Sunday, April 21, 2019

Almost a Quarter of Norilsk Residents are Muslims, Imam of Russia’s Northernmost Mosque Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, April 21 – “The Muslim diaspora of Norilsk” now forms almost 25 percent of that city’s population, its life centered around the bright green minaret of the Nurd Kamal mosque that stands out even during the long polar night, according to its imam, Radik Bakiyev, an ethnic Bashkir, who has led the Muslim community there for a decade.

            Norilsk seldom gets much attention in the Russian media except as a dying company town that may disappear with global warming; and its Muslim population gets even less except when some of its number engage in terrorist activities.  That makes Lenta journalist Mikhail Karpov’s interview with the imam especially important (

            Born in a Bashkortostan village in 1978, Bakiyev worked in the oil and gas industry both in his home republic and in Norilsk before acquiring Islamic training in Moscow and becoming imam in Norilsk in 2009, a city which, he says, you have to love in order to remain there because of the severe climate and distances to other parts of Russia. 

            Despite its difficulties, Bekiyev continues, “Norilsk attracts people. We live here as one family; there are no divisions. We [Muslims] all interact with one another and with our brothers, the Orthodox, too.”

            The imam admits that there have been some extremist groups which have emerged from the Muslims there, the result, he says, of ignorance and pride, the failure of Muslim leaders to provide an understanding of the nature of Islam and of Russian officials especially in the 1990s to pay attention to what was going on and take adequate measures.

            As to Muslim extremists, he says, “in contemporary language, one can call them sectarians. Whatever religious denomination you look at has them. Our Orthodox brethren also have sectarians,” products of the same things: “ignorance, pride, and what is most important, failure to life according to the laws of the Most High Creator.”

            Bekieyv says his mosque offers a special class for young people that sends a message to them that they must accept Islam as a whole rather than take selected passages and act on those alone without recognition of the ways in which the ideas expressed in one passage are affected by other passages of the Koran.

            Bekiyev is clearly someone who regrets the demise of the USSR. He misquotes Vladimir Putin’s observation about that and says that the Kremlin leader believes that “our biggest mistake was the destruction of the Soviet Union.” As his interviewer points out, Putin in fact said “whoever doesn’t regret the disintegration of the USSR has no heart, but whoever wants to restore it in its former shape has no brain.”

            Bekiyev concedes that the restoration of the Soviet Union is impossible, but adds, “look around, in Norilsk is represented the entire Soviet Union. We live together in a friendly way: Tajiks, Uzbeks, Kyrgyz, Azerbaijanis. Tomorrow at five in the morning, our little mosque will be full of people; there won’t be any empty places.”

            The city has only one mosque and one prayer room. It would be good to have another, but that requires funds and it is hard for people now to come up with them, the imam continues.   The current mosque began to be built in 1992 as a result of contributions from a local entrepreneur, Mitkhad Bikmeyev.

            Imam Bekiyev says his city’s Muslim community is in many ways unique: “there is nothing similar to Norilsk” on “’the continent’” of Russia.  Because of the hardships of life, Muslims and Orthodox Christians cooperate closely. And as a result, people feel free to move among confessions.

            “Among us,” he says, “there are Russian boys” and even some Russian girls. We don’t ask them why they are coming to Islam – each has his or her reasons – we simply try to explain what Islam is among and how it is similar and different from Orthodoxy, he continues with obvious pride.

            This religious fluidity can lead to mixed marriages: his own daughter in law is a Russian, Bekiyev says. But that isn’t a problem: “Russian girls come to us consciously. Let them live, let us Russians become more numerous. Because you know the birthrate with us is a serious issue.” And this can help.

            Some shout that “’Islam is attacking! Soon there won’t be any Russians!’”  but in fact, “everyone will be, everyone will remain. These are empty words. And may God grant that between us the devil will not come to divide us. But our roots are one, Russia. It is great, so that we can peacefully coexist with other nations, a model for emulation in the entire world.”

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