Muslims and the State in Late Imperial Russia and Today

By
Amy Liedy

“Who spoke for the Muslim communities after 1905?” asked James Meyer, Assistant Professor, Department of History and Philosophy, Montana State University, and Title VIII-Supported Research Scholar, Kennan Institute, Woodrow Wilson Center, at a 16 May 2011 Kennan Institute discussion. Meyer examined the relationship between Muslim communities and the Imperial regime at the turn of the twentieth century, and the impact it has on politics today.

Meyer introduced his presentation with anecdotal evidence of the complexities of Muslim community life in Imperial Russia. Around October 1905, the leadership of the province of Tavrida received several hundred letters from Crimean Muslims, who petitioned for the Mufti of the province’s spiritual community to step down from his position. Soon thereafter, the governor of Tavrida received approximately 1,000 petitions from Crimean Muslims defending the Mufti’s work—and expressing that the opponents of his leadership unjustly asserted that they spoke on behalf of the entire Muslim community in the region. The disagreement within the Crimean Muslim community in fall 1905, Meyer explained, serves as an example of the multifaceted dynamics present in the Russian Empire with respect to institutional administration—at both the community and state levels.

The 1905 revolution is perceived as a watershed point of conflict between non-Russian peoples and the tsarist regime, due to an emerging sense of national identity among these communities, Meyer noted, “With the state, on the other hand, attacking these communities with programs of Russification.” Although there were already spiritual leaders who served Muslim communities, the influx of mass politics into the post-revolutionary empire compelled the Imperial regime to try to influence and govern Muslim populations using state-sponsored doctrine. “Many of these communities were administered through institutions that were called ‘spiritual assemblies,’ which were religious in form, but were actually largely administrative in content.” Four spiritual assemblies emerged throughout the empire to serve the Muslim communities; Ufa and the Crimean peninsula hosted one assembly each, while two were established in Tbilisi—one for Sunni Muslims, the other for Shiite Muslims. The spiritual assemblies, Meyer explained, were responsible for arbitrating disputes among community members, in addition to maintaining public records. While local representatives were appointed by the tsarist regime to run these assemblies, they were required to administer based on a state-sponsored version of Sharia law.

While the spiritual assemblies did in fact serve the state and the community, the politicization of these institutions placed more emphasis on addressing the tsarist state’s interests than on the Muslim communities’ needs. According to Meyer, the Imperial regime did not want large-scale participation of non-state actors, which prompted a variety of reactions from the Muslim communities. One of the most important details to keep in mind with respect to the community’s responses, Meyer continued, was that there was a significant amount of diversity within the Muslim population at the time of the 1905 revolution. Muslims had some trust, some degree of familiarity, with the Muslim spiritual assemblies; however, in some parts of Russia (such as the Caucasus region), there was relatively little concern with state institutions.

Meyer attributed the differing attitudes of the Muslim communities toward state-run spiritual institutions to two major themes: historical tradition and education. Indeed, Muslim communities in areas such as the Volga-Ural region had a longer history of interacting with state institutions on a bureaucratic level—which allowed the state to introduce Muslim spiritual assemblies in those regions without significant challenges. Other Muslim communities that did not have established histories in interacting with state institutions, such as those in the Crimea, were not as welcoming of Imperial bureaucracy. With respect to education, Meyer categorized the responses to the Muslim spiritual assemblies as those of “Muslim community activists” versus “non-elite Muslims.” The community activists—who comprised only a small fraction of the Muslim population in the Russian Empire—were generally Russian-speaking intellectuals who felt that the Muslim population needed representation in the Imperial government. In turn, the community activists formed an organization known as “Ittifak,” whose intended purpose was a political party that could represent Muslim interest in the Duma—rather than addressing Muslim communities’ issues behind closed doors with state-appointed officials. Lesser-educated members of the Muslim communities, Meyer noted, were not as involved with politics as were the proponents of Ittifak.

In conclusion, Meyer argued that “1905 offers us a snapshot of the various types of relations that are taking place more generally between state authorities, Muslim communities, and Muslim community leaders.” Although there was notable diversity in the opinions and interactions of these groups, “what people were ultimately concerned with was not identity, it was policy,” the speaker emphasized, adding that their primary concern was for “the laws and rules under which they lived.”

Blair Ruble, Director, Kennan Institute

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