Staunton, September 20 – Ravil Gaydnutdin, the head of the Council of Muftis of Russia (SMR), says there are now between three and four million Muslims in the Russian capital and its environs that their participation in Islamic holidays shows that they need far more than the six mosques and 100 prayer halls they currently have.
In 1997, the mufti tells Valeriya Nodelman of Izvestiya, there were about 800,000 Muslims in Moscow. Now, because of immigration and counting both permanent and temporary residents, there are between three and four million there. (iz.ru/923188/valeriia-nodelman/tri-chetyre-milliona-zhivushchikh-v-moskve-ispoveduiut-islam).
Moscow is not the only place where Muslims are increasing in number, Gaynutdin continues. In St. Petersburg over the last 10 to 15 years, their number ahs risen from 250,000 to almost a million; and Muslim communities have appeared in places where they never existed before from one end of Russia to the other.
“Today, we have a few more than 8,000 newly built or restored mosques” in Russia, he says. “If we were to build 6,000 new ones throughout the country, then we would reach the level of 1920 although then the Muslim population of the Russian Empire was much less than it is in the Russian Federation now.”
Gaynutdin says that doing that is beyond the financial capacity of the Muslim community but that he hopes to build perhaps 50 or 60 a year. He especially would like to see new ones in Moscow given the size of the community and the fact that city officials have at various points offered to allow more, although that has not happened.
In the course of his interview, the mufti also concedes that Russia’s Muslim community is far from united or ready to be part of a single organization. At the same time, he adds that “preservation of the Muslim cultural heritage is yet another serious issue,” with many Muslim landmarks now falling into decay, especially if they are out of traditional Muslim areas.
Not surprisingly, Gaynutdin’s interview and especially his numbers have provoked a sharp reaction. Aleksey Nechayev of Vzglyad assembles the reactions of some experts, none of whom accept his figures and all of whom assume he is exaggerating either out of ignorance or to provoke a response (vz.ru/society/2019/9/22/999095.html).
Aleksandr Brod, a member of the Presidential Council on Interethnic Relations, for example, says that the most recent study (2017) concludes that there are only about one million Muslims in the Russian capital and that there is no reason to think that there has been a three-fold increase by immigration or otherwise since.
Others like Yury Moskovsky, the head of the migration commission of the Moscow city government’s Council on Nationality Affairs are even more dismissive, suggesting that Gaynutdin is making these claims almost certainly knowing they are false in order to pressure the city to allow for the construction of new mosques.
The actual number of Muslims in Moscow is unknown: No Russian census or mini-census has asked about religious identity. And as a result, the real figures are likely to be between those given by Gaynutdin and those offered by his opponents. But however that may be, three things about this dispute need to be remembered.
First, Gaynutdin’s opponents define religion largely in ethnic terms and so estimate the number of Muslims on the basis of the number of residents who are from traditionally Muslim nations, something that both understates the number of Muslims – there are many of the faithful among others – and overstates it – many from tradition Muslim groups aren’t believers.
Second, Gaynutdin’s opponents want to count only permanent legal residents and thus do not include the large number of people who come into the city temporarily or illegally. This group is certainly very large and means their numbers are greater than Gaynutdin’s detractors say even if they together with permanent residents are not as large as he suggests.
And third, there is the issue of exactly what area Gaynutdin is referring to. Almost certainly he is including both the city of Moscow and Moscow oblast into which the urban area as extended. Many poorer immigrants, including Muslims, live in the latter, something the figures of his denigrators do not count but he almost certainly does.