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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- The Kremlin And The Crescent

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 6 March 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Russian political leaders appear to be reaching out to the country's 20 million Muslims to show that their campaign in Chechnya is not inherently anti-Muslim and to generate support for Moscow's policies among the second largest and most rapidly growing faith.

But widely-reported statements by Russian Muslims in support of Moscow's efforts in Chechnya and by Russian political leaders in support of Islam as part of the Russian tradition may not by themselves allow Moscow to achieve these goals.

Few Muslims in that country have forgotten Moscow's longstanding hostility to Islam. And many of Russia's Muslims object both to the high-visibility political role now being played by the Russian Orthodox Church and to Moscow's efforts to recentralize control over not only Chechnya but other Muslims as well.

On 5 March, Muslims around the world celebrated Eid Al-Adha, the day commemorating Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son and God's willingness to accept the sacrifice of a ram instead. In Russia and most of Central Asia, this holiday is known by its Turkic name of Kurban Bairam. And Muslims across the region assembled in their mosques.

Russian President Vladimir Putin issued an official statement on the holiday, saying that he shares "the aspiration of Muslim spiritual leaders for the state and religious organizations to join forces, as an important condition of civil harmony, good will, and mutual understanding among all peoples of multi-ethnic Russia and the prosperity of our fatherland."

Other Russian officials, including Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, attended Muslim services. And state-run television broadcast the service at the largest mosque of the capital. This attention was echoed in the Russian media with articles about the state's support for 3,500 Muslims making the pilgrimage to Mecca this year and Muslim support for Russia's campaign in Chechnya.

Russian news agencies gave prominent play to the words of Talgan Tadzhuddin, the chief of the Muslim Spiritual Directorate in Ufa, that Moscow's efforts in Chechnya represents "a necessary measure against terrorists rather than being an attack against brothers in faith."

But beneath this image of cooperation are very real tensions that Moscow's latest press campaign appears intended to address.

By an accident of the calendar, this Muslim holiday of Kurban Bairam this year fell on the 48th anniversary of the death of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. No Muslim in Russia is likely to forget either his repression of all religions in general or his particular attacks on Islam, including the deportation of Chechens and other Muslim peoples of the North Caucasus.

Moreover, the current Russian government continues one aspect of Soviet policy toward Islam that many Muslims find offensive and that appears likely to cause Russia troubles in the future. That is, the state backs an official Muslim hierarchy and requires the registration of Islamic congregations.

While Moscow also requires the registration of other religious communities, the impact of this policy on Islam is inevitably different. Because Islam does not have a priesthood or clergy in any sense of the word, demands that its congregations be registered tend to divide believers into those who are willing to go along with the state and those who are not, even more than in the case of other faiths.

Those who go along are viewed by many Muslims as having been coopted by the state and therefore in some ways illegitimate, and those who don't, who go underground as it were, become ever more radicalized precisely because they lack the kind of acceptance that a more open-ended approach to religion might allow.

That happened in Soviet times when underground or what was sometimes called "the non-mosque trend" of Islam attracted far more followers than did the government-controlled official version. That danger, widespread in Soviet times, is now repeating itself in Central Asia where government officials are seeking to control Islam in this way and thus virtually guaranteeing that they will not control it at all.

But there is yet another and perhaps more profound reason why Russian statements may have an unintended impact on Muslims: the increasing willingness of the state to involve the hierarchy of the Russian Orthodox Church in political activities. That has raised questions even in the minds of some Christians about the impact of that involvement on Russia's efforts to move toward a secular, civil society.

Church-state relations are seldom easy even for long-established democracies, but for countries making the transition from totalitarianism toward civil society, these relations can prove explosive. And that is all the more likely in Russia, where the Muslims are increasingly numerous and assertive, and the Orthodox Christians are declining in numbers.

As a result, Moscow's efforts to reach out to Islam reflect both Russian hopes as well as Russian fears. But if the Russian leadership continues to treat Islam as if it were a church like Christianity, the Kremlin is likely to find that its hopes for cooperation with Muslims will be largely dashed and its fears of Muslim opposition will be all too fully realized.