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Fact Box: Muslims In Russia

25 July 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Islam is Russia's second most-popular religion after Russian Orthodoxy. President Vladimir Putin and other top Russian officials frequently claim that Russia has some 20 million Muslims.

However, scholars such as Ned Walker, associate professor of political science at the University of California, Berkeley, believe this figure is "inflated." Preliminary results of the official 2002 census put the figure at about 14.5 million.

Almost all Russian Muslims belong to the Sunni branch of Islam, but there are small pockets of Shi'ites in the North Caucasus, according to Walker, including the Lezgins and Dargins. A few other ethnic groups, such as the Chechens, practice Sufism.

Russia's Muslims are located mainly in the North Caucasus and in the mid-Volga region, especially in the republics of Bashkortostan, Tatarstan, and Chuvashia. Thriving local communities can also be found in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Ulyanovsk, Samara, Nizhnii Novgorod, Perm, and in Moscow and Leningrad oblasts.

The leadership of the Muslim community was originally divided along territorial lines. When the Soviet Union broke up, the Russian Federation inherited two spiritual directorates, or muftiates. One administered the activities of Islamic groups in the North Caucasus and the Transcaucasus, while the other oversaw the Islamic communities in European Russia and Siberia. Challenges to this system emerged, and in 1992 Tatarstan and Bashkortostan withdrew their recognition of the muftiate for European Russia and Siberia and created their own muftiate.

Sheikh Ravil Gainutdin currently heads the Russian Council of Muftis. He is frequently identified in Russia's mainstream press as the head of Russia's Islamic community. However, Telget Tajetdin, the supreme mufti of Russia and the European countries of the CIS, believes this title belongs to him. Gainutdin at one time was Tajetdin's deputy.

Gainutdin's tenure has been marked by accusations of being excessively pro-government, while Tajetdin has taken more controversial stands, such as criticizing the involvement of the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq. Gainutdin and Tajetdin have also clashed over the role of religion in the schools. Gainutdin believes that religion should not be taught in schools, except in the context of a course on the history of world cultures and by a secular teacher, a stance that Tajetdin has criticized. However, in an interview with "Izvestiya" in early 2004, Tajetdin denied that the Russian Muslim community has been split for the past 15 years.

A key issue for the Muslim community recently has been increased scrutiny and hostility from local and federal law enforcement officials in the wake of the Beslan tragedy in September 2004. Gainutdin and other Muslim leaders have been at pains to stress that Muslim does not mean terrorist.

Speaking at a briefing at RFE/RL on 9 June, Yuri Dzhibladze, president of the Moscow-based Center for the Development of Democracy and Human Rights, said his group has seen growing number of young Muslims being "interrogated, threatened, and detained in many cities across Russia." He said that they are not member or leaders of any radical Islamic groups. They are just believers.

According to Walker, in an article in "Eurasian Geography And Economics" in May 2005, "only a small minority of Russian's Muslims is religiously radical, even fewer Muslims are militant, and a tiny minority supports terrorism."

(compiled by RFE/RL)

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