Thursday, April 4, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Russia’s Muslims Need Regional MSDs and a Single All-Russian Muftiate, Influential Islamic Leader Says

Paul Goble
            Staunton, April 4 – To cope with new challenges, an influential Islamic leader in Russia says, Muslims in the Russian Federation need both the renewal of existing regional Muslim Spiritual Directorates (MSDs) and the creation of a single all-Russian muftiate to coordinate their activities and deal with the state and other faiths.

            While many Muslims now say that the MSDs, as created by the tsars and restored by the Soviets to control of the Islamic community, should be scrapped, Damir Khazrat Mukhetdinov, the deputy chairman of the MSD of European Russia, argues that properly conceived, they still have much to offer as defenders of what he calls the specifically Russian Islamic tradition.

            In the third of his recent commentaries on the problems of Islam in Russia – the first was devoted to the integration of Muslims across the CIS and the second to the adaptation of Muslim immigrants in Russia – Mukhetdinov offers perhaps the most nuanced argument on this subject to date (

            And because of his relative youth and his enormous authority among the mullahs and imams of the Russian Federation, Mukhetdinov is likely to influence the course of the debate on the MSDs by calling for a renewal of their membership and for the establishment of a single all-Russian muftiate over them, albeit both slowly and voluntarily rather than by fiat from above.

            The very existence of the MSDs is controversial, the mufti says, because of their original intention—state control of the faithful – because they have grown so rapidly in number – there are now more than 80 such structures in the Russian Federation – and because they often are filled with people more notable for their ambitions than for their skills or faith.

            Moreover, lacking any theological justification since Islam has no clergy and thus no clerical hierarchy, the MSDs are something many young Muslims would like to do away with. But Mukhetdinov insists that the new tasks that Russia’s Muslims have before them may indeed make a renewed system of MSDs even more valuable.

            The large number of MSDs currently, he suggests, represents an effort to have one MSD in each Russian region and is thus a balance of “tradition and contemporary needs.” They certainly helped Islam recover from the Soviet past, but now they must deal with “entirely other issues and other challenges.”

            Now, the chief tasks of the Muslim umma in Russia are to “preserve our tradition, the Hanafi rite, maintain tolerant relations between Muslim and non-Muslim peoples, and develop the entire spectrum of Russian Muslim culture which ties us together.”

            Mukhetdinov uses the term “Russian Muslim culture” in preference to “traditional Islam” to highlight the fact that it is the product of history, allows Muslims of all ethnic backgrounds to come together, and permits them to insist entirely reasonably that “Russia is also a Muslim country with its own Muslim past, present and of course future.”

            “One of the components of this Russian Muslim culture is the institution of the Muslim Spiritual Directorates, the MSDs.”

            That does not mean these institutions are perfect. They suffer from many defects including bureaucracy, generational conflicts, a lack of training, and an unwillingness and inability to work with young people. “Let us be open: the majority of the regional MSDs are not in a position to resolve these problems.”

            Overcoming this generational divide is especially important, the mufti says, because the Soviet period which lasted over 70 years “led to a situation in which contemporary Muslim young people are more prepared to believe members of their age cohort and the Internet than they are the older generation.”

            Many of the older generation of Muslim imams, mullahs and muftis lack the education to be able to be convincing to young people, especially to those who have studied abroad or learned Islam via the web, and Russia does not have enough high quality medressahs and Muslim universities to quickly prepare a new take over generation.

            Consequently, Mukhetdinov says, there are a number of steps Russia’s Muslims need to take to overcome the current stagnation and make the MSDs full participants in the process of promoting the development of the growing Muslim community – and these steps do not include dismantling these institutions.

            First of all, the Muslims of Russia must come together are create “a strong all-Russian muftiate which can actively help the regional MSDs” while addressing all-Russian concerns. It must take the lead particularly in promoting a new flowering of Muslim educational institutions so that Russia can grow its own Muslim leaders rather than relying on outsiders.

            Second, Muslims must make very clear that the MSDs are “not a government institution” and thus need not follow any particular structure. What will work in one region may not work in another, and Muslims rather than the government have to make that determination. Experimentation is fine.

            And third, it obviously is best if there is only one MSD per region rather than two or more competing institutions. But where there are several, they must come together on a voluntary basis even if that means that they will co-exist for a long time to come. Using force or involving the state to bring pressure on them will be counterproductive.

Russia’s Muslims need to understand, Mukhetdinov says, that “the most important function of the MSDs is developing the faith, something that will be possible by giving the old form new content rather than destroying the form in the name of something new.

            Mukhetdinov’s proposals may seem utopian, but in contrast to the ideas others have advanced, they offer as good political programs often do something for almost everyone and therefore have a greater chance to win support. At the very least, the reaction to his proposals will be worth watching as an indication of where the 20 million Muslims of Russia are heading.

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