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Plan To Unite Russia's Muslim Hierarchies Collapses

  • Paul Goble

Ravil Gainutdin (left), chief mufti of Russia's Central Spiritual Board of Muslims, with Talgat Tajuddin in March 2009

Ravil Gainutdin (left), chief mufti of Russia's Central Spiritual Board of Muslims, with Talgat Tajuddin in March 2009

A plan to unite Russia's Muslim spiritual directorates (DUMs) under a single mufti broke down last week after the Muslim leader who originally proposed it realized it could cost him his position. While some circles in Moscow had initially backed the proposals, others apparently realized just how dangerous combining these institutions might prove to be.

On December 5, Talgat Tajuddin, who heads the Central Spiritual Board of Muslims (TsDUM), proposed the creation of a single Muslim power vertical to be headed by his rival, Council of Muftis of Russia head Ravil Gainutdin. Tajuddin himself would be named Sheikh ul-Islam, and Ismail Berdiyev, the head of Russia's third major Muslim organization, the Coordinating Center of Muslims of the North Caucasus, head of the Supreme Shari'a Court.

But just two days later, on December 7, Tajuddin's TsDUM decided not to take part in the December 11 session to prepare for unification. Instead, the presidium of the TsDUM, which is based in Ufa, the capital of Bashkortostan, reiterated what had been its and Tajuddin's previous position that "the unification of the Muslims of Russia is possible only through the inclusion of [all of Russia's] Muslim organizations into the Central DUM under the leadership of Talgat Tajuddin."

Other muftis either allied with Tajuddin or especially dependent on the security agencies rapidly fell into line. Berdiyev, who had initially expressed his support for the merger, said that he "does not consider especially important the unification of the three leading Islamic structures of the country." The remaining muftis, many of whom either disapprove of Tajuddin's lax lifestyle or feared the planned merger could jeopardize their own positions, seized the opportunity created by that volte face to publicize their own concerns.

Gusman Iskhakov, the head of the Tatarstan DUM, for example, said that "one should not proceed toward unification spontaneously and at any price; it is necessary to consider all aspects of the situation [in such a way that] no one involved will feel himself to be reduced [in status and preferment]."

Making It Personal

Because this is only the latest of a series of proposals by Tajuddin to fail to gain support, and because relations -- personal, political, and religious -- among the 64 muftis of the Russian Federation are historically tense, most observers appear willing to accept the suggestion that this effort broke down because of personal conflicts. That conclusion was advanced this time, as it has been in the past, by Roman Silantyev, a specialist on Islam with close ties to the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church. Silantyev has consistently sought through his books, articles, and interviews to portray the leadership of Russia's Islamic community in a negative light.

Already on December 8, Silantyev said that he was "inclined to evaluate the declaration of Mufti Talgat Tajuddin" about unity as the latter's latest bid to "raise the authority of his organization among Russian Muslims," all the more so because this time, Tajuddin proposed his rival as the head of a single Muslim hierarchy. Tajuddin, Silantyev suggested, either believed that his proposal would fail, in which case he could claim credit for an idea that others had rejected, or in the event of success, it would allow the Central DUM, whatever else happened, to remain the most important Muslim organization in the Russian Federation.

But both because the idea of unification was so clearly backed by the Kremlin, and because Tajuddin's own organization disowned it even before it could take off, Silantyev's explanation, while not entirely implausible, is almost certainly incomplete. And three other reasons for the collapse of this project suggest themselves.

'Muslim Power Vertical'?

First, in what is a clear example of the "not invented here" principle, it appears likely that the Russian security agencies, which have a long history of meddling in the Muslim Spiritual Directorates in general and the Central DUM in particular, did not want to see President Dmitry Medvedev steal a march on Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Seeing that the Kremlin had signaled its support for Tajuddin a week earlier, Putin and the Federal Security Service (FSB) would not have been unhappy to see the plan fall through, not only because it would maintain their influence, but also because many people in Russia would see this outcome as yet another indicator of the relative power of Putin and Medvedev.

Second, it may have dawned on some officials in Moscow that Tajuddin's plan would have a very unwelcome consequence by changing the center of Islamic life in Russia. Ever since tsarist times, Islam, unlike Orthodox Christianity, has had its headquarters outside the Russian capital. If Gainutdin had become the head of the united muftiate, that organization would have had its headquarters in Moscow, a development that could have made it more difficult for the Russian authorities to ignore Islam, and that would certainly have enabled the new supreme mufti to exert greater influence in Russian affairs than any of the many muftis based outside the capital.

And third, the process of unification itself could prove explosive, even if a united "Muslim power vertical" might appeal to the Russian powers-that-be because of its symmetry. That is because several Muslim leaders have proposed a road map for this process that could threaten the leverage Moscow currently has over Islam.

On December 10, Galimzhan Bimullin, the head of the Tyumen DUM, said that he supports the unification of the country's Islamic structures, but believes that "the supreme mufti and the chief kazi and all the other leading positions of the structures of a Unified DUM of Russia should be chosen by a free vote of a general assembly of Muslims." Such a vote, either directly or by representatives of the 20 million plus Muslims of the Russian Federation, would not only make those leaders far more democratically legitimate than the heads of other religious and secular organizations: campaigns for these offices would mobilize Russia's Muslim community as never before.

For all these reasons, the latest plan for the unification of the Muslim Spiritual Directorates of the Russian Federation was killed in its cradle. But given the way it was launched, and the way it has been ended, both those who devised it and those who opposed it are unlikely to forget just how this all happened.

Paul Goble is a longtime specialist on ethnic and religious questions in Eurasia. The views expressed in this analysis, which was first posted on Window on Eurasia, are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL

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