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June 6th, 2011, by Vitaly Naumkin

Vitaly Naumkin

Vitaly Naumkin


A look at Russia’s history reveals a unique experience of peaceful coexistence and mutual enrichment between religious communities and the State. As affirmed by Sheikh Ravil Gainutdin, Chairman of the Council of Muftis of Russia, this should be of great interest to Europeans today.

The majority of Russia’s Muslims live in the North Caucasus and the Ural-Volga region. The Islamization of these regions started as early as the 7th century and progressed until the 17th century, when Islam became the official religion of several States. The Tatars, Bashkirs, Avars, Chechens are the main Muslim ethnic groups; all are of Sunni obedience. Since the reign of Catherine II in the 18th century, Muslim religious life has been governed by the ‘muftiates’, or spiritual boards, the number of which varied greatly during Soviet times and remained in flux after the break-up of the Soviet Union.  This system then further fragmented and multiplied, and the muftiates went from two (North Caucasus and Siberian-European region) to more seventy today. Often overlapping in same region, these religious boards are now organized under four umbrella associations.

Many Russian muftis and imams see this fragmentation as the main reason for their difficulty to cope with global challenges to the Umma, the Muslim community. The biggest threat is the growth of radical, extremist factions, which have now reached beyond the North Caucasus and appeared in traditionally very tolerant Muslim regions, such as the Hanafi in the Ural-Volga region. International connections have emerged, with young Imams, educated abroad, now preaching dissidence and hatred in Russian Mosques, and some Russian figures discovered to be active among violent militants based in Pakistan.

Another challenge for Russia’s Muslims is the increasing movement of peoples, notably from the North Caucasus, and the estimated 5 million Muslims emigrating from Central Asia and Azerbaijan.  Where all sermons in Russia were once preached in Tatar, the language of the believers’ main ethnic group (with exception of the North Caucasus), the common language has now become Russian.  The linguistic shift is more than cosmetic: it alters the believers’ traditional connection between language, spirituality and identity. Beyond new patterns in the clergy, the new ethnic diversity of Muslims, with North Caucasians, Uzbeks, Tajiks and Middle Easterners, has provoked resentment among the local Tatars and Bashkirs and those Imams who fear losing control over religious life.

Additional problems are caused by a new generation gap that has appeared between the Imams, Alims and Muftis of the old school, who rejuvenated religious life in the 90s, and the youth who now have an  advantage in terms of knowledge and language proficiency. This leads to a kind of competition between mosques and informal preachers in offering guidance to believers. Russian Muslims also complain there is a lack of mosques in non-Muslim majority cities, including Moscow. Because 7,000 mosques were built in the post-Soviet era, authorities tend to dismiss these complaints. The real issue is often the reluctance of traditionally Russian Orthodox neighborhoods to face the influence of an ever-growing Muslim population.

Rivalry among muftiates, as well as the leaders’ personal ambitions and career interests, has led lay believers to question the validity of the current organization of the Umma; some question the relevance of any hierarchical structure at all. To that end, there are Islamic leaders who now suggest that Russia’s Muslims could unite under a single megadirectorate-muftiate which would regulate the confessional life and represent the interests of all Muslims in dealing with the authorities. But would this contribute to successfully cope with the current threats and challenges? Would it help to defend the interests of the Muslim community with greater effect? There are no convincing answers to these questions as yet, but the reorganization of Muslim structures in Russia illustrates interesting alternatives, at a time where Europe is struggling to find satisfactory approaches to promote inclusion and mutual enrichment between its diverse religious communities.

Vitaly Naumkin is Director of the Institute of Oriental Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences.

This piece is part of the series “Religion & the Public Space”.

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