Friday, April 24, 2020

Moscow Institute Calls for Radical Reordering of Russian Muslim Spiritual Directorates (MSDs) to Promote Muslim Unity in the CIS

Paul Goble

            Staunton, April 22 – Moscow must use the Islamic establishment in Russia to influence immigrants from CIS countries and thus their countries of origin as a first step toward the reordering the MSD system in Russia itself with three super-MSDs to be charged with promoting reintegration of Muslim countries with Russia, the Moscow Institute for CIS Countries says.

            The Russian government has not taken full advantage of the Russian umma to promote CIS-wide integration. It should be using the existing MSDs to influence the millions of Muslim gastarbeiters now working in Russia so that they can influence their countries of origin in that regard, the Institute’s Islamic Research Department says (

            That department, headed by Islamicist Ildar Safargaleyev, has been a source of ideas for the Russian government in the past; and consequently, its latest proposals are likely to gain a hearing in Moscow. In addition to influencing the diasporas, he also calls for making sufism “a common platform” for CIS Muslims and for reordering the MSD system in Russia.

            “Sufism or the tasawwuf which despite the Salafi (Wahhabi) attack of the 1990s is ever more deeply rooted in the Russian Federation and thus serves as a common platform for consensus in Central Asia (including Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan) where it historically was disseminated widely,” the Institute’s Islamicists say.

            Such an acknowledgement of Sufism’s role in the region is rare. In Soviet times and more recently, most Russian writers have treated that mystical trend in Islam either as limited to parts of the North Caucasus or a marginal phenomenon elsewhere.  A call to make it central and use it against Salafism, while not unprecedented, is thus striking.

            And then the article turns to what it describes as “the key obstacle” for the spread of influence of Russia’s Muslim establishment abroad – the absence of a single super MSD and thus the competition among several, a pattern that looks strange to Muslims in other CIS countries and limits Moscow’s influence there.

            According to the usual listing, there are four super-MSDs in Russia, a super-MSD being a Muslim spiritual directorate that subordinates to itself MSDs in the regions: the Central MSD in Ufa, the Council of Muftis of Russia (SMR), the Coordinating Council of Muslims of the North
Caucasus, and the MSD of Russia.

            Among these, “the most loyal to the Russian state and occupying a significantly stronger position” is the Central MSD in Ufa, the institute says.  The oldest of the super-MSDs, it has some 1400 parishes subordinate to itself.  But it has some serious problems: its aging cadres, its lack of an office in Moscow and its conflicts with other centralized MSDs.

            The institute suggests that the Russian state take the lead in reforming the top of the Muslim community, something Moscow can do because none of these bodies could exist without government funding. And it proposes a reordering that would require upgrading several regional MSDs and the downgrading or closure of some of the super-MSDs.

            While it might be ultimately desirable to have a single super-MSD, the institute continues, that is currently something that would be almost impossible to achieve. Pushing for it could lead to the collapse of the system as a whole. Instead, it proposes that the Russian umma be regrouped around three super-MSDs.

            These would be the Central MSD in Ufa which would direct its influence at Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, the MSD of Tatarstan which would promote the influence of the Russian umma in Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, and the MSD of Daghestan which would be charged with influencing Azerbaijan.

            Russian commentators and experts have talked about reordering the MSD system since perestroika times given the proliferation of more than 80 MSDs at the regional level and the half dozen super-MSDs which often work at cross purposes, simultaneously discrediting official Islam and opening the way for radicalism.

            What makes this proposal intriguing is that it suggests the Russian state should take the lead in overcoming these problems, something most Islamic writers aren’t prepared to make explicit, and that Moscow should recognize that one of the most important roles the super-MSDs can have is in foreign rather than domestic policy.

            Given the Kremlin’s focus on foreign affairs over domestic matters, this proposal may thus gain a larger hearing among officials, even though it is certain to generate opposition among the current Muslim leadership.

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