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Russia's Muslims Move Toward Greater Unity

The Muslims of the Russian Federation moved cautiously toward greater unity during two meetings in Nizhnii Novgorod on 4-5 November. At the All-Russian Forum of Muslims of Russia on the Threshold of the Third Millennium, they declined to accede to either the bureaucratic demands of the Kremlin or to the autonomist aspirations of some of the more independent-minded Muslim groups.

At an academic session devoted to the centenary of the first all-Russia Muslim conference and a forum in which some of the country's leading Muslims took part, the Islamic community committed itself to building on the unity it had prior to 1917 and to acquiring greater influence on the Russian state. But the gathering did not meet either the expectations of the Kremlin -- which had wanted a single Muslim leader to be chosen, equivalent in status to the Orthodox Patriarch -- or the desires of those Muslims who had hoped for the formation of autonomous Muslim institutions and even for a concordat with the Kremlin.

Many senior Muslim clerics who had earlier committed themselves to attending the forum were represented instead by their deputies or other lower-ranking officials. (Some of those who stayed away -- including Mufti Ravil Gainutdin, the head of the Union of Muftis of Russia, and Aslambek Aslakhanov, who serves as an aide to President Vladimir Putin -- may have done so at the insistence of the Kremlin, which did not want this session to detract from the celebration of People's Unity Day on 4 November.) And the resolution adopted by the forum committed the Muslim community to a series of steps unlikely to satisfy either the Kremlin or many Muslims.

Nonetheless, the forum did take several important steps. It called for the creation of a country-wide Council of the Learned (Ulema), similar to the one that existed in Russia up until the 1920s; for more scholarly attention to be paid to the history of the Muslim social movement of Russia a century ago; and for an agreement on Muslim education in the Russian Federation today. It further advocated convening conferences in Nizhnii Novgorod and Kazan to address those questions.

In many ways, the earlier expectations of both the Kremlin and the more independent-minded Muslim leaders for the Nizhnii Novgorod meetings were unrealistic. On the one hand, neither the academic conference nor the forum were attended by Muslim leaders who could make the decisions either side wanted. On the other hand, Russia's Muslims remain deeply divided on the selection of a single leader -- either at a national or even a regional level.

But while neither the Kremlin nor the more independent-minded Muslims got their way, it would be a mistake to see these sessions as simply a standoff between the two sides. Instead, the two meetings, both the academic and the political, highlighted the growing sense of unity among the Muslims of the Russian Federation.

The creation of the country-wide Council of the Learned (Ulema), called for by the meeting participants, will only accelerate this process, thereby putting those in Moscow who continue to try to block the rise of Islam within the Russian Federation in an ever more difficult position.

And because an increasing number of Muslims in Russia understand that political dynamic, they appear convinced that what the Islamic community was not able to push through now, the Muslims of Russia will probably be able to achieve at some point in the not so distant future, regardless of what the Russian leadership may do.

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