Tuesday, September 10, 2019

‘Where Everyone is a Newcomer’ – Islamic Identities in the Russian North

Paul Goble

            Staunton, September 6 – Many of the most serious ethnic and religious conflicts in the Russian Federation occur when a new group enters a territory whose longtime residents consider the region their own and view any new arrivals as an alien threat. But where this division is absent because everyone is a relative newcomer, such tensions are reduced if not eliminated.  

            In a new study, Marlene Laruelle and Sophie Hohmann suggest that relations between Russians and Muslims are different in Russia’s Arctic cities because the Muslims there believe that “everyone is an immigrant” (Polar Islam: Muslim Communities in Russia’s Arctic Cities,” Problems of Post-Communism, 2019  at tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/10758216.2019.1616565).

            “For decades,” the two George Washngton University scholars write, “the inhabitants of Arctic cities have described themselves as living n an island separated from the mainland – European Russia, often named ‘the continent’ (materik) – and this tradition continues … Among Muslim communities” in these cities, “there prevails an even stronger feeling” of isolation.

            That has consequences for relations between ethnic Russians and Muslims as communities and for the way in which the Muslim community there has taken shape.  The Muslims as migrants “largely honor the pioneering atmosphere f Russia’s Arctic cities, insisting n the fact that ‘everybody is a migrant here.’”

            They behave differently and s d the Russians among whom they live; and as a result, Laruelle and Hohmann says, “everyday interethnic tensions are lower than in the country’s main metropolises,” although such conflicts are not entirely absent. But the sense that everyone is part of a pioneer community, they continue, “helps Muslim communities integrate.” 

            At the same time, the Muslim community, which consists of people from both the North Caucasus and the Middle Volga, focuses less on theological divisions than do Muslims elsewhere. At the “official” level,” for example the 59 registered mosques in the North welcome both Sunnis and Shiia and all four legal schools of Sunni Islam. 

            Laruelle and Hohmann do not say, but this lack of division is also found in many other places in the Russian Federation largely because Soviet anti-religious efforts left the Muslim population without a sophisticated understanding of these differences and thus paved the way for a more “ecumenical” approach than in places where religious knowledge is greater.

            They stress that mosques in the Russian North are “supra-ethnic.” That is, they accept “every Muslim no matter the nationality of the imam or of the mosque’s patron. In the majority of cases, imams and funders may be Tatar, Bashkir, or Azerbaijani, but everyday followers are mostly North Caucasians, Uzbeks, or Tajiks.”

            And they point out that “preaching takes place in Russian, the only language shared by all these communities.”

            What their findings suggest is that except for small numbers of radicals on both sides, the Russian and Muslim communities in the Russian North are finding it easier to cooperate with one another than is the case in more long-settled Russian ones to the south and that the Muslim community itself is becoming more integrated as well.

            At present, these two trends are mutually reinforcing, but there is a risk that the further integration of the Muslim community could pose new challenges to the broader one especially as the Muslim communities there continue to grow relative to the surrounding and predominantly ethnic Russian ones.

            At the very least, this development could make inter-religious relationships more fraught and inter-ethnic ones less so in the Russian North.  

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