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Islam in Russia: History, Politics and Culture

Today "it is openly said that not only an Orthodox, but also a Muslim country. Living in the country today are more than 20 million Muslims, including members of more than 30 indigenous Russian nations," according to Talib Saidbaev, advisor to the Head Mufti of the Spiritual Administration of Muslims of Russia. On 5-6 November 2003 the Kennan Institute and the Middle East Project of the Woodrow Wilson Center hosted a conference that brought together Russian and U.S. experts to discuss the role of Islamic identity and ideology in Russian society historically and today. Speakers discussed a number of issues, including the potential for integration of Muslims into Russian society, the existence of a distinctly Russian variety of Islam, and the danger of radical political Islam in Russia.

The difficulties and possibilities of integrating Muslim citizens are frequently debated in many European countries. However, several speakers pointed out that Russia is different from states such as France and Germany in that Muslim peoples have lived in the territory of Russia for centuries. Robert Crews of Stanford University argued that there is a historical model of Muslims as loyal citizens/subjects of a Russian state. He argued that the Tsars used Islam as a means of securing the political loyalty of Muslim subjects, and there are many examples of Muslims who were acitve in the political life of the Russian Empire. The tendency today to see Russia's Muslims as outsiders can be considered a new development, according to Crews.

All the speakers agreed that the recent increase in expression of Islamic identity among Russian Muslim groups is not, in most cases, an anti-Russian phenomenon. Shireen Hunter of the Center for Strategic and International Studies emphasized that an individual's identity is always made up of many layers. "When we are talking about the Islamic assertion of identity among the Russian Muslims...I think that it is not so much against Russia or against Russian-ness in the civic sense. I believe that most [Muslims] feel committed to the integrity and survival of Russia," she stated. In addition, Radik Amirov of the Spiritual Administration of Muslims of Russia noted that Russia's Islamic leaders promote loyalty to and cooperation with the secular Russian state. He emphasized Islam's position as one of the traditional faiths of the Russian people, and explained that Muslim leaders are working to address many different social problems and strengthen Russian society.

Speakers held different opinions about the nature of "Russian Islam." Kate Graney of Skidmore College believes that most Russian Muslims "share a sort of modernist interpretation of Islam—ecumenical [and] committed to the secularist state." She argued that the Russian government should encourage these moderate tendencies among Muslim groups. However, other speakers, including Aleksei Malashenko of Carnegie Moscow Center, felt that current attempts by the state to foster a moderate Russian Islam are doomed to fail because Muslims see such state intervention as illegitimate.

Saidbaev and Rustem Shukurov of Moscow State University agreed that Russia's Muslims are tolerant and reject radicalism, but they were also concerned that there is a lack of Islamic teaching and theology in Russia. According to Shukurov, "the well-known ideological conception of Brezhnev, according to which the entire population of the Soviet Union would eventually constitute a new ethnic-cultural entity was not a mere fantasy...[T]he atheistic...mentality is still influential in Russia among Muslims." Saidbaev pointed out that the lack of Islamic education in the Soviet period has left Russian Muslims open to the influence of missionaries from Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and other Islamic states.

The activities of Muslim missionaries have fueled fears of the radicalization of Russian Muslims. Even more troubling, to many people, has been the fear of radical Islamic ideology spreading from Chechnya. However, Malashenko argued that Chechen separatism was based in secular nationalism rather than Islam. Chechen leaders later began espousing political Islamic ideology because it served as a "very convenient slogan" to rally people in support of the separatist movement. He maintained that "the idea was never supported by the majority of the society."

John Dunlop of the Hoover Institution emphasized that most Chechens do not want an Islamic state and do not see their struggle with Russia as a holy war. He nevertheless cautioned that the common perception of the Chechen war as a conflict between Russians and Muslims could lead to increasing instability in Russia's other heavily Muslim regions.

Overall, however, speakers believed that Russia has the potential to succeed in integrating its diverse religious communities, including Muslims. According to Hunter: "[A] prosperous Russia, and an open Russia that allows the legitimate expressions of ethnic or cultural going to be very, very attractive, and nobody is going to want to be divorced from that."


About the Author

Erin Trouth Hofmann

Assistant Professor, Department of Sociology, Social Work, and Anthropology, Utah State University
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Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier US center for advanced research on Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the South Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange.  Read more