Sunday, July 19, 2020

Orthodoxy and Islam Both Seeking to Give Religious Content to Russian Civic Holidays

Paul Goble

            Staunton, July 17 – Because Russia’s rulers have failed to give many of the country’s civic holidays much content, religious groups are seeking to infuse these dates with their own, something they believe is entirely justified but that almost certainly sets the stage for new religious conflicts given that Russia is a poly-confessional country.

            Two articles this week, one by commentator Milena Fauistova in Nezavisimaya gazeta and a second by Rais Suleymanov, a long-time specialist on and critic of Islam in Russia, on the APN portal, call attention to this trend ( and

            Because Moscow has had to reschedule various holidays because of the pandemic, Faustova says, some Orthodox activists have entered the fray and suggested that the Day of Russia should be made to correspond with the Day of the Baptism of Russia. The patriarchate has not weighed in yet, but such a change is not without problems.

            On the one hand, celebrating the Baptism of Russia in this way raises problems because Rus was baptized in what is now a foreign country and the actual site of the baptism was shortly thereafter lost to Russian control, hardly the kind of thing that the Russian state today would want to highlight.

            And on the other, because Russia is a poly-confessional country, infusing a civic holiday with such religious content would not promote the consolidation of the country. Instead, it would likely trigger efforts by Muslims to promote their own distinctive and potentially anti-Orthodox and anti-Russian memorial days.

            Not long ago, Faustova notes, “the Council of Muftis of Russia established an organizing committee to promote the celebration of the 1100th anniversary of the adoption of Islam by Volga Bulgaria in 922. Making the Day of Russia into a purely Orthodox holiday would only encourage that and other similar efforts.

            That Muslim groups are already seeking to “Islamicize” civic or ethnic holidays very much disturbs Suleymenov, infamous in many quarters for his attacks on Muslim leaders other than those who are slavishly devoted to Moscow.

            According to him, many Muslim leaders believe that civic holidays had a far greater religious content before Soviet anti-religious campaigns eliminated it and that all they are doing now is restoring the pre-1917 situation, something they feel entitled to do because of the messages about the past they are receiving from the Kremlin.

            Suleymanov says that originally, the Sabantuy holiday was a pre-Islamic one. Then it acquired a Muslim coloration in pre-1917 Russia, only to be stripped of that by the Soviet authorities. With the end of the USSR, some Muslim groups have sought to make it into a uniquely Muslim-only event.

            The Islamization of the holiday serves the purposes of the Islamic leaders and also Tatarstan President Rustam Minnikhanov who views clericalization as something that supports his rule. But one of the consequences is that by making this holiday into a Muslim one, non-Muslims and more broadly non-Tatars are being excluded.

            This created scandals last year, although most of them were dismissed as local “excesses,” Suleymenov says.  However, they are only likely to increase in number if Islamic leaders impose their vision on this holiday.  And that, he concludes, “will inevitably lead” to the exclusion of all non-Muslims and non-Tatars and a deepening division in the country.

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