Monday, October 8, 2012

Window on Eurasia: Tatarstan Parents Rejecting Religious Courses for Their Children

Paul Goble

            Staunton, October 8 – Unlike their counterparts in many parts of the Russian Federation, not a single family in Tatarstan has signed up their children for “Foundations of Islamic Culture” or “Foundations of Orthodox Culture,” selecting instead courses surveying world religious cultures or secular ethics.

            Just over 61 percent of the parents there chose “Foundations of World Religious Cultures,” while the remainder chose “Foundations of Secular Ethics,” Rafik Mukhametshin, the rector of Kazan’s Russian Islamic University, told a Moscow conference last Thursday (

            The situation in Tatarstan is in contrast with the Russian Federation as a whole. Of all Russian parents, 47 percent chose “Foundations of Secular Ethics,” 28.7 percent “Foundations of Orthodox Culture,” 20.3 percent “Foundations of World Religious Culture,” and 5.6 percent “Foundations of Islamic Culture.”

            Mukhametshin explained the divergence by pointing to the influence of the current and past president of Tatarstan who have always stressed “the secular nature” of schools and “insistently recommended that parents chose for their children “Foundations of World Religions” and “Secular Ethics.

            But while the Islamic educator did not say so, this pattern also reflects the more secular traditions of Tatarstan, traditions that elsewhere in his remarks to the same Moscow Carnegie Center, Mukhametshin suggested are now under threat because of “the radicalization of Islam in Tatarstan” (

            According to the rector in remarks reported by today, the reasons for that trend are both obvious and completely understandable, if one considers the nature of Islam in Tatarstan rather than treats Islam across the Russian Federation as if the Russian umma were a single consistent whole rather than the highly diverse community it is.

            Mukhametshin then pointed to another reason that radicalization has happened: the very arrangements the Russian state has created for supervising Muslims. “There cannot be a centralized structure in Islam,” he noted, “and in Russia there are approximately 80 Muslim spiritual directorates (MSDs), each with its own rules.”

            The MSD of Tatarstan, he continued, maintains that its basic theology is the Hanafi rite of Sunni Islam, but “at present, the leadership of the MSDs do not insist on the fulfillment of the theological demands [thus implied,] fearful that their followers, would in that event shift to other MSDs.”

            Among the least respectful of the Hanafi rite are those who have received their theological education in Saudi Arabia, Mukhametshin argued.  But “the pluralism” their appearance has produced has “not done the people of the republic any good.” Instead, it has lead to radicalization which the MSD feels powerless to oppose.

            That is especially true for the young who insist that they “live only according to the Koran and the sunna,” thereby ignoring “the centuries old traditions of Islam.”  Indeed, he suggested, one must “regretfully call this phenomenon the ‘religious mankurtization’” of the population.

            In order to prevent the situation from deteriorating further, the rector said, there needs to be “a precise confessional policy which ‘does not contradict the democratic essence of Islam.’ The absence of such a policy ‘out of a fear of intervening’ has played a negative role.”  That should involve religious training in the schools and restrictions on theological training abroad.

            Further, Mukhametshin insisted in response to questions, “the withering away of the borders [of the Sunni legal schools] opens the way to sectarianism.” And in another comment, he argued that “the Muslim community of Russia is not prepared for reformism and modernism” because it still has not acquired the rudiments of “traditional Islam.”

            He acknowledged that “to give a definition for ‘traditional Islam’ is not so simple in part because this phenomenon is not defined in any of the structures. However,” he added, it involves the serious and respectful study of the theological tradition, “in particular,” of the Tatars in the 18th and 19th centuries.

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