Saturday, October 12, 2013

Window on Eurasia: For Putin Regime, A Traditional Muslim is a Soviet Muslim

Paul Goble

Staunton, October 12 – “The time of old Muslims, of those who sometimes were members of the Communist Party and who were were accustomed to the diktat of matter over the spirit is coming to an end in the CIS,” and its passing is a matter for “nostalgia and regret,” according to a Moscow journalist who has often published articles critical of Islam.

In a story for entitled “the Crisis of Soviet Muslims,” Gleb Postnikov admits more than he appears to intend: with these words, he suggests that for him and for the current regime in the Russian Federation, a “traditional” Muslim is a survival of the tightly constrained Islam of Soviet times (

Were he or anyone else to say this about another faith, there would be an international outcry, but hostility to Islam based on the assumption that it is the religion itself rather than the experience of some of its followers which is the source of Islamist terrorism almost certainly undoubtedly will keep such criticism to a minimum.

But because Postnikov acknowledges what the Putin regime clearly wants, it is worth paying attention not only to what he and his allies say in this regard but to recall the kind of Islam they would clearly but mistakenly like to go back to, an Islam that on the surface will be completely unthreatening but underneath will be a breeding ground for a far more radical future.

In sum, if Postnikov and those like him get what they want, they will quickly learn that it is precisely what they most fear.

            The occasion for Postnikov’s latest article was a decision to cancel plans for an international conference that had been organized by supporters of the Hizb ut-Tahrir Party.  Had this meeting not been cancelled, the Russian journalist says, “we would have become witnesses of a discussion on the theme of the repression of Muslims in the post-Soviet space.”

            Hizb ut-Tahrir has been banned in Central Asia and the Russian Federation as a terrorist organization, Postnikov says, although “neither the US nor many European states classify it as a structure which supports terrorism.”  In reality, Hizb ut-Tahrir does not promote terrorism “as a means of achieving its goal,” but that does not “lessen the danger” its supporters represent.

            According to Postnikov, its adepts appeared in Crimea in1997-1998 and now “control” on the order of 10 of the 400 registered autonomous Muslim communities, although he adds that it is “very complicated” to say how many “unregistered” communities it has organized.  And he says, Hizb ut-Tahrir has now spread into Kharkiv and Poltava oblasts as well.

            That the Hizb ut-Tahrir supporters planned to organize a congress shows just how strong they feel themselves to be, the Russian journalist says. The group’s adepts are opposed by the CrimeanTatar mejlis which is based on “a regional nationalism” and thus opposes “trans-border Islam” of the kind Hizb ut-Tahrir represents.

            Indeed, Postnikov says, today, “the entire post-Soviet space is a field of battle between businessmen from nationalism and the fanatic Islamist ideologues” for influence and market share.

            The leaders of the Central Asian countries have recognized this and come down hard on Hizb ut-Tahrir, and that is why the group has focused on Crimea.  “It is no accident that the theme of the roundtable in Crimea was to be ‘repressions against Muslims in the post-Soviet space.’ What is important here is not so much the word ‘repressions’ as the word ‘post-Soviet.’”

            If one speaks about this with “First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Uzbekistan Karimov or the First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan Nazarbayev or the deputy of the Tajikistan SSR Supreme Soviet Rakhmon, one will see this at once.

            “Yes,” Postnikov continues, “all of them are ruling their feudal votchinas in their own way.  Some have made of their countries one large drug market, others have preserved the Soviet Union,” and so on.  “But nevertheless, over all these countries hangs a common past. Even if Rakhmon and Karimov hate each other, they do not need translators.”

            “And the head of the Crimean Tatar Mejli Mustafa Cemilev,” Postnikov continues, “despite his dissident past, is ‘Soviet’ to the bone.  With him to it is possible to discussthings. But with those religious communities which strive to push out the mejlis there is hardly a chance for that. They simply don’t need it.”

            “When we finally bury the Soviet past … when children will cease to understand the meaning of the Soviet shield, we will see out the wind a brave new world. And we will find out whether we will have the chance to conduct a conference on ‘repression against non-Muslims on the post-Soviet space.’”

            On the one hand, Postnikov’s words are little more than an expression of regret on the passing of a world in which there were few Muslim communities, where Muslims in Russia and the other Soviet republics knew little about Islam, and where Muslim leaders could be counted on to support whatever the Kremlin said.

            That is clearly a world he and some others would like to go back to, one in which 98 percent of the mosques that had existed before the Soviets were closed, 98 percent of the mullahs were killed or exiled, and few translations of the Koran into Russian or other Soviet langauges were available.

            And it is a world where the Soviet government acted according to the formula that Roman Silantyev, a prominent anti-Muslim activist, has urged be revived for use against any Islamist activism: 90 percent force and only ten percent counter-propaganda (

            But on the other, Postnikov’s argument as supported by Silantyev represents a widespread desire to  put the genie back into the bottle and to do so by force alone.  But that raises three issues which neither of these writers is prepared to face: First, it would be difficult to assemble enough force to do this to Islam without doing it to all the residents of all these countries.

            Second, if any of these regimes tries force alone and fails, it will face an Islamist opponent even more confident of its strength and better able to advertise that fact than it is at the present time. And third, if any of these regimes does succeed in going back to the world of “official” Soviet Islam, it will fail in another and perhaps more dramatic way.

            That is because many believers will leave the deracinated registered mosques for unregistered and underground ones, and they will link themselves with ever more radical groups and become an even bigger threat to the existing states.  In Soviet times, many Muslims did the same, but their children and grandchildren have the advantage of the Internet and thus will be far stronger than their ancestors.

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