Staunton, December 27 – In yet another indication that the Kremlin is more concerned by any growth in civic activism than by the spread of Islamic sentiments, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs has taken the unprecedented step of saying that Russian Muslims who want to study abroad should avoid doing so in the “Arab Spring”
Instead, Konstantin Shuvalov, a Russian ambassador for special missions, told a meeting of the leadership of the Muslim Spiritual Directorate (MSD) of European Russia that the country’s Muslims should choose to study instead in one or another of the more “secure” states of Southeast Asia (ria.ru/society/20121225/916203810.html
Shuvalov pointed in particular to the “far from simple situation” found in Egypt, Tunisia and Syria over the last several years. In the past, he noted, these countries and especially Egypt with its Al-Azhar University “were considered as the most promising and secure from the point of view of the opportunity to obtain an education” in Islamic studies.
But given what has happened in these countries in recent years, a process that many have called “the Arab spring,” Shuvalov said that Russia’s Muslims “need to see and use other opportunities” including in “such distant places as Indonesia which has remained apart from these revolutionary changes” and Malaysia where “there are secure conditions.”
In his speech, the diplomat pointed to good cooperation that has existed between the Council of Muslims of Russia (SMR) which includes the MSD of European Russia “and foreign Islamic partners” and called for “the SMR to increase its international activity” in that area in particular.
Shuvalov said that it would be a good thing if Muslims abroad “knew about our Muslims” from Russia’s Muslims themselves rather than learning about them from “someone else.” And he stressed that “the voice of Russia’s Muslims must of course be the voice of patriots.”
Sheikh Ravil Gaynutdin, the chairman of the MSD of European Russia and of the SMR, responded that “during their foreign travels, he and other representatives of the SMR always explain the position of Russia’s Muslims” and point out that “Russia is a friend of Islam,” whatever others say.
“And when we visit Islamic countries,” Gaynutdin continued, “our Arab brothers themselves say to us that ‘Russia for us is a friend, but [then ask] why does Russia not occupy a worthy position in the world.’ … our leaders, including the foreign ministry, need to take the right attitude and give attention to the Arab and Muslim world.”
Shuvalov’s remarks are important for three reasons. First, they suggest that the Kremlin has decided that it will be unable to build up a sufficiently large and authoritative Muslim educational system within the country anytime soon and instead will have to continue to rely on foreign Muslim training centers well into the future.
That is striking because until very recently, most Russian officials and many of Russia’s Muslim leaders have been campaigning for the establishment or expansion of domestic training centers for the next generation, a view they shared with the leaders of most other Muslim-majority post-Soviet states.
Second, Shuvalov’s comments suggest as well that Moscow believes it can use the leaders of its Muslim community to expand Russian influence in the Muslim world and thus gain an advantage on the West, few member countries of which have equally large and active Muslim populations.
Moreover, his focus on south and southeast Asia, whose countries by population are the largest Muslim states in the world, suggests that Moscow, again far more than the European Union or the United States has recognized that the Muslim world is no longer as Arab-centric as it was only a few decades ago.
And third, as already noted above, the ambassador’s argument suggests that in deciding to continue to rely on Muslim training institutions abroad and on Russian Muslim leaders as part of its foreign policy effort, Moscow clearly is far more afraid of the spread of the values of the so-called “Arab spring” than it is about Islam as such.