#7 - JRL 7176
The Economist (UK)
May 10-16, 2003
Facing extreme prejudice
Russia's Muslim population is growing and changing, but the government's approach to it is not keeping pace
When Talgat Tadzhuddin declared jihad on the United States a month ago, he probably thought Vladimir Putin would be pleased. Russia's president had condemned the war on Iraq. The chairman of the Muslim Spiritual Board, based in the city of Ufa, in Bashkortostan, wanted to show support. It is even thought that someone in the Kremlin gave him the go-ahead. But the venture backfired. Mr Putin disapproved, Mr Tadzhuddin was threatened with prosecution, and Ravil Gainutdin, the Moscow-based head of the Council of Muftis and Mr Tadzhuddin's arch-rival, moved one step closer to the position they both covet, that of Islam's chief spokesman in Russia.
Yet both men have reason to be wary. Mr Putin has shown that he likes to deal with religions, as with other social organisations, along Soviet lines: through a single, pliable leader. The patriarch of the Orthodox Church has long been a key lever of governmental influence. Mr Putin's administration has heavily favoured one of the two chief rabbis who vie for leadership of the Jewish community. "I think the president would find it comfortable to have one person who represented Islam at a high level," says Mr Gainutdin, with thinly veiled ambition.
Such a leader would, in theory, speak for an increasingly important part of Russia. Muslims number anywhere from 11m to 25m, or 7% to 17% of the population, including those who are culturally Muslim but do not practise the religion; nobody will know the figures for sure until data from last year's census are published. But they are likely to show that Russia has a higher proportion of Muslims than any western European country. And, unlike the rest of Russia's population, the Muslim community is almost certainly growing. Moreover, since the Soviet Union collapsed, giving freedom to study in religious schools and make the haj, there has been an enormous Islamic revival; over a thousand new mosques and dozens of religious schools have opened, often with government assistance.
It is no surprise, then, that the Kremlin wants control through a single leader. Especially since the Russian state is at least as twitchy about Islamic extremism as the American one. Russia has a huge border with mostly Muslim Central Asia; the Middle East is not far away; and in the breakaway republic of Chechnya there is a strong current of Islamic radicalism among the rebels. Officials regularly blame "Wahhabis" for stoking the conflict.
Yet their fear seems to be based on ignorance. "The main directorate of the FSB [the internal security service] anti-terrorist unit has no real Islamic expert," says Shamil Beno, a former Chechen foreign minister. Wahhabism is a purist form of Islam founded in the 18th century and now prevalent in Saudi Arabia, but the Soviet authorities first used the term to label all enemies in the Afghanistan war in the 1980s, and it was later applied to radicals in Chechnya and other parts of the North Caucasus, whatever their religious sect.
Wahhabism and extremism do exist there; but both are imports. Unlike their brethren in western Europe, most of them immigrants, Russia's Muslims predate its Orthodox Christians. And while those of the Caucasus have always been more rebellious than the communities concentrated in the Volga-Urals area (see map), many of their leaders too collaborated with the Soviet authorities. Radicalism has only appeared in the Caucasus in the past five years, according to surveys by Galina Yemelianova, at Birmingham University in England, and her colleagues. The desperation after years of war and poverty, she says, made some people receptive to the preaching of missionaries from the Middle East and itinerant mujahideen from Afghanistan. In other areas, she says, it is a tiny phenomenon.
Yet Wahhabism has become such a buzzword that both the rival muftis, in their attempts to win favour with the Kremlin, have accused each other and other Muslim leaders of fomenting it. Chechnya's Moscow-appointed administrator and former mufti, Akhmad Kadyrov, was once a separatist rebel but got his current job partly because he condemned Wahhabism as alien to the region's Sufi traditions. And the fear of extremism makes a handy smokescreen for the government's failure to deal with the causes of the Chechen conflict. "It's more comfortable for a guy like Putin to think of a strong threat and put aside social and economic problems with local roots," says Alexei Malashenko, of the Carnegie Endowment's office in Moscow.
The result is that Russian non-Muslims increasingly fear Islam, while Russian Muslims increasingly distrust the authorities. One sign of the gulf between them came last year when the interior ministry banned women from wearing headscarves in photographs for official documents. A group of women in Tatarstan, where headscarves had fast become popular, challenged the ban as an unconstitutional curb on freedom of religion. This March the Supreme Court turned down their final appeal. As Islamic movements gain strength, other sore points, such as the army's refusal to allow Muslim services on base, could breed open conflict too.
Which is why the government badly needs a good go-between; and why Messrs Gainutdin and Tadzhuddin are slugging it out for the job. The problem is that neither they nor anyone else can claim to speak for Russia's Muslims. Clerics' positions "are more related to their closeness to power than to their spiritual authority," says Dmitry Makarov, of Moscow's Institute for Oriental Studies. No one imam has widespread appeal. Heidar Jemal, chairman of the Islamic Committee and the most prominent non-clerical Muslim spokesman, agrees: "These are bogus muftis...The real Muslim leaders are many: political leaders, moral and ideological figures, businessmen."
They are, in fact, such people as Mr Jemal, who sprinkles his conversation liberally with references to Hegel and Kant and wants to rejuvenate Islamic philosophy. Or Mr Beno, who hopes to set up a new school of fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence). Muslims in Russia, like those across the world, face growing questions about their faith, he says, and therefore "the deepening of fundamentalism in Russia is inevitable...But this is a purely religious process; it isn't extremism." The question is whether the Kremlin can understand that. Unfortunately, its current approach tends to treat new movements as potential threats--and that risks turning them into real ones.