Staunton, February 27 – Russia’s Islamic community, extraordinarily diverse in tsarist and Soviet times, has become even more varied since 1991, a situation that makes nonsense of the widespread view that there is some “statistically average Muslim” and means that one-size-fits-all policies are doomed to failure, according to a Moscow ethnographer.
In an interview on the Mnenia.ru portal yesterday, Akhmet Yarlykapov, a senior scholar at the Center for Ethno-Political Research of the Russian Academy of Sciences, describes the nature and sources of this growing diversity and warns of the dangers of ignoring it (mnenia.ru/rubric/society/v-rossii-ne-sushchestvuet-srednestatisticheskogo-musulmanina/
Today, the Moscow ethnographer says, “the overwhelming majority of Muslims consider themselves Rossiyane [that is, non-ethnic Russians] and is politically loyal to the Russian state. In a political sense, then, they conceive themselves as part of the [non-ethnic] Russian nation [natisya].”
But in addition, there are others who believe “that is it necessary to establish their own state” and are willing to go into the forests to fight. There are those who believe that “a compromise is possible.” And there are those who believe that they must have their own state but that now is not the time to fight for it.
This last group, Yarlykapov suggests, resemble “the situation of the ultra-Orthodox in Israel who do not recognize the state of Israel but nevertheless, live on its territory. There are such Sufi groups in Daghestan. They are not large, but one must not forget about them” in any assessment of the umma in the Russian Federation.
The MSD system, created by the tsarist regime in the 18th century and revived by the Soviet leadership in the 1940s today has collapsed, the ethnographer says. These institutions “are not part of the state system; in legal terms, these are simply social organizations without a strict hierarchy.” Muslim communities form around imams not around them.
The Russian government does not comprehend this complexity, the scholar continues. And it has not figured out what to do. “The sad thing is not that the policy of the state is anti-Islamic; the sad thing is that the state does not have a clear policy regarding Islam,” and as a result, “each state organ acts” on its own and as it thinks best.
The relationship between the various groups within Russian Islam and the Russian Orthodox Church are equally complicated, Yarlykapov argues. These involve in the first instance concerns about missionary work by one side among the followers of the other and in the second differences in the relationship of the faith to those in power.
Yarlykapov said that he personally does not see any clear policy about Islam existing in the Russian Orthodox Church. That Church is angry that “in the North Caucasus, there are many cases” when Russians have become Muslims, “especially in Daghestan, where quite a high percent of ethnic Russians have accepted Islam.”
Thus, neither the state nor the Church has done much to move beyond “stereotypes rooted in a lack of knowledge about Islam” and neither has helped Russian society to move beyond Islamophobic attitudes, which are growing because of the influx of Muslim gastarbeiters from Central Asia and the South Caucasus.
Islamophobia is on the rise throughout the world, the scholar says, “but for Russia this is a particularly serious problem,” because a large share of all Muslims there are citizens of the country and because they form a large share of the population as a whole. Inter-religious conflicts in Russia are thus “especially dangerous.”
If Russians can get beyond Islamophobia, Yarlyapov suggests, they will see some amazing things going on among the Muslims living among them. A large number of Russia’s Muslims “read Arabic or at least English and have the chance to become familiar with the fetwas of sheiks living many thousands of kilometers away.”
These Muslims are part of the larger problem of “’electronic muftis,’” who are playing an increasing role in the lives of the faithful and often have far more influence in the lives of believers than the mullah or imam at the local mosque. “Today it is possible to go to one mosque but to be a follower of another imam who lives thousands of kilometers away.”
The Russian academic community unfortunately has not helped as much as it might, the Moscow investigator says. While there is no shortage of research on Russia’s Muslims, there is a severe shortage of high quality sociological work. Indeed, there is less of that now than there was at the end of the Soviet period.
If one looks to the future, Yarlykapov says, it is clear that the Muslims are not going to become a majority of the population by 2050. They form at most 20 percent now, many Muslim nationalities are not growing fast, and a large share of the Muslims inside Russia consists of migrants who at some point will go home.
But if one focuses on culture, Muslims will be playing an expanded role. “Russia will continue to remain a country where the most varied cultures exist, including within Islam itself.” That means whatever some may think or want that “Russia in the future will preserve all its cultural multiplicity.”