Thursday, February 21, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Muslims Now One-Fifth of Population in Russia’s Gas-Rich Yamalo-Nenets Region, Mufti Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, February 21 – Muslims coming to work in Russia’s gas industry in Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous District now form almost a fifth of the population there, a situation that has provoked speculation that Wahhabis constitute a threat to that industry and appeals from the local Russian-dominated government for Moscow to restrict migration into that district.

                A major reason for such speculation and fear is the lack of information about the Muslim community of the Yamalo-Nenets AO, according to an article posted on the Islam in Siberia portal yesterday (

            “If a Russian reader wants to find out about the life of Muslims of the Yamalo-Nenets AO and turns for help to a search engine on the Internet, he will find reports about the influx of foreign migrants from Muslim countries, the struggle with Wahhabis in the north, and other disturbing reports,” the article says.

            There are few reports about the life of the Muslim umma there,the portal continues, and as a result, the life of Muslims there remains a “terra incognita for Russian readers,” a place about which so little is known that outsiders feel free to impose their ideas upon it, often generating the most alarmist sentiments. For an example of such comment, see,

            To remedy this situation of “too few facts and too many inventions and myths,” the Islam in Siberia portal interviewed Khaydar Khafizov, the 43-old Bashkir mufti of the region who has served there in one or another capacity since 1995, including eleven years in a mosque build by Russia’s Lukoil company.

            Many people from traditionally Muslim nations came to the region in the 1970s in order to help develop the gas industry there, but their numbers rose dramatically in the 1990s, a reflection of Russian outmigration and the collapse of the propiska system.  As a result,  Khafizov says, Muslims now form 15 to 20 percent of the residents of the cities of the district.

            His Muslim Spiritual Directorate (MSD) supervises 14 Muslim parishes, works closely with Lukoil and other corporations who have helped build their mosques, and developed programs to provide Russian-language instruction to immigrants who do not speak the state language.

            The oil and gas companies have been true friends to the Muslims, Khafizov says.  They are  rateful to the Muslims for their hard word in the field, and their corporate leadership believes that “if an Orthodox Church is build, then a mosque must be built as well.” That in turn has made the Muslims grateful to the oil and gas companies.

            Of course, the Muslims have built some mosques on their own, and some immigrant communities have built them as a way of saying thank you to the community there.  In 2002, for example, Turkish gastarbeiters build a mosque for the Muslims of the district even though the Turks were returning home.

            Given the growth of the Muslim community there, the mufti says, he has a great deal of difficulty ensuring that every mosque has an imam with a high-quality theological education obtained in Russia rather than abroad.  And he adds that most of the imams and mullahs under his supervision are quite young; the oldest is only 45.

            Another challenge, Khafizov says,is the enormous size of the Autonomous District and the long distances between his parishes.  To cope with that, he adds, his MSD has not one leader but two: himself as mufti and Anur Zagidullin as chairman.  This is the only such arrangement among the MSDs of the Russian Federation.

            His muftiate works closely with the national cultural autonomies and other ethnic organiztions of people from Tatarstan, Bashkortostan, Azerbaijan, Daghestan, Chechnya, Ingushetia, and elsewhere, and because his MSD helps adapt these people to local conditions, Khafizov says he has “very warm” relations with government officials.

            Those officials, like the major corporations, have been extremely helpful to the Muslim community, the mufti continues. The Yamalo-Nenets government pays for summer camps for Muslim children, and it even provides the funds to allow 25 to 35 local Muslims to make the haj each year.

            Because of its isolation and severe climate, the region has a difficult time attracting and then holding migrant workers. Last year, Khafizov says, more than 30,000 migrants came, but only 12,000 remained. His MSD, recognizing the burdens such turbulence places on the authorities, is helping them to fit in and to ensure they obey the law.

             Because salaries are so high in the oil and gas industry, the mufti continues, sometimes migrants cut borners, purchasing fraudulent documents and settling in the district illegally.  When they arrive but can’t get work, they often form a “semi-criminal” underclass that threatens social order.

             “As far as religious extremism is concerned,” Khafizov acknowledges, in recent years acertain number of radicals have settled in the Russian North”and have been conducting subversive activity especially among the young.  But his MSD’s imams, the mufti says, are committed to eliminating extremism and defending “the spiritual borders of the Fatherland.”

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