Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Central Asian Migrants ‘Russianizing’ Islam in the Middle Volga

 Paul Goble

              Staunton, February 3 – Just as the influx of Central Asian gastarbeiters did in Moscow and other major Russian cities, the increasing number of Central Asians in the Middle Volga has led to a change in the language used in mosques there, with Russian, the lingua franca, rapidly replacing Kazan Tatar.

              Some pro-Moscow writers welcome this change, seeing it as one that undercuts the influence of Tatarstan within the Russian Federation; but they appear to forget that the use of Russian in mosques has had some unintended consequences, including driving some to celebrate Muslim rituals at home rather than in mosques and attracting more ethnic Russians to Islam.

              In the current issue of “NG-Religii,” Rais Suleymanov, a specialist on Islam in the Middle Volga who has gained notoriety for his attacks on Kazan and on Muslim leaders there and elsewhere, calls attention to this shift, one that he appears to welcome rather than oppose (

              Except for the villages where the Tatars and Bashkirs remain dominant, “the transition to Russian as the language of Muslim preaching has already become a widespread phenomenon for the Urals,” the expert says.  And that shift has become more dramatic because many urban Tatars and Bashkirs do not use their national languages and are less inclined to attend services.

              What is happening then, Suleymanov says, “is a shift in the ethnic composition of mosques, with migrants from Central Asia replacing Tatars,” not only because the Tatars are less religious and the Central Asians more so but because “many Tatars are uncomfortable with the presence of migrants in the mosques.”

              But more is going on than that, he continues.  Often migrants from Central Asia are building their own mosques or transforming their homes into mosques and electing as imam one of their own regardless of his educational background. In some cases, these mosques become “cultural centers” for the Central Asian nationals who attend them.

              “If Tatars look at the mosque not only as a place for prayer but consider that it should fulfill ethno-cultural functions as well,” no one should be surprised, Suleymanov argues, that Tajiks view “their” mosques in exactly the same way and see them as “centers for the preservation of Tajik culture.” That leads to “the ethnicization” of the mosques.

              Frequently too, Suleymanov says, “the ranks of the clergy in the mosques of the Urals are filled up with migrants because they more closely correspond to the demands for an imam than do local Tatars … They know Arabic and have studied in a medrassah,” while “many elderly Tatar mullahs” do not have that level of knowledge.

              Sometimes, parishes thus decide to elect them as their imams; but the leaders of the Muslim Spiritual Directorates (MSDs) in the region work to block them.  Last year, for example, following the election of a Tajik as imam, they worked to have the civil authorities deport him to Tajikistan.

              As mosques have become more Russian and more Central Asian, he continues, Tatars have returned to a Soviet-era practice of celebrating Muslim rituals at home.  “But if this reflected the lack of mosques and the policy of state atheism, today it is being done because of the domination of migrants in the mosques.

              Suleymanov cites another source for the Russianization of the mosques in the Urals region: ethnic Russian women who marry Central Asians and then may convert to Islam. One survey of 14,000 migrants found that about 700 of them had Russian wives. “Naturally,” he says, “the daily language in such families becomes Russian.”

              In 2011, he recounts, “Mufti Khaydar Khafizov of the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous district declared that “the era of Tatar Islam and Tatar mullahs has passed.” That infuriated many at the time, but it is increasingly true at least in the cities. Only in the villages do the Tatars and Bashkirs retain their linguistic dominance in mosques.

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