Friday, October 9, 2015

Because of Syria, Moscow Focusing on Sunni-Shiite Divide Within Russia

Paul Goble

            Staunton, October 9 – Moscow has only very rarely focused on the Sunni-Shiia divide within the Muslim community inside the Russian Federation, an attitude perhaps understandable given that 90 percent of the Russian umma is Sunni; but now the Kremlin’s backing of the Shiite regime of Bashar Asad in Syria and its increasing ties with Shiite Iran are raising the issue.

            As often is the case with matters of such sensitivity, most of the evidence for that conclusion is indirect.  Yesterday, Taufik Ibragim, the head of the Russian Society of Islam Specialists, said that Russia’s “Sunnites and Shiites” must “act as a united front” and denounce ISIS (

            Other experts with whom TASS spoke echoed Ibragim.  Alikber Alikberov, a specialist at the Moscow Institute of Oriental Studies, called on Russia’s muftis and imams to speak as one against ISIS terrorism. And Rushan Abbyasov, deputy head of the Muslim Spiritual Directorate (MSD) of Russia, warned that unless they do, ISIS will “threaten not only Russia but others.”

            This is an extremely rare mention of the two chief trends within Islam by Russian commentators and religious leaders, one that beyond doubt reflects concerns about tensions between Sunnis and Shiites given that Moscow has now come down on the side of the Shiites and against the Sunni-dominated Islamic State.

            Neither the Russian government nor the leaders of Islam in Russia have devoted much attention to the Shiites in that country, a reflection of the fact that in Soviet times, the MSD in Baku supervised all Shiites in the USSR and that until the influx of gastarbeiters from Azerbaijan, there were relatively few Shiites there. 

           Moreover, because of Soviet anti-religious efforts, many Muslims in Russia as in the other post-Soviet states at least initially knew little about the distinctions between these two trends in Islam. In Azerbaijan, for example, people spoke and still speak of "Iranian" as opposed to "Turkish" mosques reflecting who paid for them rather than the Shiia and Sunni trends they reflect.

            But now there are more than two million Shiites in the Russian Federation, and they are concentrated in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Consequently, if tensions arise between the two trends in Islam over what is happening in Syria, they are likely to occupy center stage in Russian political life.  And none of Russia’s MSDs focuses on the Shiites.

            That means that Moscow does not have the usual bureaucratic allies within the Muslim community to control the situation and that there may be some pressure to create a new MSD that would handle Shiite affairs, one that would be likely to press for greater official recognition and support of Shiites within Russia.

            Speaking to a St. Petersburg conference in February 2010, Taras Cherniyenko, director of  Prague’s Institute of the Dialogue of Civilizations, said that despite the presence of 600,000 Shiites in St. Petersburg and 1.5 million Shiites in Moscow, Russians have devoted "practically" no attention to this trend (

"The works of Shiite authors are in practice not translated and very little published," he continued, even though Muslims and Russian officials must certainly know that "precisely Shiite Islam can be a most effective factor in blocking the activity of various kinds of reactionaries who speak out in the name of Islam."
As a first step toward rectifying this situation, Cherniyenko said, "the main task of Russia Shiites today [must be] the formation of a single spiritual movement and the establishment of [their own separate] religious organization." Over the past five years, little has been done in these directions. Now, the Shiites time in Russia may be coming.
            (For a discussion of that conference and background on the Shiites of Russia, see Paul Goble, “Who Will Manage the 2 Million Shiites of Russia?” Moscow Times, February 10, 2010, at

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