Monday, July 4, 2016

‘Soviet Islam’ as Much as Threat to Russian State as Islamist Extremism, Mukhetdinov Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, July 4 – Russian officials now understand that however much they may have been forced to cooperate with mullahs who were shaped by the Soviet past in the short term, the Soviet-style Islam these mullahs promote is every bit as much a threat to the Russian state as is Islamist extremism, according to Damir Mukhetdinov.

            In an article on the 20th anniversary of the Council of Muftis of Russia (SMR), the Muslim commentator says that the Soviet mullahs and their Muslim Spiritual Directorates (MSDs) were not equipped to navigate between the twin dangers threatening the umma in Russia after 1991 (

            On the one hand, they lacked the ability to oppose “the total and principled denial of Russian statehood” that took the forms of “nationalism, separatism, extremism and finally terrorism” and that brought such “colossal suffering to the Muslims of the North Caucasus and all our country,” Mukhetdinov says.

            And on the other, “the pseudo-loyalism of particular groups of the official Muslim leadership” kept them from understanding “the depth of the transformations experienced by our fatherland” and convinced them that they must “preserve the Soviet order of relations of the Muslim community with the state, society, and most important with their own flock.”

            “This did not require from them particular efforts in the area of the enlightenment of the masses, work with radicalized young people, and with the authorities toward the formation of a mutually beneficial and effective model of state-Islam relations corresponding to the realities of our time,” the Muslim commentator says.

            But “the model of ‘Soviet Islam’ they chose soon showed its bankruptcy in the new Russia. That which has died must not be revived. These people did not have the authority in the masses and thus the influence on the processes of self-determination of the Muslim umma in our country.”

            Even their ritual-centric approach had the effect of driving Muslims toward “more educated and contemporary cadres,” a pattern that meant that “’Soviet Islam,’ despite its apparent innocuousness and even comic nature, [was and remains] from the point of view of the state and politics extremely dangerous.”

            Because the Soviet mullahs and their MSDs ignored the challenges rather than responded to them, they contributed to the “geometrical” growth of problems in the Russian umma in the first two decades after the end of the USSR, he argues.  And while some officials assumed they had no choice but to rely on these survivals, the authorities soon lost interest in that.

            Even Russian officials who made a tactical alliance with the old “understand that they are dealing with a certain strange transitional form” and that “’Soviet’ mullahs cannot solve the problems of Islam in Russia “by definition.”

            That is why Mufti Ravil Gainutdin created the SMR on July 1, 1996, and why, in Mukhetdinov’s view, he and that organization have become “the center for the realization of the uniquely correct” approach to integrating Russia’s Muslims into Russian society and to establishing genuine cooperation between them and the Russian state.

            That is because the SMR has been committed “to no less than the formation of a civic identity of Muslims of the Russian Federation in order that people would feel themselves at one and the same time full-fledged Muslims and full-fledged citizens of their motherland and not see in this any problem but rather be proud of their status as Russian Muslims.”

            According to Mukhetdinov, Gainutdin and the SMR have shown that “this is possible” and that Putin’s thesis that “’Russia is also a Muslim country’” can be realized in practice by countering extremism and overcoming the detrimental influence of those Soviet mullahs with their “pseudo-loyalism.”

            Thus, he continues, “the SMR became the legal successor and continuer of the traditions not only of the Orenburg Mohammedan Spiritual Assembly (the first MSD) established by Catherine II but of all the other institutions of Muslim self-organization which have existed on the territory of Russia.”

            And it has been able to create a mechanism which links together “pre-revolutionary, Soviet, and present-day” Muslim traditions, thus undercutting those who argued in the 1990s that this was impossible. Indeed, at that time, such a point of view was “almost an official one.”

            As a result, Mukhetdinov concludes, it is understandable and natural” that Mufti Gainutdin and his SMR took the next step and formed an MSD for all the Muslims of the Russian Federation, “the logical extension of what was done in 1996” with the creation of the SMR in the first place.

            Mukhetdinov’s argument about the negative and continuing impact of Soviet-era mullahs and their approach on Russia’s Muslim communities is both true and important.  But it is important to remember the following when evaluating them:  Mukhetdinov is not only a leading Muslim commentator in Russia; he is Gainutdin’s first deputy in the MSD RF.

Consequently, what he is saying reflects Gainutdin’s aspirations rather than what the SMR has in fact achieved. There are still more than 80 MSDs in Russia and most are still dominated by people from the Soviet past and still relied upon by Russian officials. Even more important, the leaders of some of them and many officials reject Gainutdin and SMR out of hand.

And with Vladimir Putin’s increasing tendency to restore Soviet arrangements, even more mullahs and MSDs may adopt that position. Indeed, it is not impossible that Mukhetdinov’s celebratory words are in fact a kind of warning against a pattern that he sees now working against what he and Gainutdin have been trying to do.


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