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Tension-filled Coexistence

Muslims and Orthodox Christians in Today's Russia


From: Herder Korrespondenz, 6/2011, P. 294-299
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    After the Orthodox Christians, the Muslims are the second largest religious community in Russia. They are not a homogenous group. There are repeatedly tensions, above all with the Muslims in the northern Caucasus. Ethnic and religious affiliation are closely linked.


On 16 December 2010 Russia's Prime Minister Vladimir Putin made an irritating remark in the Russian state television, "Some theorists argue that Orthodoxy is in fact even closer to the principles of Islam than to Catholicism. (...) These (most important) religions (on Russian soil: Orthodoxy and Islam) have coexisted for centuries. In these 450 years they have developed a "communication culture".

After his first appointment as prime minister, Putin had in August 1999 declared his faith in Orthodoxy. The renaissance of the Russian Orthodox Church (in the future: ROK) is owed to him. As President (since 2000) he tried to persuade Patriarch Alexy II (1919-2008) to meet with Pope John Paul II. But he was not prepared to meet with the Polish Pope. As a spiritual disciple of the Leningrad Metropolitan Nikodim (Rotov, 1929-1978), who cherished a strong sympathy for the Roman Church, the in 2009 elected Patriarch Kirill is rather unbiased against Rome. He esteems Pope Benedict XVI - and vice versa, the pope is very taken with Patriarch Kirill: "We understood each other straight off." Both say that a meeting of the two leaders would take place.



ROK and the Holy See see themselves now side by side in the struggle for the Christian soul of Europe, for the preservation of Europe's Christian roots and values. Together they denounce the progressive secularization and the decline of Christian morality in Europe, but also the Islamic fundamentalism. According to Pope Benedict the rapprochement between Catholicism and Orthodoxy is of world-historical importance: In it "our common responsibility for the fate of the world" becomes manifest. Catholics and Orthodox Christians are the "bearers of a morality that serves the people as a guide." Vladimir Putin is well aware of this context. He must have had strong reasons to dissociate himself from Rome by his above mentioned remark.


Islam as a Key Feature of National Identity

On 6 December 2010, ten days before Putin's above quoted remark in TV, in Moscow after a football game a riot occured where a Russian was shot and another seriously injured by a Caucasian. In consequence of it, on 11 December more than 5.000 people assembled on the Manege Square in central Moscow: Vengeful Russian nationalists chanting the name of the victim, as well as Caucasians prepared to use violence and groups affiliated with them. In the following street riot 39 people were seriously injured, 1.300 people were arrested.

A few weeks later, on 24 January 2011, the horrible assassination took place at the airport Domodedevo / Moscow (with 37 fatalities). The bloody trail of many such attacks usually leads to the Caucasus: (Suicide) attacks on the Moscow Metro (March 2010: 40 fatalities; November 2009: 26), the hostage-taking of 1300 children and teachers at the school in Beslan in North Ossetia (2004) with 332 fatalities - including 186 children, the attack on the Moscow Dubrovka Theater (2002) with 850 hostages and 129 fatalities and numerous other bloody attacks.

In view of the current wave of assassinations and street riots, in which people with a Muslim background and fanatical Russians are involved, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin feels compelled to use appeasing gestures and warns of a breakup of Russia and civil war. He repeatedly praised the peaceful coexistence of Muslims and Orthodox Christians in Russia, proven over centuries. He calls upon Muslim immigrants to better integrate into the Russian (Orthodox) culture and to comply with Russian laws. He calls upon the Russian majority population to be more tolerant of the Muslim fellow citizens.

Politicians and senior clergymen of the ROK and the Muslim institutions must influence the faithful in the sense of international friendship and Russian patriotism, so that the diversity of ethnicities and religions promotes the grandeur and strength of the "Russian Federation". The clergymen of the two major religions must decidedly condemn extremism and fundamentalism in their ranks.

The maximally 500.000 Catholics in Russia are a quantité négligeable, whereas the citizens with Muslim background (about 20 million) represent almost 15 percent of the total population of Russia (143 million). After the Orthodox Church, Islam is thus the most important religion in Russia. However, most citizens with an Islamic background do not believe and do not practice their religion. For them, Islam is the key characteristic of their national identity ("ethnic Muslims"). This applies also to "Orthodox" Russians who are often not baptized.

Putin's statement that Islam stands closer to Orthodoxy than Catholicism has a certain historical justification: The Moscow Tsar Ivan IV ("the Terrible", 1533-1584) conquered from 1552 to 1580 the Muslim khanates Kazan, Astrakhan and Sibir - these were the retreat areas of those in 922 Islamized Mongol Tartars who in 1236 destroyed the "Kievan Rus" (the so-called Kievan kingdom of the Eastern Slavs) and subjugated a large part of the Eastern Slavs. Tzar Ivan IV in turn was able to subjugate the former conquerors. Since then Russia is confronted with "Islam". The Tartar nobility decided to be baptised, was included into the Russian nobility register and kept its privileges. The common people, however, were mostly baptised by force. Tatar mosques and schools were closed and replaced by Orthodox churches.


In the Caucasus, Russia is perceived as a Colonial Power

However, one did not succeed in winning really the mass of the Tatars over to the Orthodox Church and the Russian culture: Most of them returned in the course of time to Islam. It was not until the "enlightened" Empress Catherine II (1762-1796) put a stop to forced conversions. She allowed the construction of mosques and Muslim schools and initiated the founding of the "Muslim Spiritual Assembly" (1768). It was led by a government-appointed and remunerated Mufti. This authority mediated between Christian authorities and Muslims.



The major Muslim ethnic groups in the Volga-Ural region are Turkic-speaking Tatars (6 million) and Bashkirs (2 million), but only a part of them lives in the autonomous republics of Tatarstan and Bashkortostan; the others are spread all over Russia. For 450 years they have been living with Russians in the immediate neighborhood. When politicians and clergymen today point to the fact that Orthodox Christians and Muslims have almost 450 years lived free of violence on Russian soil, Muslims underline that this peaceful coexistence was forced: Under the strong pressure from the state power and the Orthodox Church, they had no chance as Muslim minorities to assert themselves. A confrontation would have resulted in enormous disadvantages for the Muslims. They had never got the same rights as the Russians.


In the Old Russia Muslims were Considered to be Backward.

In the old Russia the Muslims were considered to be lagging far behind - culturally as well as in other ways. Uneducated (in the European sense) and not belonging to the Orthodox Church, they were second-class citizens. Against this background, there emerged in the 19th century among the Tatars a movement that is theoretically comparable with the European Enlightenment: Djadidism. Strong emphasis on education, history and culture and the creation of a Tatar national ideology are as characteristic for it as the opening to Orthodoxy, to Russian language and culture and European education.

Djadidism theologically promotes the individualization of Islam: It propagates a more personal relationship between man and Allah and relaxes the commandment of the compulsory prayer times. Also a broad equality of women is characteristic of this reform-Islam, which commends itself to the West as "Euro-Islam". Symbolically, on the Kazan Kremlin the Tartar Sujumbike Tower and the Russian Annunciation Cathedral stand peacefully next to each other. The Muslims outside of Tatarstan reject Djadidism as "watered-down cultural Islam" without deep religious commitment, whereas it is today virtually the state religion in Tatarstan.

In the North Caucasus, the situation is completely different. In the 19th century the exclusively Muslim nations living there were incorporated into the Russian Empire by unprecedented violence and rivers of blood: The proud, freedom-loving peoples often perceive the Russian (temporarily Soviet) state authority up to this day as a colonial power. After the collapse of the Soviet regime the nationally conscious Caucasians saw an opportunity to separate their former Soviet republics from the "colonial power" Russia. In this context, exceptionally radical groups see violence and terror as legitimate means.



In most North Caucasian "autonomous republics" of Russia, the Muslim population constitutes impressive majorities: 98 percent in Ingushetia, in Chechnya 96 percent, 94 percent in Dagestan, in Kabardino-Balkaria 70 percent, 63 percent in Circassia. Although some of these ethnic groups are quarrelling with each other, they are nevertheless mutually connected by the cultural influence of Islam. It is a central component of their national identity - whether they today loudly declare to be Muslims or (legacy of communism) still atheists (30 percent). Not only since the Chechen wars and the bloody attacks in recent years the Caucasians meet the Russians with mistrust. Already in Soviet times, the Caucasian (especially the Chechnya) mafias were hated by the Russians: They controlled large parts of the Soviet economy. Russians discriminate against the North Caucasians - and people from Central Asia - without exception as "blacks" (rnye). One has to meet them with suspicion, because they all are "Muslims", i.e. potential terrorists.

A third category besides the Muslims in the Volga-Ural region and in the North Caucasus are now immigrants in Russian cities: in Moscow almost 2 million, in St. Petersburg about 0.7 million; their numbers in Inner Russia and Siberia is certainly more than 5 million. They come from the impoverished eastern states of Central Asia (Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan) and from Azerbaijan, but many also from the North Caucasus. Most of these Muslims immigrate illegally to Russia where they form a less educated, uncontrollable lower class of minimally salaried working slaves. They bring the conflicts of their home countries with them. Given this social dynamite the smallest occasion can lead to momentous inter-ethnic conflicts - as in December after a football game.


"Traditional" Islam and Underground Islam

There is no uniform Islam in Russia, although all Muslim groups in today's Russia belong to the Sunni Islam (Shafi'i school of law). There are hardly any Shiites. Although for dozens of ethnic groups in Russia the central feature of their national identity is Islam, its character differs nevertheless in the various ethnic groups. Moreover, between some ethnic groups in the Caucasus deep-seated animosities emerged - as a result of regional historical conditions.

In addition, further differentiations in the appearance of the Russian Islam occured due to the dislocations caused by the collapse of communism: After the end of state atheism, Islam could again assume its old role as "guiding culture" in the Muslim regions of Russia. Through the Second Chechen War (since 1999) Putin revived the Russian nationalism as old-new state ideology (Russian patriotism with Orthodox core), and caused as backlash the rapid re-emergence of "Muslim" nationalism.

In the Caucasus - previously communist / atheistic - leaders try to link Islam as a national and cultural factor with their own political ambitions. Most of them, like Ramzan Kadyrov in Chechnya can probably only survive in "their" Caucasus republics with the help of the Moscow central government (and through systematic corruption). In addition, they secure the support of ambitious Muslims by providing them with high positions as spiritual leaders. Conversely, those muftis can often only hold their ground because they are supported by corrupt politicians who bank on Moscow.

In Russia, the so-called traditional Islam is regarded as the official Islam. This is less meant as demarcation from radical movements; in the Russian context "traditional" rather means loyalty to the political leadership in Moscow. Also in the Caucasus those muftis and their institutions are regarded as traditional that are oriented towards Moscow and the often dubious partisans of Moscow. The traditional Islam recognizes the (essentially based on the Orthodox culture) legislation of the Russian Federation and respects Orthodoxy as religion of the majority population, resp. acknowledges the priority of Orthodoxy. A moderate Islam is the precondition for such a tolerant attitude towards Orthodoxy. This gives rise to the conflict.

Especially in the North Caucasian republics, where the general mood is rather anti-Russian, only part of the Muslims identify (and this only conditionally) with the Moscow-loyal attitude of their political and spiritual leaders. After the collapse of communism, missionaries of radical fundamentalist movements from the Middle East and Arab countries infiltrated into Russia. They preach especially in the North Caucasus a radical brand of Islam - the "Wahhabitism", which is morally, financially, and often personnel-wise fed by the Middle East and Arab sources. These radical Muslims describe themselves as jihadists (holy warriors). They live a militant pure Islam: establishment of theocracy, introduction of Sharia, a pan-Caucasian jihad, or a Pan-Caucasian Islamic Emirate - and especially the separation from Russia. These fundamentalists (unofficial or underground Islam) are responsible for many of the terrorist attacks against Russians and against Muslim political and spiritual leaders who stick with Moscow.



Against this background, Islam in Russia has a serious problem: While the ROK is a relatively closed block and is supported by more than 90 percent of ethnic Russians, Islam is the national and cultural feature of a number of ethnic groups that often mistrust each other. And not only in the North Caucasus, the radical unofficial and the more tolerant official Islam exist almost irreconcilably (but also with smooth transitions) next to each other. It is therefore not surprising that until now in Russia a central Muslim structure could not emerge. The Soviets had created a uniform leadership, but it was merely an instrument of the communist government and had no support among the Muslims. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the official Islam in Russia disintegrated in numerous (40 to 70) competing regional institutions, which can be related to four national organizations.


The "West" as a Common Enemy

Mufti Ravil Gainutdin is head of the "Council of Muftis in Russia" and of the "Spiritual Administration of Muslims in the European part of Russia" (both based in Moscow), Grand Mufti Sheikh Talgat Tadjudtin is president of the "Central Spiritual Administration of Muslims in Russia" (located in Ufa, Ural). The muftis in the Caucasus republics who cooperate (although hesitantly) with Moscow are loosely joined in the "Coordination Center for Muslims of the North Caucasus" (located in Cherkessk / Karatschaj-Cherkessia). There are now attempts to establish a central "Association of Muslim Spiritual Administrations" - but the leading muftis are not willing to be limited in their personal power.

The state leadership and the religious leaders in Russia are trying to align especially the citizens with Orthodox and Islamic background both to peace among the nations in Russia and to patriotic ("Fatherland") positions: Orthodox Christians and Muslims should work together, in order to make Russia again a leading world power. According to the proven pattern, a common enemy is identified: the West. Islam and Orthodoxy stand together in the fight against Western decadence, against the increasingly aggressive secularization, against the erosion of norms of the traditional morality (as e.g. abortion, sexualisation of society - such as homosexuality, pornography, alcoholism, drugs ...) and against globalization. Putin's remark that Islam is closer to Orthodoxy than to the Catholic Church can be seen as an attempt to commend himself to the Muslims in the sense of a pro-Islamic and anti-Western position.

After anti-Islamic attacks from the Russian side the Orthodox leadership shows its solidarity to Islam. And conversely, they try to dampen Russian emotions after attacks of Caucasian terrorists. Patriarch Kirill condemns all forms of political radicalism and described the riots of December 2010 as attempts of extremists to destabilize Russia. They have no relation to religion: "Only godless paganism is able to incite people (however much they behave as believers) to act in this way against each other." Those who immigrate from Muslim regions should "seek a good relationship with the majority of Russian people, should become familiar with the intellectual and cultural life, and (...) together with us (Russians) build a common fatherland." The Russians in turn should show solidarity with the migrants.

The violent clashes with Caucasians show how little the Russians take to heart the soothing remarks of the Orthodox clergy. Also the happenings in the context of the planned building of mosques are characteristic. In Moscow there are only four mosques for 2 million (ethnic) Muslims. The faithful are forced to hold their prayer meetings on roads, in basements, living rooms and elsewhere. When in 2010 the Moscow city government wanted to be accommodating towards the Muslims and allotted them property for the construction of a mosque in the district Tekstilkiki, there were demonstrations by the locals. A protest note with 10.000 signatures was presented to President Dmitry Medvedev. In February 2011, the city government finally cancelled the project in order to avoid provoking riots from the Russian side. One would assign a building site elsewhere to the Muslims.

After attacks by radical Islamic groups the official-Islamic side also condemned them and dissociated itself from them. Like Patriarch Kirill, also the muftis emphasize that terrorists are not believers. Mufti Ravil Gainutdin firmly condemned the attack on the airport Domodedevo and said, "Innocent people were killed; in the hospitals doctors are struggling to save the lives of many victims." Religious tolerance is the essential foundation for a multi-ethnic and multi-religious Russia. The Muslim terrorists are not least fighting against the clergy of traditional Islam.


Also the Official Muftis ask Embarrassing Questions

Given the many disadvantages of Muslims in comparison to the privileges of the Orthodox (quasi state-) church (neglect of Muslims in public, obstructing the building of mosques, no Imams in the army, almost no financial support from the state), the official muftis must credibly and convincingly explain their believers, who are fiercely courted by the radicals, why they are nevertheless loyal to the Russian state.



Since the pressure of the unofficial Moscow-hostile Islam within Russia has grown stronger, the official muftis ask also awkward questions. Lately, they criticize regional authorities and local officials because they too often disregard the rights of Muslims, or even treat them as subhuman.

There are different strategies of the two muftis, Sheikh Ravil Gainutdin and Talgat Tadjutdin, who are struggling for the leadership of the official Islam within Russia. At the beginning of the Iraq war, e.g., the more radical Tadjutdin called on his followers to wage a holy war against the United States, whereas Gainutdin fiercely polemicized against this warmongering. In December 2010 Gainutdin provoked the Russian public with a provocative speech with which he probably wanted to score off his competitor in the eyes of the Muslims. He welcomed the immigration of Muslims to Russia and defended it against the aggressive rejection by many Russians ("Muslims go out!"). The Russians do no longer work, they drink away their wages, said Gainutdin. With them you cannot overcome the problems of today's Russia. The immigrants, by contrast, do not drink, are disciplined and hard working, send home their meager wages (by the Russian employers they are exploited like slaves). Since the "turnaround" in Russia a generation had grown up that "does not want to work, watches porn, consumes alcohol and drugs, and is goofing off in clubs - nobody goes to the field, neither to sow nor to reap." The outrage was universal - on the part of the government, the ROK, and the other leaders of the official Islam. But in Russia one proceeds as if nothing had happened ...



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