Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Russia’s Muslims, Diverse in Soviet Times, are Even More Varied Now, Moscow Ethnographer Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, February 27 – Russia’s Islamic community, extraordinarily diverse in tsarist and Soviet times, has become even more varied since 1991, a situation that makes nonsense of the widespread view that there is some “statistically average Muslim” and means that one-size-fits-all policies are doomed to failure, according to a Moscow ethnographer.

            In an interview on the portal yesterday, Akhmet Yarlykapov, a senior scholar at the Center for Ethno-Political Research of the Russian Academy of Sciences, describes the nature and sources of this growing diversity and warns of the dangers of ignoring it (

            “The uniqueness of Russia consists that the Islamic regions [of the country] are so very different one from other, Yarlykanov says. And that variety means that it is almost always a mistake to assume that any one characteristic or even any trend is true of all its various components.

            Thus, for example, “if we take Daghestan and to a lesser extent Chechnya and Ingushetia, then in these places there has not been a rebirth of Islam but rather the coming out of Islam from the underground.”  But if we consider such regions as Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachayevo-Cherkesia, then it would be correct to use the term ‘re-Islamization.’”

            The same problem exists regarding the use of terms like “traditional” and “non-traditional” Islam, the Moscow scholar says.  In Daghestan, Chechnya, and Ingushetia, Sufism is the traditional form, but in other North Caucasus republics, there was no Sufism. And that in turn means that re-Islamization is different in different places a well.

            Because all these different things are going on all at once and because they have created “a mosaic of Islamic opinion,” Yarlykapov argues, it is extremely difficult and counterproductive to “single out something as ‘tradition’” and something else as non-traditional and assume that one can support the one or the other in every case.

            “Soviet Muslims also were extremely diverse,” he continues. There were those that many in the West call part of “official Islam,” which included the Muslim Spiritual Directorates who were almost “government employees” and their followers.  There were numerous trends of independent “unofficial” Muslim groups who had “complicated” relations with the official brand.

            And there were what many call “ethnic Muslims,” people who “considered themselves Muslims but new little or nothing about the faith. Taken together, these constituted what became in the 1980s, “Soviet Islam,” which had little to do with theology but rather with the flowering of “pre-monotheistic” practices such as visits to holy places.

            All of these trends represented efforts to survive under duress rather than a search for the faith, Yarlykapov suggests, and he calls attention to one curious reality: The MSDs then, just as the Wahhabis do today, condemned those who were shifting from attention to theological truths to pre-monotheistic practices.

            The relationship between Islamic identity and political identity has also changed. In tsarist times, the religious identity was predominant; in Soviet times, the political one became more important; but now there is a struggle between them, with some Muslims viewing Islamic identity as more important but others just the reverse.

             Today, the Moscow ethnographer says, “the overwhelming majority of Muslims consider themselves Rossiyane [that is, non-ethnic Russians] and is politically loyal to the Russian state. In a political sense, then, they conceive themselves as part of the [non-ethnic] Russian nation [natisya].”

            But in addition, there are others who believe “that is it necessary to establish their own state” and are willing to go into the forests to fight. There are those who believe that “a compromise is possible.” And there are those who believe that they must have their own state but that now is not the time to fight for it.

            This last group, Yarlykapov suggests, resemble “the situation of the ultra-Orthodox in Israel who do not recognize the state of Israel but nevertheless, live on its territory.  There are such Sufi groups in Daghestan. They are not large, but one must not forget about them” in any assessment of the umma in the Russian Federation.

            The MSD system, created by the tsarist regime in the 18th century and revived by the Soviet leadership in the 1940s today has collapsed, the ethnographer says.  These institutions “are not part of the state system; in legal terms, these are simply social organizations without a strict hierarchy.” Muslim communities form around imams not around them.

            The Russian government does not comprehend this complexity, the scholar continues. And it has not figured out what to do.  “The sad thing is not that the policy of the state is anti-Islamic; the sad thing is that the state does not have a clear policy regarding Islam,” and as a result, “each state organ acts” on its own and as it thinks best.

            The relationship between the various groups within Russian Islam and the Russian Orthodox Church are equally complicated, Yarlykapov argues. These involve in the first instance concerns about missionary work by one side among the followers of the other and in the second differences in the relationship of the faith to those in power.

            In some places, this relationship is relatively good but in others openly hostile. But what is surprising is this: “On the whole, Orthodoxy and not only its Russian variant to a surprising degree remains the one Christian confession which on the one hand has a very serious and lengthy experience of interacting with Islam but on the other hand has done nothing for developing inter-confessional dialogue.”

            Yarlykapov said that he personally does not see any clear policy about Islam existing in the Russian Orthodox Church. That Church is angry that “in the North Caucasus, there are many cases” when Russians have become Muslims, “especially in Daghestan, where quite a high percent of ethnic Russians have accepted Islam.”

            Thus, neither the state nor the Church has done much to move beyond “stereotypes rooted in a lack of knowledge about Islam” and neither has helped Russian society to move beyond Islamophobic attitudes, which are growing because of the influx of Muslim gastarbeiters from Central Asia and the South Caucasus.

            Islamophobia is on the rise throughout the world, the scholar says, “but for Russia this is a particularly serious problem,” because a large share of all Muslims there are citizens of the country and because they form a large share of the population as a whole.  Inter-religious conflicts in Russia are thus “especially dangerous.”

            If Russians can get beyond Islamophobia, Yarlyapov suggests, they will see some amazing things going on among the Muslims living among them. A large number of Russia’s Muslims “read Arabic or at least English and have the chance to become familiar with the fetwas of sheiks living many thousands of kilometers away.”

            These Muslims are part of the larger problem of “’electronic muftis,’” who are playing an increasing role in the lives of the faithful and often have far more influence in the lives of believers than the mullah or imam at the local mosque. “Today it is possible to go to one mosque but to be a follower of another imam who lives thousands of kilometers away.”

            The Russian academic community unfortunately has not helped as much as it might, the Moscow investigator says. While there is no shortage of research on Russia’s Muslims, there is a severe shortage of high quality sociological work. Indeed, there is less of that now than there was at the end of the Soviet period.

            If one looks to the future, Yarlykapov says, it is clear that the Muslims are not going to become a majority of the population by 2050.  They form at most 20 percent now, many Muslim nationalities are not growing fast, and a large share of the Muslims inside Russia consists of migrants who at some point will go home.

            But if one focuses on culture, Muslims will be playing an expanded role. “Russia will continue to remain a country where the most varied cultures exist, including within Islam itself.”  That means whatever some may think or want that “Russia in the future will preserve all its cultural multiplicity.”

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