The three-day conference is being held in Kazan, the capital of the mainly Russian republic of Tatarstan.
In an opening address, Mintimer Shaimiev, the president of the mainly Muslim republic, implicitly criticized the United States for allegedly trying to impose its values on the Islamic world.
Shaimiev said "liberal values cannot be exported like cars." He also said "the example of Iraq" shows that democracy can only be the result of internal development.
Yevgeny Primakov, a former Russian prime minister, led the discussions.
"The Middle East conflict has never had a religious nature," said Primakov, a veteran diplomat and an expert on the Middle East. "Whether or not somebody wants to admit it, this is a confrontation not between two religions but between two [forms of] nationalism."
Russia's population of 142 million includes an estimated 20 million Muslims. It has observer status in the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC).
Russia's Changing Face
THE COMING MUSLIM MAJORITY: On February 28, Russia expert PAUL GOBLE, vice dean of social sciences and humanities at Concordia-Audentes University in Tallinn, Estonia, gave a briefing at RFE/RL's Washington office. Goble said ethographers predict Russia will have a Muslim majority "within our lifetime." Since 1989, Russia's Muslim population has increased by 40 percent, Goble said, rising to some 25 million self-declared Muslims. He said 2.5 million to 3.5 million Muslims now live in Moscow, gving Moscow the largest Muslim population of any city in Europe. Russia today has more than 8,000 mosques, up from just 300 in 1991. By 2010, experts predict, some 40 percent of Russian military conscripts will be Muslims.
Goble noted that these changes have been accompanied by a "rising tide" of anti-Muslim prejudice. Public-opinion surveys reveal that up to "70 percent of ethnic Russians" express sympathy with xenophobic slogans. Goble warned that heavy-handed state efforts to "contain Islam" could backfire and cause groups to move underground, "radicalizing people who are not yet radicalized."
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THE COMPLETE PICTURE: To view an archive of all of RFE/RL's coverage of Russia's North Caucasus, click here.