Russian Islam consists of three groups: the Tatars and Bashkirs of the Middle Volga, the Muslims of the North Caucasus, and Muslim minorities elsewhere including immigrants from Central Asia and Azerbaijan and migrant workers from the North Caucasus, the specialist on Islam says.
Each is distinctive, but increased use of the Russian language has dramatically expanded their contacts and promoted “a movement in the direction of the formation of a special Russian Islam.”
Salafism is also playing a role because in its milieu, “ethnic and cultural boundaries are reduced with the religious component coming out in first place.” It is found primarily among the young. But it constitutes a paradox, Malashenko says. It opposes national divisions within the faith but helps to form national Islams – and the case of Russia no exception.”
Despite what many in the security services believe, “Salafi ideology in Russia is not aggressive: but “the formation of an all-Russian Islamic ideology will make possible the politicization of Islam,” a process that can be seen wherever one looks in the Muslim world. And it can overcome domestic divisions within Islam as well.
Among those divisions in Russia are the various administrative centers of Islam. The most influential of these are the Union of Muftis of Russia (SMR), the Central Muslim Spiritual Directorate (Central MSD), and the MSD of the Republic of Tatarstan. The first two make all-Russian claims, but the second seeks the “informal” status of the main Islamic center in Russia.
In addition, there are more than 80 regional MSDs and periodic efforts to create new all-Russian bodies. The first often compete among themselves except in the North Caucasus where they tend to follow ethnic lines; the latter in almost all cases have turned out to be stillborn, Malashenko says.
“In Russia there is no generally recognized leader or even one recognized by a majority of Muslims,” he continues. Neither the SMR’s Ravil Gaynutdin nor the Central MSD’s Talgat Tajuddin have that status. But there is one person who has growing authority among all Russian Muslims and that is Ramzan Kadyrov, the head of Chechnya.
He increasingly speaks for or at least on behalf of the Muslim community of Russia; and because he does, he more than anyone else can now aspire to be its leader, although in some cases, he repels rather than attracts. But there is no question that Kadyrov increasingly speaks “as a Muslim – political and religious – leader” and not just as a Chechen.
According to Malashenko, the Kremlin has more pressing tasks than worrying about the unification of the Muslim community. It does continue to speak about “traditional” Islam in Russia and to oppose outside innovations. And it has wisely refused to create a single all-Muslim structure analogous to the Moscow Patriarchate in Russian Orthodoxy.
It is far simpler for the Russian authorities to “manipulate competing Muslim organizations” than to control a single one. In fact, Malashenko says, “the Kremlin instinctively fears the appearance of Russian Islam which under certain conditions could play a quite independent role.”
The Moscow scholar says he raises these issues not because a single Russian Islam is on the horizon but because the forces moving in that direction are real and the authorities are going to have to decide how to respond. For the Kremlin, this “potential ‘all-Russian Islam’ can create political problems;” but it still has time to intervene to block its rise.