Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Window on Eurasia: With Government Support, Moscow Mosques to Teach Russian to Migrants

Paul Goble

            Staunton, May 20 – With the active support of the Federal Migration Service, Moscow’s mosques are going to start free courses in the Russian language for immigrants from Central Asia and the Caucasus as part of a broader program to help them adapt and to raise their general educational level.

            Tatyana Dmitriyeva, the head of the FMS Moscow office for work with ethnic communities, told “Izvestiya” that she and her staff are “actively working with the Muslim spiritual directorate [MSD] of Moscow,” which she said was “also concerned about the issues of the adaptation of migrants in the city” (izvestia.ru/news/570865).

                But if both the Russian authorities and the city’s Muslim leadership back this idea, there are good reasons to think that such a program, if it is launched, will have consequences that one side or both could come to regret.

            On the other hand, the MSD is certain to invoke its service in this regard to press for the opening of more than the six mosques now officially registered. But on the other, both it and the Russian government are likely to face the possibility that some Muslims will attend underground and more radical mosques given this rapprochement between religious and political functions.

            (That this is a real risk was suggested by Farid Asadullin, the deputy head of the MSD for the European Part of Russia, at a St. Petersburg conference on adaptation and inter-religious cooperation held last week (islamrf.ru/news/russia/rusopinions/32395/).)

            And behind both of these possibilities is a larger issue: the Russianization of the Muslim community.  Until a decade or so ago, Kazan Tatars were the most numerous ethnic group among the mullahs and imams of Moscow, and they used their national language rather than Russian in services, something that reduced the interest of other groups to attend mosques there.

            More recently, the mosques of Moscow have shifted to the use of Russian, something that has allowed them to attract more Muslims who do not speak Tatar.  The offering of Russian-language courses almost certainly will further expand this practice, and that in turn means that even more Muslims will attend the few mosques they have in the city and do so more regularly.

            On the most important religious holidays, the existing mosques in Moscow have not been able to hold all those attending, and the spillover into the surrounding squares and streets has sparked complaints both from Russian nationalists who see such events as evidence of the Islamization of Russia and from local residents who have NIMBY attitudes.

            For the moment, however, as “Izvestiya” reports, officials like Dmitriyeva, Moscow Muslim leaders like Bair Ibratov, a senior official of the Moscow MSD, and rights activists like Aleksandr Verkhovsky of SOVA, are emphasizing the positive nature of this step rather than considering these potential problems.

            Ibratov for his part said that the preparation of instructors for Russian language courses in the four Moscow mosques under his MSD would begin next month at the Russian University of Friendship of the Peoples.  He said the first courses would be offered at the Moscow Islamic College and then be extended. The MSD official said he favored charging a nominal fee for such instruction because “often people are not serious” about something they don’t have to pay for.

            Verkhovsky told the paper that he believes the courses will be a success because immigrants recognize that they need to learn Russian, and mosques, unlike Orthodox churches, are viewed as acceptable places for various activities. “Therefore,” he said, “studying Russian also can be carried out there without problems or the violation of the cannon and traditions.”

            “Izvestiya” noted that the Russian Orthodox Church had launched last summer special courses at specially organized centers to help immigrants adapt by teaching Russian as well as Russian history and culture. Some 150 immigrants took part, the paper said.

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