Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Struggle for Uniting Russia’s Muslims Bureaucratically Entering New and Perhaps Final Phase

Paul Goble

            Staunton, October 13 – The mixed government-religious organizations created by the tsars, used by the Soviets and maintained to this day by the Russian government, the Muslim Spiritual Directorates (MSDs), have no canonical basis in Islam, but continue to exist because of the bureaucratic imperatives of the Russian state and their echo among Muslim leaders.

            At the time of the USSR’s disintegration, there were four regional MSDs, two of which were exclusively or primarily overseeing the Muslims outside the Russian Federation – the Central Asian MSD and the Trans-Caucasus MSD which supervised only Shiite believers within the RSFSR.

            But after 1991, the number in the Russian Federation exploded and now amounts to more than 80. (In most but not all of the non-Russian countries, in contrast, there has been a move toward a single national MSD.) Within Russia, that had led to confusion and conflict; it has also led to the emergence of several MSDs with national aspirations.

            These include the Central MSD based in Ufa under Mufti Talgat Tajuddin who has been in office since 1980, the Union of Muftis of Russia (the SMR) under Mufti Ravil Gaynutdin, a third over the Muslims of the North Caucasus, and a series of so far short-lived MSDs in Moscow which aspire to succeed or combine these.

            Not surprisingly, this has led some commentators to suggest that it is time to do away with the MSD system entirely especially because of its lack of canonical foundations and because in a few places the government has intervened to disband one or another of them  (

            But the centralist matrix of the Russian state, especially under Putin, and the ambitions of the two most senior Muslim leaders in Russia, Tajuddin and Gaynutdin, for a position that would allow one of them to speak to the Kremlin in the name of all Muslims has kept the struggle for power among them going. 

            Now, two events, one slated for later this month and a second that will take place in 2022, suggest that this struggle is heating up and may be entering into a final phase, one out of which may emerge either a single MSD for the Russian Federation as a whole or the collapse of the entire system.

            Rustam Batyr, a Tatar Muslim activist, argues that this is suggested both by a fight in which some Muslim leaders are throwing around charges of heresy and by the prospect that Tajuddin, already 70, may hope to cap his career with the creation of a single MSD on the 1100th anniversary of the spread of Islam to the Middle Volga (

            In the past, Batyr says, Muslim leaders in Russia have generally used charges of heresy to ward off the influence of outside groups; but over the last two years, some of them are deploying such charges to limit the ability of the SMR to take over regional MSDs.  They did so with success in 2017, but Gaynutdin appears to have learned his lesson and has countered them.

            Those in Saratov who suggested he and the SMR were hotbeds of heresy won the day two years ago, forcing Gaynutdin to delay what he had planned to be a unification congress. But  Gaynutdin and his allies have since shown that the fetwa deployed was itself plagiarized from a book, thus limiting the impact of their criticism.

            What Gaynutdin is trying to do now as he attempted to in 2017 is to use the MSD of Russia, a successor to the MSD of European Russia, to shift relationships between the SMR and the regionals MSDs from the “confederal” links they have now in which the regions are quite independent to a “federal” system in which he not they will control.

            According to Batyr, Gaiinutdin is in a better position to gain his way now than two years ago for two reasons: Many of the regional MSDs have discredited themselves with the population and authorities, and – and this, he says, is more important – the SMR head had put his first deputy Damir Mukhetdinov in charge. Mukhetdinov is a better organizer and politician than his boss, the Muslim commentator says.

            Consequently, while there will be resistance, the SMR position appears likely to strengthen in the coming months. At the same time, however, Tajuddin has not been inactive – and his timetable is for unity under him to occur in advance of the 2022 holiday, something many Muslims, especially in the Middle Volga, are looking forward to.

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