross round Mr Putin's neck in his efforts to cultivate Muslim countries.

Yet in most of Russia a quite different contest over the future of Islam is going on. All of its participants insist that they have no desire to live under a ruler other than Mr Putin. But they differ on how, and how far, to hold him to a promise he first made in Malaysia in 2003, when he declared that Russia was a Muslim power, which hoped to play a role in global Muslim affairs.

A Muslim power? It sounds bizarre. But Russia has more Muslims than any other European state (bar Turkey); and the Muslim share of the population is rising fast. The 2002 census found that Russia's Muslims numbered 14.5m, 10% of its total of 145m. In 2005 the foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, put the number of Muslims at 20m. Ravil Gaynutdin, head of Russia's Council of Muftis, talks of 23m, including Azeri and Central Asian migrants.

Moreover, the Muslim population of Russia is rising even as the country's overall population falls. Many Muslim communities long predate Russian rule. Shamil Alyautdinov, the imam of the newest and most dynamic of Moscow's four mosques, insists that the very word “minority” should not apply to a faith “which emerged on Russia's territory far earlier than Christianity did”.

Aside from the Caucasus, there are now two concentrations of Muslims in Russia. One is in Moscow, swollen by labour migration, where they may number 2m. The other is in the faith's old bastions: Bashkortostan and, above all, Tatarstan (see map), where a revival of the faith has been overseen successfully by a wily regional president, Mintimer Shaimiev. In several parts of the Caucasus, old-style compacts between local rulers and “tame” clerics have alienated young people; but in Tatarstan they still seem to work quite well.

Tatarstan has its share of Islamists, some of whom face severe repression. Seven men sent back to Russia from Guantánamo Bay all suffered harassment or torture, says Human Rights Watch, a lobby group. Two were later convicted in dubious circumstances of blowing up a gas pipeline in Tatarstan. Especially in the early 1990s, Russia's new freedoms—to go on pilgrimage or to open mosques—imported new influences, from Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey. In Tatarstan much of the alleged radicalism was linked to a foreign-financed religious school, now closed. Last week six people were convicted of belonging to Hizb ut-Tahrir, a non-violent Islamist movement to restore the caliphate that is banned in Russia (as is the international Muslim Brotherhood).

But in general Islam's resurgence in Tatarstan's capital, Kazan, has been peaceful. For the first time since Ivan the Terrible conquered the place in 1552, the city's Kremlin houses a mosque, its minarets vying with nearby Orthodox Christian onion domes. Ramil Yunusov, its Saudi-trained imam, gets on fine with the local Orthodox clergy. Just 25 years ago, says Gusman Iskhakov, the mufti who heads the Muslim Spiritual Board of Tatarstan, the region had some 20 mosques. Now there are around 1,300. In Russia, says the mufti, things are better for Muslims than in many Arab countries. Muslim prayer rooms are to be found in Kazan State University, where Tolstoy and Lenin studied. Even as he grumbles about the harassment that an Islamic beard can incur, one foreign Muslim notes the small but growing number of local girls and women wearing headscarves. Tatarstan, he avers, is the last hope for Muslims in the former Soviet Union.

Rafael Khakimov, an adviser to Mr Shaimiev, uses the term “Euro-Islam” to describe the faith that has evolved in what was for long the world's northernmost Muslim outpost. Wherever he turns, Mr Shaimiev likes to present a benign image. Accompanying Mr Putin round the Middle East, the Tatar leader shows Russia's pious Muslim face, a tactic that underpins the Kremlin's Middle East diplomacy. In February the Saudis gave Mr Shaimiev an award for services to the faith. But when they are talking to west Europeans, the Tatar authorities like to present themselves as more open-minded than most other regions of Russia.

Many people in Arab countries, says Mr Shaimiev, have never lived on equal terms with other cultures, and their teaching doesn't suit the needs of the Tatars, who have. His government has opened its own religious schools and universities, to propagate its preferred form of Islam.

Among the politically active Muslims of Moscow who lobbied for Imam Stepanenko, the mood is different. For one thing, there is a row between two contestants for official favour: the cautious Mr Gaynutdin, and Talgat Tadjuddin, a feisty chief mufti who in 2003 proclaimed a jihad against America. But more significant than these two old-timers is a flashier movement based on Muslim entrepreneurs, journalists and websites such as www.islam.ru. Ansar, a publishing house linked to the site, turns out Russian translations of Islamic thinkers along with catchier titles such as “Love and Sex in Islam.”

Since no political force in Russia has much hope if it stands in open opposition to Mr Putin, these Muscovite Muslims tend to flex their muscles by being (even) more critical of the West than the Russian norm. Shamil Sultanov, a Muslim legislator who is close to the new movement, praises Mr Putin for “standing up to America” and its nefarious plans. Such talk meshes easily with a strand of Russian nationalism that looks to Islam as an anti-Western ally. And the easy fit between Russian-style political Islam and ordinary Slavic pride may be one reason why the Kremlin tolerates it.

Terms like “Euro-Islam”, says Rinat Mukhametov, a Muslim journalist, reflect a patronising Western Orientalism. For an up-and-coming advocate of Islam in Moscow, nothing could be worse.

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