Staunton, April 22 – Up to now, most Russian specialists make a distinction between traditional and untraditional Islam on ideological grounds, with the former having deep historical roots in Russia and subordinate to Muslim spiritual directorates (MSDs) and the latter associated with radical ideas and existing outside of the mosques as an underground phenomenon.
But that division, if ever correct, has now broken down almost completely: the multiplication of MSDs means that many radicals are part of one of these structures, and Muslims operating separately from the mosques subordinate to these institutions are often as traditional or more traditional than those that have official recognition.
A week ago, Naima Neflyasheeva, an expert on Islam in the North Caucasus, hosted on an online presentation by MGIMO expert Akhmed Yarlykapov followed by a discussion by experts in Russia and abroad. Neflyasheva has now provided a summary of this event (kavkaz-uzel.eu/blogs/1927/posts/37484).
The muftiates, as the MSDs are often referred to, “are finding it ever more difficult to control the situation on their territories,” Yarlykapov says, not only because in many places there are competing MSDs and influences from beyond the region but also because of the rise of informal groups not registered with them.
It is critical to understand, he continues, that “these informal networks do not necessarily consist of so-called ‘non-traditional’ Muslims.” Many of them are ideologically the same as the “traditional” ones in registered mosques, and the two trends cooperate with each other on many issues, even where the non-traditional networks are becoming dominant.
Irina Starodubrovskaya of Moscow’s Gaidar Institute says she agrees with Yarlykapov on all this but adds that “’traditional’ and ‘non-traditional’ Islam are not only a conflict of identities but in large measure reflects functional distinctions.” Official Islam is integrated vertically while non-traditional is more horizontal and democratic. The division isn’t always ideological.
Ziyautdin Uvaysov, a lawyer and rights activist from Daghestan, says that the division people typically talk about reflects the fact that the constitutional separation of church and state doesn’t exist in practice and that officials are trying in every way “to keep religious structures under their control.”
Many believers are alienated by that control rather than by the religious position of the “traditional” and state-registered MSDs and parishes, he says.
And Karena Avedissiyan of the American University of Armenia says that “the choice between ‘traditional’ and ‘non-traditional’ Islam is not so much a question of doctrine as much as one between two methods of expressing political identity.” Many Muslims choose non-traditional communities in order to register their protest against the current regime.
The group then focused on the future of “traditional” and “non-traditional” Islam. Uvaysov suggested that the two would gradually converge except over the issue of the relationship each has with the powers that be. Traditional Muslims will accept the state as it is; non-traditional Muslims won’t.
Magomed Sunzhensky, in contrast, says that “’unofficial’ Islam will become ever more ‘official,’” especially since that is what its leaders and the official government establishment want. Sometimes this can help overcome conflicts or at least offer the opportunity for talks as has happened in Ingushetia.
Yevgeny Ivanov, a graduate student at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, says the fate of the two branches will depend on who can satisfy believers better. If official Islam continues to lose this competition, he says, “then it risks consisting of pastors without flocks. This question is not so much about hierarchy as about utility.”
And Magomed Magomedov, a Daghestani journalist, says that in his republic the distinction between traditional and non-traditional is increasingly being displaced by one between loyal and disloyal Muslims given that there are official and unofficial Muslims in both of these categories.