Monday, November 26, 2012

Window on Eurasia: Generational Change Shaking Russia’s Muslim Leadership

Paul Goble

            Staunton, November 26 – Generational change has come to Russia’s Muslim leadership, with the Soviet-era cohort quickly passing from the scene and a younger and largely foreign trained one taking its place, a development that is shifting “the paradigm of Islamic activity as a whole,” according to a Muslim commentator.

            In an essay on the portal, Marat Rasulov describes this change. “The old pleiade of Russian Muslim leaders already took shape in the era of the USSR, and most of its members passed through the Soviet school for the preparation of religious cadres” (

            “Today,” the commentator observes, “it is no secret to anyone that the specific feature of religious education in the country of the soviets was directed at training, if one may so express it, of party functionaries from religion, the main goal of which was serving the interests of the ruling communist regime.”

            Given that goal, the Soviets had little interest in “the deep study of Islamic scholarship” or Arab language training. And it is “symptomatic that the overwhelming majority of graduates of the Mir Arab medressah in Bukhara – the only official Muslim training school in the entire USSR – in practice did not have Arabic,” despite the importance of that language in the faith.

            That put the Muslim leaders at a severe disadvantage to Soviet orientalists and Islamic studies experts who “had mastered the language of the Koran.”  An example to this “rule” was Supreme Mufti Talgat Tajuddin, who was the face of the country at receptions of delegations from [the Muslim world. He was [even permitted to study at Cairo’s Al Azhar University.”

            This “Bukharan” generation as a result focused almost exclusively on “the economic functions” of the mosque, and its members occupied themselves with “’the religious cult’” by taking orders for prayers for the ill or the dead.” That allowed them to maintain the budget of the small number of official mosques.
            But this lack of knowledge had another consequence, Rasulov notes. The Muslims genuinely interested in their faith had no choice but to turn to “the so-called hujurat” or unofficial underground medressahs whose instructors were able to provide more but not always reliable instruction.

            Those officials secular and religious who are members of the older generation and who say they want to go back to “traditional Islam,” most of whom are to be found in the Middle Volga, mean that they want to restore “the classical Soviet model ‘of the server of the Muslim cult’ together with an intensified maskhab identity.  

            The younger generation is very different regarding both training and intention.  “After the fall of ‘the iron curtain,’” Rasulov continues, “thousands of young people from Russia and other republics of the former USSR were sent abroad to obtain Islamic education mostly in the Arabic countries.”

            Only a few of those who went abroad received a broadly based Islamic education. Most dropped out after only a few months, either dropping their plans to become imams or mullahs or becoming the ill-educated leaders of radical groups inside the Russian Federation. But a few did receive good training and now form the successor generation.

            Indeed, Rasulov writes, “being the bearers of moderate views, not burdened with the weight of ‘the Bukhara special school,’ they have become the locomotive of the changing paradigm of Russian Islam.” Moreover, and unlike the radicals, they have had “the wisdom and tact to find a common language with the older generation of Muslims and with the authorities.”

            This new group unfortunately faces two obstacles. On the one hand, some of the remaining “Soviet” Muslim leaders view this rising generation as “competition.” And on the other, it has been easy for opponents of Islam to convince Russians that there is no difference between these well-trained mullahs and the radicals and that both are “enemies of the people.”

            Moreover, according to many Russian officials and commentators, “any cooperation of Russian Muslims with their fellow believers abroad” must be about “not only antagonism to ‘traditional Islam’ but also the betrayal of the motherland,” all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding.

            But despite this, Rasulov says, “the natural rotation of Muslim cadres taking place with the departure from the  scene of the older generation of Soviet functionaries is opening a new page in relations between the state and Islam” with both politicians and Muslim leaders allied in their opposition to “the idea of the return to ‘the iron curtain.’”

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