Staunton, June 28 – The Sunni-Shiia division within Islam has seldom been a problem in post-Soviet Russia. On the one hand, most Muslims in Russia today still have only a very poor understanding of the distinctions between the two as a result of Soviet anti-religious policies that left them with few able to tell them about this divide.
And on the other, until the influx of nearly one million ethnic Azerbaijani gastabeiters, who at least traditionally are two-thirds Shiia -- Azerbaijan is the only Shiia majority state among the former Soviet republics -- there were very few Shiites in Russia; and most of them were accepted by and worshipped in the same mosques as their Sunni co-religionists.
But now thanks to the anti-Iranian Sunni alliance that has been promoted by the United States and that is targeting of Qatar, the Sunni-Shiia division in the Middle East is echoing inside the Russian Federation, albeit in unexpected ways and largely for political rather than theological or historical reasons.
Chechnya’s leaders, civic and religious, have a long history of making anti-Shiite comments, viewing their own Sufi murid brand of Islam as being part of the Sunni rather than the Shiia tradition. But despite that, they have been willing to cooperate with the Syrian leader Bashar Asad who is an Alawaite (kavkazr.com/a/litsemerie-muftiya/28581867.html).
But recently as Nezavisimaya gazeta points out today, Chechnya has taken an even harder line against Shiism, banning Shiite publications from that North Caucasus republic and making it clear that Iran, the center of the Shiia faith today, cannot expect a warm welcome from Grozny (ng.ru/faith/2017-06-27/100_7017_chechnia.html).
The reasons for that have little to do with theology, however, as the Moscow paper suggests. Indeed, it argues that “Grozny’s anti-Shiite attitude is more conditions by the current situation around Qatar” than anything else: Chechnya has longstanding ties with Saudi Arabia and the Emirates and wants to make clear to them that it is on their side.
Nonetheless, the Shiites of Russia are concerned that the anti-Shiite comments now from Salakh Mezhiyev, the Chechen mufti, will have a chilling effect on relations between the two trends of Islam in Russia because as Shamil Tagiyev, the head of an Azerbaijani organization in Russia, puts it, many regional leaders may take their lead from Grozny.
What is especially unfortunate, he says, is that Mezhiyev attacked someone he though was Iranian when in fact Ayatollah Sistani, whose books Grozny now wants to ban, is “not an Iranian but an Iraqi” and Shiism in Iraq is a very different thing than Shiism in Iran. Thus, Iran’s cultural centers have never distributed Sistani’s works.”
Mikhail Roshin of the Moscow Institute of Oriental Studies says that the Shiites of Russia should not be worried: Even in Chechnya, Azerbaijani Shiites are viewed as close relatives, “in contrast to the Iranians or Arabs.” He adds that this is all about the politics of the Qatar crisis rather than about religion.
The former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan is caught in an even more difficult position because its religious and ethnic interests point in one direction and its political concerns point in quite another following the formation of the Sunni league against Iran and Qatar (iarex.ru/articles/54019.html and onkavkaz.com/news/1708-shiitskii-muftii-pashazade-ispugalsja-sunnizacii-i-vystupil-protiv-sunnitskogo-azana-i-shahady.html
Religiously, Azerbaijan is predominantly Shiite and its diaspora population in Iran – some 30 million people – is even more predominantly Shiite than that in the republic itself. As a result, Baku should be tilting toward Tehran in order to exploit such ties and avoid increasing intra-Islamic tensions at home.
But at the same time, Baku sees itself as Turkey’s partner, and Turkey is predominantly Sunni. Moreover, by stressing its Sunni linkages, Baku gains a counterweight to Russian power in the South Caucasus and increases its freedom of movement, a prime goal of what its president Ilham Aliyev calls his “balanced” foreign policy.
Two things make these tensions important: On the one hand, tilts toward Sunni or Shiite countries abroad by officials in the former Soviet space typically reflect political calculations rather than religious imperatives. Indeed, the latter should not be overestimated. But on the other, the population may not recognize that and may see ties to one or the other trends as required.
To the extent that the first is true, many in the West may misread what is going on. To the extent that the second it, many in the Russian Federation and other post-Soviet states may see a rise in the salience of these two trends within their national borders, a development that could further complicate religious and political life there.