Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Window on Eurasia: Moscow’s ‘Selective Secularism’ Counterproductive, Analyst Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, October 23 – Moscow’s “selective secularism,” its open support of Russian Orthodoxy and its repressive approach to Islam, does little to promote the former among the largely indifferent ethnic Russian population or restrain the latter among the far more committed Muslim one, a Russian analyst says. Indeed, this policy may be having just the opposite effect.

            In an article in “Gazeta” yesterday, Boris Falikov argues that the authorities appear not to understand that “the establishment of confessional peace in the country” is now being undermined by the ideas of those in power about a special role of Orthodox Christianity (www.gazeta.ru/comments/2012/10/22_a_4820137.shtml).

            Falikov’s reflections were prompted by the recent scandal in the village of Kara-Tyube in Stavropol kray. There, a local school director banned hijabs, an action that prompted Muslim parents to complain to the local muftiate.  Russian politicians soon got involved, and what had been a small incident because cause celebre.

            Initially, some of them said that Russia has secular schools but that “no one should be prohibited from wearing a hijab to them.”  But that sensible comment was quickly “drowned out by a chorus” of remarks by more senior people, including finally Russian President Vladimir Putin himself.

            “As if by magic,” the Moscow writer continues, “we for an instant were transported to France, where the state, armed by the principles of secularism already long ago prohibited Muslim scarves in schools.”  But Russia isn’t France where all religious dress is banned in the schools, and Moscow isn’t prepared to insist on anything more than “selective secularism.”

            What is happening with the hijab, he continues, recalls the case of the introduction of courses on religious culture in the schools.  “Warnings that the school in our multi-confessional country should be concerned above all about cultural integration and that such a course would play a diametrically opposed role were simply ignored.”

            And what happened? Falikov asks rhetorically. “In a majority of Russian regions, citizens chose for their children the neutral model of secular ethics,” thus “demonstrating their complete indifference to religion.”  It also represented a serious comedown for the Russian Orthodox Church and its claims to include 80 percent of the population in its ranks.

            But the situation in Muslim-majority regions was very different. There, parents chose the religious module, in this case about Islam.  And “in this way, the state schools in the North Caucasus obtained a good chance over time to be transformed into preparatory courses for the medressah.”
            Thus, it is not surprising, Falikov says, that in neighboring Russian areas, like Stavropol, many officials are worried about that trend, and the schools there “instead of facilitating cultural integration, have begun to be converted into disseminators of religious intolerance,” a pattern that will spread as immigration does.

            In dealing with religion, the “Gazeta” commentator continues, “the powers that be with remarkable consistency are committing one and the same error: They are putting their relations with Orthodoxy in a special category, treating it apart from their relations with other confessions and religions.”

            The authorities clearly assume that “the study of Orthodoxy will help pupils to better master the history and culture of their country and become real patriots” and that the study of other religions won’t do so. That might be appropriate for those faiths with very few followers in Russia, Falikov says, but it won’t work with Islam.

            “Whatever one says about Islam, [that faith] is clearly on the rise, and it has plans,” Falikov says. But precisely this the Russian authorities have not considered.” Their efforts to have “a special relationship” with Orthodoxy have led to “cognitive dissonance” because Islam has made far better use of gaining the right to conduct classes in schools.

            Indeed, he concludes, Islam is the only winner in the regime’s attacks on real as opposed to “selective” secularism. Such attacks almost always, Falikov says, “give preference not to those religions which are preferred but to those which are more vital.” Secularism promotes integration “only when religions are placed on an equal status.

            Unfortunately, the commentator says, one can hardly expect “real secularism” from the Putin regime.  It is likely “as before to search for all kinds of surrogates,” such as Putin’s proposal for requiring all pupils to wear uniforms. That too might seem to some to be a solution, but like all such policies, it too will do little to address the underlying problems.

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