Will Russia become Islamic in the future

Qantara.de - Dialogue with the Islamic World

For the past decade, the problem of the Islamic communities in Russia and the dynamics inherent in them has mostly been viewed from the perspective of the Chechen war and the violence and terrorist acts it engendered.

And yet the Islamic community in Russia is characterized by an ethnic, linguistic, socio-economic, cultural and ideological diversity that reflects both the spread of Islam in Russia and the spread of Russian rule over the Islamic countries.

The beginnings of Islam in Russia

It is difficult to pinpoint the exact time when Islam established itself in Russia because the areas that the religion invaded were not part of Russia at that time, but were later integrated into the Russian Empire.

Islam in the Caucasus can be traced back to the 7th century. Archaeological evidence suggests a connection between the Bashkir people (in the Ural Mountains) and the Islamic world, which dates back to the 8th century.

By the 10th century, the Bulgarian Empire was Islamized and Bashkiria (now mostly known as Bashkortostan) was incorporated. If one believes some theories, Islam is said to have reached certain areas of today's Russian Federation earlier than Christianity.

The invasion of Russia by the Mongols in the 13th century and their overthrow of the Kievan Rus as well as the later adoption of the Islamic faith by the Khan Uzbek from the "Golden Horde" in the early 14th century led to the formation of a flourishing Islamic state and accelerated the expansion of the of Islamic culture.

Changing dealings with Islam

The arrival of Islam had a decisive influence on the further development of the Russian states after the end of the Kiev Empire, but also on the formation of Russia's national identity. At the same time he shaped the nature of the Russian-Islamic relationship for the following centuries.

Islam's identification with Tatar rule led the Russians to view Muslims as enemies. So they tried, when the opportunity arose, to limit the influence of Islam through a mixture of proselytizing policy (restriction of the Islamic religion and culture) and imperial encroachments on the neighboring areas shaped by Islam.

A turning point in the history of Russian relations with Islam was the conquest of Kazan, today's capital of Tatarstan, by Ivan the Terrible in 1552. The memory of this event is still alive today and influences the relationship between Russians and Tatars: The Russians celebrate Victory while the Tatars are still lamenting him.

The conquest of Kazan was accompanied by a wave of destruction, both cultural and material.

In the period between the conquest of the city and the rise of Empress Catherine the Great in 1762, Russian policy towards Muslims was characterized by systematic reprisals and the eradication of Islamic culture within Russian borders. The result was a widespread emigration of the Tatars to Central Asia and the Ottoman Empire.

Politics of tolerance under Catherine the Great

Catherine the Great changed this policy considerably and ushered in a phase of greater tolerance towards Muslims. For example, it banned the Christian proselytizing of Muslims and the destruction of mosques. Their strategy was based on engaging their Islamic subjects, especially the clergy.

Under Katharina, the first official Islamic institution was founded in Ufa, the capital of today's Bashkortostan.

This relative tolerance allowed Islam to survive in Russia, even in an unstable state. At the beginning of the 20th century, Muslims increasingly strived for greater autonomy and more cultural and political rights.

Communist rule

So it comes as no surprise that the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 initially aroused great expectations on the part of Muslims and even made independence conceivable. Lenin himself reinforced these hopes when he made numerous promises to the Muslims in order to win their support in the war against the Belarusians.

But these were soon forgotten, and the position of the Muslims under the communists was even worse than it had been in the tsarist empire. Anti-religious, and especially anti-Islamic, campaigns by the Soviet leadership decimated their religious and cultural institutions and schools, and led to intellectual stagnation.

And yet, in terms of foreign policy, the Soviet Union was repeatedly forced to woo the Muslims with a more liberal policy if it was dependent on their goodwill in the competition with the West.

This situation contributed to the survival and today's “rebirth” of Islam in Russia as well as the importance of Islam for the Muslim part of the population, as it is an integral part of their identity.

Muslims and Gorbachev's reforms

When Mikhail Gorbachev began his reforms in 1987, Islam in Russia had withstood more than 500 years of repression. Numerous anti-Islamic campaigns failed to curb the influence of Islam within the Muslim population. On the contrary: some Islamic rites survived even within the highest ranks of the communist nomenclature.

Last but not least, the war in Afghanistan also contributed to revitalizing the awareness of Islam in Russia.

The greater political freedom that Gorbachev's perestroika brought was that the facilitated contact between Russians and the rest of the world enabled a revitalization of the political, religious and cultural activities of Muslims in Russia. Thus, in the last 17 years, the Muslims created a political, religious, cultural and educational infrastructure, albeit inadequate.

How many Muslims live in Russia?

There is no precise information on the number of Muslims living in the Russian Federation today. There are two reasons for this.

On the one hand, there is no consensus on the criteria according to which someone is to be considered a Muslim. If, for example, strict observance of the Islamic faith is set as a criterion, this would limit the number of Muslims to just three million.

In some cases, however, some Muslims themselves as well as some Russians put the figure at 30 million - albeit for completely different reasons - exaggeratedly high.

More realistic estimates, on the other hand, assume a number between 16 and 20 million Russian Muslims, although it will tend towards the latter.

Nevertheless, the proportion of Muslims in the total population is likely to increase in the coming years because of the higher Muslim birth rate. This will especially be the case if the birth rate among Russians continues to fall.

Geographical distribution

Muslims now live in all parts of the Russian Federation with its 89 regions, including some of the particularly remote areas such as the Kamchatka Peninsula. A large proportion of Muslims live in the two largest cities, Moscow and St. Petersburg. Together they are estimated at two to three million.

Most Muslims, however, still live in the Volga-Ural region and in the northern Caucasus. The largest centers of Muslim population are in the republics of Tatarstan, Bashkortostan, Chechnya, Dagestan, Ingushetia, Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachay-Cherkessia.

Economic, social and political conditions

Compared to the rest of the country's population, Muslims in Russia are not in an advantageous position. The situation in the northern Caucasus looks particularly bad. Here twice as many people live in poverty as in the rest of the country, while the average income is just under half the national average.

Unemployment is also particularly high in this region. In addition, Muslims can be found mainly in unskilled professions, including various low-paying jobs in agriculture.

Economically speaking, the Tatars are still doing best from the Russian Muslims. Partly this is due to the fact that Tatarstan has industries, and partly to the business acumen of the Tatars.

The social network of Russian Muslims has continued to develop in recent years; a large number of religious and cultural institutions were founded, and educational, media and non-profit institutions were created.

For example, in 2001 there were already 4,000 mosques in the Russian Federation, even if most of them were rather small and without a dome or minaret. However, resistance to the construction of new mosques seems to be increasing recently, reflecting the movement towards mono-culturalism.

Fragmented Islamic clergy

The dissolution of the Soviet Union was followed by a trend towards fragmentation of the Islamic clergy; important religious leaders entered into rivalry with one another. This allowed the Russian government to expand its control over the country's main Islamic organizations.

Despite all the progress, Muslims are still on the fringes of social and cultural life in Russia. Politically, too, they have so far not been able to organize themselves effectively and to become a political force that would be expected in the Russian party landscape. There are several reasons for this, the most important of which are:

Divisions within the Muslim community - both ethnically and religiously - contributed to the poor results of Muslim parties. For example the "Union of Muslims in Russia" (UMR) or the "All-Russian Muslim Social Movement" in the parliamentary elections in 1995, although the mood for the political activities of Muslims was certainly even more favorable then than it is today.

The second reason is the reduction in the political leeway. New electoral laws make the founding and establishment of a viable Islamic party practically impossible.

Religious and political orientation among Russia's Muslims

The vast majority of Russian Muslims belong to the Hanafi school, with the exception of those in Dagestan, where most of them follow the Maliki school. At the same time, however, as a late result of Soviet politics, other Islamic traditions also gained influence, such as variants of Salafism or those of the Wahhabis.

In the northern Caucasus, a combination of social and economic impoverishment on the one hand and the consequences of the Chechnya conflict on the other led to the strengthening of extremist groups, some of which were involved in terrorist attacks.

However, it must be emphasized that most of these groups, especially those from Chechnya, are primarily not religiously motivated, but rather have ethnic motives and strive for independence.

Islamophobic tendencies

Islam in Russia is not a new phenomenon. In some parts of the country it even spread before Christianity. Islam in Russia has had a turbulent history. Its survival speaks - against all odds - for the persistence of religion and for how firmly anchored it was and is in the individual and collective identity of the country's Muslim population.

Post-Soviet Russia offered opportunities for a comprehensive revival of Islam, but - as a direct result of political centralization and cultural "rethinking" by Russians - some of the advances made at that time have already been scaled back in the past five years.

The rise in Islamophobic tendencies within Russian society is particularly worrying.

The future of Russian Muslims, especially the question of whether they will at some point have full participation in the country's social, cultural and political life, will depend on the direction in which Russian politics as a whole is moving. Above all, this includes the question of whether the country is opening up to further democratic reforms or whether authoritarian tendencies are increasing.

It will be equally important whether the Muslims themselves are able to stand up behind a progressive Islam and to get involved in the social life of the country - even if this means that many of them have to overcome major economic and social problems.

Shireen Hunter

© Qantara.de 2005

​​Shireen Hunter is Director of the Islamic Program at the Institute for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington.


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