Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Window on Eurasia: How Many Ethnic Russians are Muslims?

Paul Goble

            Staunton, January 8 – Few issues are more explosive than the question of how many ethnic Russians are Muslims, because such converts are often thought to be especially inclined to and useful for terrorist activities and because such conversions challenge assumptions about links between Russianness and Orthodoxy and highlight weaknesses in Russian national identity.

            And because there are no reliable data available – the Russian census does not ask about religious affiliations and at least some who have converted are understandably unwilling to run the risks of declaring this to the state – estimates vary widely from a few thousand to a few hundred thousand, with no on in a position to say exactly what the number is.

            That makes a portion of a new article by Vasily Ivanov on the spread of radical trends in Islam among ethnic Russians in the Middle Volga especially useful because he addresses this question directly both for the Russian Federation as a whole and for the Middle Volga in particular (

            Ivanov’s discussion on the numbers, first presented in October 2013 at an Ufa conference on “Islam and the State in Russia” on the occasionof the 225th anniversary of the establishment of the Orenburg Mohammedan Spiritual Assembly, is worth attending to even if one does not accept all of his conclusions about the amount of radicalism to be found in this group.

            He begins by acknowledging that “exact data on the number of Russian Muslims are lacking as a result of the fact that the All-Russian census o the population does not allow defining the relationship of the ethnic and religious attachments of the population” and that “existing data are extremely contradictory.”

            Media reports range from a few thousand to several hundred thousand, with the lower numbers typically offered by the mainstream media and the higher ones by Islamic websites.  There are certainly a number of Russian converts to Islam as a result of marriage or conviction, but the real number is clearly somewhere between these high and low figures.

            The low figures are simply guesses, but the high figures are reached by an analogy that is not without its problems.  The 2009 Kazakhstan census which did ask questions about religion and ethnicity found that there were 54,277 ethnic Russian followers of Islam in that Central Asian country, out of a total number of 3,793,764 Russians there.

            If the same share of ethnic Russians in the Russian Federation were Muslims, that would mean more than a million of the faithful there, but most writers, even on Islamic sites, assume that the figure needs to be adjusted downward because Kazakhstan is a country whose titular nationality is historically Islamic.

            But there are other reasons not to accept the Kazakhstan figures, Ivanov says. In the course of a scandal about that census, it was discovered that a large portion of the population was counted twice and the figures then had to be adjusted by officials, a change that allowed the introduction of all kinds of distortions including on matters of ethnicity and faith.

            The actual figure for the Russian Federation as a whole probably approaches 10,000, Ivanov suggests, but he notes that “assessing the number of ethnic Russian Muslims in the Middle Volga is much difficult” for a variety of reasons.

            It is clear that there has been an increase in the number of such people in Russia as a whole and in the Middle Volga in recent years, and Ivanov says there are three basic groups among Russian Muslims: those who have converted as a result of spiritual searches, those who have as a result of marriage, and those who have out of social and political calculation.

            (In the last category is a sub-group that is not increasing now but still attracts much attention, Ivanov continues. Its members are Russian security and military personnel who have been “forcibly” converted to Islam as a result of their imprisonment by the Afghan mujahideen or Chechen rebels. There are only a few dozen such people.)

            According to the Russian researcher, who cites Russian security agency studies,  most Russian Muslims follow Sunni trends such as Wahhabism, Hizb ut-Tahrir, Tabligi Dzhamat, the Nurjilar, and the Hanafi and Shafi rite.  But there are also among them a few Shiites and Sufis as well.

            Many of the converts accept a “syncretic” faith, one that combines elements from various trends, including extremist ones. That happens perhaps especially often among those members of the business and political elites who accept Islam out of political calculations as can be seen in Ufa and several other Middle Volga cities.

            Those who accept Islam for ideological reasons, he suggests, can be subdivided among the following groups: First, those who do so because of an interest in the esoteric or occult but who seldom become practicing Muslims; second those who are attracted to Oriental life, most of whom become Shiites; those who do so because they view Orthodoxy as a “religion of the weak” and see in Islam a source of vital strength; and those who accept Islam because they are criminals and want to cooperate with Muslims who may be as well.

            The last two categories, which might be called “revolutionaries” and “criminals,” typically “find a common language within organized criminal groups.” Unlike the other two, they are committed to being “practicing Muslims.”

            Some investigators, Ivanov says, point to the existence among Russian Muslims of supporters of “Aryan Islam” and “Marxist Islam.”  The former “combine Islam with Russian nationalism and racism” and view Islam either “as ‘a path to the rebirth of the Russian nation’ or ‘a path to the armed struggle of the white race.’” The latter see Islam as “’a means for the worldwide liberation of the oppressed,’” and are internationalist in their outlook.

            Given the attention to ethnic Russian women converts to Islam, Ivanov says that those in this category fit into one or two subgroups: Eitehr they have accepted Islam for family reasons or consciously chosen to join bands, or they have been recruited, often by deception, into the faith and into militant bands. More often than their male counterparts, it appears, they have links to the North Caucasus.

            According to the Center for the Geography of Religion in the Synodal Department on Relations of Church and Society of the Moscow Patriachate of the Russian Orthodox Church, a hardly disinterested source, “there are now in Russia more than 200 ethnic Russian Muslims” who are being investigated, sought or confined for criminal activities such as terrorism.

            That allows the conclusion, Ivanov says that “Russian Muslims are the most criminalized ethno-confessional group in the country,” a conclusion that appears to be widely accepted in Moscow but that also appears to be more the product of prejudice and assumptions about the total numbers of Russian Muslims than of anything else.

            What is clear and what Ivanov stresses is that there are clear “’distinctions in the mentality’” of ethnic Russians who accept Islam not only from ethnic Russians who remain Orthodo but also from representatives of nations who historically have followed what Russian researchers call “traditional Islam.”

            Also clear, and again something Ivanov stresses, is that many ethnic Russians who accept Islam do so because they know little about Russian Orthodoxy, something that investigators say is “to a large extent the result of poor work by the Russian Orthodox Church” which typically does not conduct missionary work among ethnic Russian youth.

            Such work is absolutely necessary now, Ivanov concludes, because “the main cause of the success of Islamic proselytism among particular representatives of the Russian people is that the majority of ethnic Russians remain cut off from their spiritual roots and in fact are not acquainted with the religion of their ancestors” and have “distorted ideas about this religion.”

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