All is Not Quiet in Russian Islam

In the Muslim community in Russia actual religious and spiritual problems are fading into the background, while the clergy are focused on fighting for leadership and their own financial wellbeing.

The situation in the Muslim community in Russia, especially with its religious and social organizations and their leaders, is rife with intrigue. It seems that actual religious and spiritual problems are fading into the background, while the clergy are focused on fighting for leadership and their own financial wellbeing. From this point of view, the Muslim elite are similar to the Orthodox Christian elite, who, in turn, act a lot like secular politicians.

In their endless feuds, imams, muftis and their anonymous advisers are using long-familiar political technology methods, and their mutual accusations are often designed to be heard by those in power, who they want to re-assure of their loyalty in every possible way.

Most often, we hear accusations of Wahhabism, fundamentalism and the like. Almost every clergyman whose views differ from the views of his opponent is deemed guilty of Wahhabism. This happened before, in the late 1990s, when the author of an article about the discord among Muslims called his piece It Takes a Wahhabi to Know a Wahhabi. It’s very difficult to judge who is committed to Wahhabism and to what extent. Assessments are subjective, and the analysis is cursory, if not primitive.

The theological – or more accurately ideological – controversy actually revolves around the ownership of mosques, property and control over cash flows. The conflict over Tatarstan’s main mosque Kul Sharif is a case in point. Imam Ramil Yusupov was initially suspended by the new Mufti of Tatarstan Ildus Yunusov. Later, under the pressure of the Muslim community, he was reinstated. Ramil Yusupov, who had previously served as imam at the Nizhnekamsk mosque, was branded as a Wahhabi and a henchman of Chechen rebels. However, knowledgeable sources are saying now that this rivalry was about control of the mosque, which brings in large amounts of money. For example, a wedding ceremony at this mosque starts at 16,000 roubles. There are over 20 weddings per month. You do the math. In addition, there are significant donations, including from foreign Muslims.

Mufti Gusman Iskhakov’s forced retirement in 2011 gave rise to a conflict that further split the Tatar religious community. Of course, Iskhakov’s opponents have accused him of doing favors for extremists and Wahhabis and began to excommunicate people that were close to him, which ultimately boosted Iskhakov’s popularity.

Relations between Tatarstan’s Muftiate, the Russian Council of Muftis (RCM) led by Ravil Gainutdin and the Central Spiritual Board of Muslims (CSBM) located in Ufa, aren’t smooth to say the least. Some regions have “parallel” muftiates, some of which are part of the RCM, while others report to the CSBM.

Up until recently, the Coordinating Center of Muslims of Northern Caucasus (CCMNC) established in 1998 and headed by the Mufti of Karachayevo-Chirkassia Ismail Berdiyev looked relatively unified. However, in April 2012, the Spiritual Board of Muslims of the Chechen Republic left it, and its head (Berdiyev’s deputy) Sultan Mirzayev expressed dissatisfaction with the activities of the center, noting that “this organization has become just an abbreviation and is unable to perform its tasks.” Ismail Berdiyev attempted to restore dialogue with his Chechen counterpart, but the latter stood his ground, and 174 Chechen Muslim communities found themselves outside of the CCMNC’s jurisdiction (there were 1,213 communities in it before the Chechens left). Mirzayev did so with full support of the head of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, who, in addition to his political leadership, claims to be a major religious authority in his republic. Obviously, this is what ultimately forced the Chechen Muftiate leave the CCMNC. Possibly, this could be a step toward the disintegration of this organization.
A scandal erupted amid the strife between various Muslim directorates and centers: speaking on the channel REN-TV, the lawyer Dagir Khasavov said the following: “We (Muslims - AM) are at home and we will set the rules (that is, Sharia - AM) that suit us whether you like it or not. Any attempt to change it would lead to bloodshed. There will be another Dead Sea. We will flood the city with blood.” The statement was immediately denounced by Muslim religious leaders, and the Mufti of the Saratov Region Mukaddas Bibarsov explicitly said that “this is the kind of case that should be dealt with by law enforcement agencies.” But as they say, “the word is out” (Khasavov disappeared in an unknown direction, and his relatives now have to take the heat).

The problem of using Sharia law in Russia’s Muslim regions has been discussed for a long time. Shariatization is an established trend in the North Caucasus: Sharia courts operate in Dagestan, Ingushetia and Chechnya. Back in 2001, the Ministry of Justice recommended recognizing Sharia courts as a kind of advisory body to the Association of Muslims in Ingushetia. Incidentally, Sharia courts existed before that as well. They can go by other names: for example, in Dagestan there is a Canonical Office of the Religious Administration of Muslims, which resolves disputes between Muslims based on Sharia law. There are Sharia courts that operate independently of religious offices. In general, Sharia has become part of, or rather has returned to, the lives of Muslims. And that's fine, if only because Russian secular law and its structures are often powerless, not to mention the level of their corruption. Alas, the topic of Sharia came into the spotlight only after a Muslim lawyer made provocative statements.

Islam is a pluralistic religion and Muslim Russia is no exception in this regard. The traditional and common in Russia Hanafi and Shafi'i (in the east of the North Caucasus) denominations of Sunni Islam coexist with other denominations that came from the Middle East. Islam has been politicized. A radical strain has formed, which appeals to young people who are disenchanted with the traditional “ethnic” – Tatar and the Caucasus – Islam, and are watching with interest as successes of Islamic radicals unfold in the Arab East, North Africa and elsewhere in the Muslim world.

Incidentally, the Kremlin has begun to treat foreign Islamic radicals with more understanding and is prepared to cooperate with them. Palestinian leaders of Hamas have visited Moscow on many occasions. Moscow cooperates with the Islamist Tehran. Recently, a delegation of Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood (Al-Ikhwan Al-Muslimun) spoke with Russian politicians in order to find common ground and subsequently cooperate at the intergovernmental level. Meanwhile, the Muslim Brotherhood is invariably classified by some analysts as a terrorist organization.

Attempts to portray Islam as a monolith, all the more so the one that is loyal to the government (in this case, Russia), are erroneous and provocative. Similar to Christianity and other monotheist religions, Islam contains a set of strictly religious, ideological, and political interpretations and nuances. It is a mistake to reject a priori the ones that are at variance with somebody else's views, including official ones.

In the meantime, the divide in the Muslim community in Russia continues to grow, and there are no hopes for reconciliation, even at the regional level, in the near future. Apparently, this suits the government, especially at the federal level, where there is no interest in seeing a unified Muslim minority or any potentially independent force, for that matter. This claim is supported by many publications drafted by government agencies, including ones at the top.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.