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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- Russian Muslims And Muslim Russians

Washington, 3 April 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The number of Muslims in Russia is increasing not only because of the demographic growth of the historically Islamic peoples there but also because members of other groups, including ethnic Russians, are turning to Islam as well, according to a number of recent articles in the Russian press.

Such converts are still relatively rare, but over the past year, they have caught the attention of the media in Tatarstan and other historically Islamic regions. Now, the phenomenon has become sufficiently large that it is the subject of an extensive article by Azat Akhunov in the current issue of the religion supplement of Moscow's "Nezavisimaya gazeta."

Entitled "Why are Russians Accepting Islam?" the article suggests that those Russians who choose to become Muslims have a variety of motives -- from those typical of anyone turning to religion or from one faith to another to those arising from the specific needs of those Russians who live in areas where Muslims now predominate.

Akhunov focuses on the Tatarstan village of Kukmor where the historically Islamic Tatars form 80 percent of the population and the traditionally Orthodox Christian Russians form only 12 percent. In that situation, the tone of public life is set more often by the local Muslim majority rather than the Russian community, however important it is in the broader world. And he notes that one Russian there who converted to Islam was "in essence no longer a Russian in the customary sense of this word."

And Akhunov concludes that "in Kazan alone there live not a few Russians who publicly profess Islam and who do not try to conceal this fact of their biography." He notes that "Russian Muslims in Tatarstan are completely respected and do not experience any discrimination. Among them are people of various professions...and there are now mosques [there] in which prayers are conducted in Russian."

But if Akhunov does not view this development as threatening, others appear to view it in just that way. On the one hand, they view it as likely to accelerate the relative size of Russia's Muslim community. And on the other, they see such conversions as raising questions about the nature and stability of Russian national identity itself, questions that appear to be increasingly disturbing to many Russians.

One measure of such concerns is the new popularity of the works of Dmitry Karataev-Karachevskiy, a Bulgar nobleman who as an migr published numerous works on the complex history of Russian-Tatar and Russian-Muslim relations, works that suggest the two are far more intermixed than many have assumed. His books have been reprinted in Moscow during the last few years and have sparked debate among both scholars and politicians.

But more immediately, many Russians appear to be especially concerned by the growth of Islam itself, and some of that concern is reflected in two other articles in the same issue of the religion supplement of "Nezavisimaya gazeta."

In the first, a researcher from the Institute of Oriental Studies, Damir Khayrutdinov, describes the dramatic growth of the Islamic community in Moscow itself, a growth powered by migration, larger birthrates, and conversion as well.

Muslims have lived in what is now the Russian capital since the time of the Golden Horde, Khayrutdinov notes, but now they are the second largest religious community not only in the capital but in the country as a whole. As they have grown, they have erected more mosques and more cemeteries, making them far more visible now than at any time in the last 500 years.

And in the second article, Vladimir Zorin, the deputy presidential envoy to the Volga Federal District, tells an interviewer that his bureaucracy has taken the lead in discussing inter-confessional relations, not only because the percent of Russian Orthodox in the Middle Volga is relatively lower than elsewhere but because of the assertiveness of Muslim groups there.

Zorin describes in detail the continuous seminars he is supervising on such relations, acknowledging his willingness to take local religious concerns into account even as Moscow insists on harmonization of regional and republic legislation with all-Russian norms. And he holds up the work he has done as a possible model for the offices of other presidential envoys.

If current demographic trends continue and if more Russians do choose to become followers of Islam, both these concerns and efforts by the government to deal with them almost certainly will increase. And that in turn may complicate still further the lives of those who cross the religious line from Christianity to Islam.