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Tensions Rising Between Moscow's Muslims And Police

  • Tom Balmforth

MOSCOW -- Shermamat Suyarov says he will think twice before returning to pray at Moscow's largest mosque.

Suyarov, a 52-year-old Russian citizen of Kyrgyz origin, says he was sitting in a parked car waiting to attend prayers on September 17 when police ordered him out and detained him.

He was hauled into a police bus with scores of other would-be worshippers. Later at a police station he claims he was beaten so severely after he complained about the rough treatment that he had to be hospitalized:

"They beat me with their fists, batons and feet," he says. "There were five or six of them beating me and there were some others there too. I wasn't counting. I lost consciousness. I was in shock and broke a rib."

Others who were detained that that day includeAli Muratov, a 39-year-old migrant worker from Kyrgyzstan. He becomes visibly emotional when he describes how Suyarov "cried out for help" during the beating.

"They beat up an old man for no reason," he says. "There were about 30 of us. A boy, also from Kyrgyzstan, ended up next to him and they beat him as well. This is the kind of violence we have to endure."

And it was not an isolated incident. What reportedly happened with Suyarov and Muratov on that day is illustrative of how tensions between Moscow's Muslims and police have escalated in recent weeks as thousands of worshipers flock to just five mosques in the Russian capital, sparking bitter complaints from local residents and often brutal crackdowns by police.

Burgeoning Muslim Population

According to Aleksei Malashenko, a specialist in Islamic issues at the Moscow Carnegie Center, one of the most troublesome issues is the lack of places of worship to accommodate Moscow's burgeoning Muslim population.

"It’s a big problem," he says. "We have somewhere between 1 and 1.5 million Muslims in Moscow. That makes Moscow the biggest Muslim city in Europe. Yet we have only five mosques."

Some estimates place Moscow's Muslim population as high as 2 million. In contrast, London, which has between 600,000 and 1 million Muslims, has over a thousand mosques.

The issue, Malashenko adds, is complicated by the resentment many Muscovites feel toward millions of migrants, many of them Muslims from Central Asia and the Caucasus, who have flocked to the Russian capital in search of work.

"The government and our political elite have no real understanding; they have no vision as far as Islam is concerned," he says. "They talk so much about dialogue, but it's nonsense. It's nonsense because of the problem of Islamophobia and because frictions between Muslims and the rest of the population are growing."

Russia’s policy on Islam has been in the spotlight after it threatened to ban as "extremist" the YouTube film “Innocence of Muslims” that mocks the Prophet Mohammed and which has sparked violent rioting in the Muslim world.

Nationalist Protests

To alleviate the problem of too few mosques, Russia's Council of Muftis has called on city authorities to authorize the construction of more Muslim places of worship. More mosques, they say which would assuage the problem of a large concentration of worshippers congregating in just a few neighborhoods.

But constructing new mosques in Moscow has proven problematic.

On September 19, an estimated 1,500 Muscovites gathered in the Mitino district on the capital's outskirts to demonstrate against the planned construction of a new mosque there.

Russian nationalist groups spearheaded the protests and the next day the local authorities withdrew permission to build the mosque.

Much of the recent tension has taken place near what local Muslims still call the Cathedral Mosque, located in downtown Moscow near the city's Olympic Stadium.

The actual mosque, which was built in 1904 and was considered Russia's central mosque, was demolished by city authorities on September 11, 2011. The official reason was that the building had deteriorated and was a hazard.

The mosque is currently under reconstruction. Local Muslims now gather to pray there in a temporary mosque adjacent to the construction site, which they still refer to as the Cathedral Mosque.

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