On November 24, Kazan hosted a Valdai Club conference, “Religious Polyphony and National Unity”. The participants discussed the secret of the sustainability of multinational and multi-confessional societies and tried to determine how having a number of ethnic groups and religions can promote international cooperation in the face of geopolitical tensions.
The choice of the conference venue is not accidental: in 2022, Russia officially celebrates the 1100th anniversary of the adoption of Islam by Volga Bulgaria. This event determined the historical fate of the Tatar people and other peoples of the Volga region. Modern Tatarstan, where Muslims, Orthodox and practitioners of other faiths have lived side by side for centuries, is an example of the harmonious coexistence of various ethnic groups and religions. In his video message to the conference participants, Rustam Minnikhanov, the President of the Republic of Tatarstan, noted that more than 170 nationalities live in the region, and the next year was declared the Year of National Cultures and Traditions. As head of the Russia-Islamic World strategic vision group, Minnikhanov sees his mission in telling the world community about how people who practice different faiths live in peace and harmony in Russia. In turn, Asgat Safarov, head of the administration of the President of the Republic of Tatarstan, stressed that the unity of the peoples of Russia is preserved – including in the face of unprecedented pressure from Western countries – thanks to its reliance on traditional values. The plenary session of the conference was largely devoted to the role of traditional values in terms of the sustainability of society.
Answering the questions of the session moderator, Andrey Bystritskiy, about how people from different religions have managed to coexist for centuries within Tatarstan, jointly developing and enriching each other, Metropolitan Kirill of Kazan and Tatarstan noted that Kazan is both an Orthodox city and the capital of Islam in Russia, and its residents do not contemplate how to live without each other. Having made a brief historical excursus, he emphasised that the adoption of Christianity elevated Rus in the eyes of the Muslim East, and Islam was never something far away for the Russians, since it was professed by its closest neighbours, including Volga Bulgaria.
Today, according to him, both Orthodox Christians and Muslims are facing challenges to traditional values – first and foremost, the destruction of the family values under the slogans of gender diversity. Russia, on the other hand, is becoming an outpost of the struggle for traditional values common to both Orthodox Christians and Muslims, as well as practitioners of other religions.
Each religion has its own truth and spiritual values that we must protect, said Buda Badmaev, Did Khambo Lama of the Traditional Buddhist Sangha of Russia in the North-Western region. In a multinational and multi-confessional state like Russia, it is necessary to seek out a means of understanding each other, and then we will be able to respond to the challenges we face.
Mufti Kamil Samigullin, head of the Spiritual Administration of Muslims of the Republic of Tatarstan, focused on the connection between spirituality and patriotism. According to him, a sustainable society begins with a stable spiritual state of every citizen, and Islam, along with other religions, is part of Russia’s spiritual and historical heritage. He recalled how, during the World War II, Muslims put aside their grievances against the Bolsheviks and followed the call of Mufti Gabdrakhman Rasulev, who issued a fatwa on the fight against fascism in 1942.
Mikhail Piotrovsky, Director of the State Hermitage Museum, spoke about the role of the arts in shaping a culture of mutual understanding and tolerance. According to him, the art of different religions is a language that everyone understands and that unites everyone. Mintimer Shaimiev, state adviser of the Republic of Tatarstan and the first president of the republic, emphasised that the revival of spirituality should serve as the foundation for all the transformations that are taking place in Russian society. However, such a spiritual revival must be expressed in concrete deeds that make it possible to achieve unity without losing the meaning of the teachings of each religion.
The first session of the conference was devoted to religious interaction between countries as one of the foundations of peace and development. Metropolitan of Volokolamsk Anthony, Chairman of the Department of External Church Relations of the Moscow Patriarchate, noted that the culture of the peoples of Russia is one of the most diverse in the world: we were able to build an exemplary model of interaction between all traditional religions. He emphasised that today, when Russia opposes the most developed and powerful countries of the world on moral issues, Orthodox Christians often enjoy more unity with Muslims than with their fellow Christians in the West. In turn, the Islamic world has demonstrated the desire to maintain a dialogue with Russia.
Nourhan ElSheikh, Professor of political science at Cairo University, demonstrated in her speech that the concept of diversity, actively promoted in Western discourse, can also have a different, spiritual dimension. “Diversity is our essence, no people are alike,” she said. “God created us to be different from each other — it’s good to be different from each other. We need to figure out how to capitalise on this difference and diversity.” There are almost two billion Muslims in the world, but they cannot all be the same. These differences need to be dealt with using the correct approach, ElSheikh emphasised.
At the same time, she warned against perceiving religion in terms of formal rules and prohibitions regarding, for example, clothing, as is the case in many Muslim societies, and recalled that religion is, first of all, about values. In addition, according to her, one should not forget the importance of the joint efforts of countries to improve the well-being of people, since poverty is a breeding ground for the emergence of religious extremism.
Rustam Khaydarov, Deputy Director of the A. Bahovaddinov Institute of Philosophy, Political Science and Law of the National Academy of Sciences of Tajikistan, stressed that Russia has built an optimal system of interaction between different faiths, and this experience can be transferred to the international sphere. The current struggle between Russia and the collective West is a struggle of worldviews, he noted, and those countries that are able to shed their illusions about the collective West will emerge victorious from the crisis.
Describing the evolution of the world system, Professor Andrey Bolshakov, Head of the Department of International Relations, World Politics and Diplomacy at the Institute of International Relations of the Kazan (Volga Region) Federal University, noted that today we see only the contours of an emerging, more just world, a departure from the total dominance of the collective West. Multipolarity is attractive to the world, but it brings turbulence, he stressed. At the same time, the religious organisations of the warring states understand each other better than the political leaders.
The theme of the world order was also touched upon in the speech of Muhammad Beshari, Secretary General of the World Council of Muslim Communities. According to him, the world sees a process of imposing values instead of dialogue; instead of mutual understanding, we are dealing with coercion and diktat. Meanwhile, the political events and transformations that humanity has gone through in recent years have led to the realisation of the need for joint action. The basis of all religions, according to him, consists of three principles: the sacredness of life, family and homeland. There is no contradiction between faith and love for the Motherland and its defence, he stressed.
The second session of the conference was devoted to the role of religious diversity in ensuring domestic political stability. According to Alikber Alikberov, Director of the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, there is a direct connection here: the more complex the systems, the more stable they are; the complexity of the interaction provides for greater stability. Alikberov raised the issue of the role of religion in nation building, pointing to the country division in Islam. Islam in Russia, like other traditional religions, has national characteristics and contributes to the formation of Russia’s identity. In order to achieve national unity, we all must accept the domestic traditions of Buddhism, Islam, Christianity and Judaism, and defend them as our own, he stressed.
Although for each believer his religion is the only true one, all of them are based on universal values, said Nur Kirabaev, director of the Interuniversity Center for Humanitarian Education at the Peoples’ Friendship University of Russia. That is why inter-religious dialogue is possible and necessary, but an important precondition is knowledge of the culture of the peoples of one’s country. Muhammad Athar Javed, CEO of Pakistan House, touched on the topic of religion and extremism. According to him, radicalisation and extremism are determined not by religion, but by political views. The demonisation of Islam has taken place in the Western world over the last twenty years, but it is Muslims who have suffered the most from extremist groups operating under Islamist slogans.
According to Zhargal Dugdanov, Vice-Rector of the Zayaev Buddhist University, every religion teaches freedom. Buddhism teaches people to shed their negative consciousness; negative emotions which require conscious faith. Religious polyphony contributes to the formation of a national community, he stressed, but this requires trusting relationships between different faiths and the state.
During the discussions, a participant from Malaysia expressed the opinion of many conference guests, saying that in his region, Russia is known as a major military power, but there is nothing known about the Russian traditions of interreligious dialogue and tolerance. He urged Russia to actively tell the world about such success stories and not be shy about using them as a tool of soft power.