Experts say that by 2010, if present trends continue, 40 percent of Russia’s 18-year-old men will come from historically Islamic peoples within the Russian Federation. They will be of draft age — and also of voting age. Their brand of Islam may be cultural and moral rather than spiritual. Only 4 million to 5 million of all Muslims in Russia are said to regularly practice their religion, experts say, although the higher birthrate of Muslims means they are likely to become more visible and active in politics. This growing Muslim population was a major factor cited in Russia’s recent announcement that it intended to join the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), whose membership of 56 countries plus Palestine includes the Central Asian nations.
Russia bids to join OIC as Muslim population grows
Russia’s Muslim population is many times more than the total population of some of the smaller countries already in the OIC.
Still, some observers have wondered how Russia, which does not have a majority Muslim population, could join the OIC. Recently, a Lebanese politician welcomed Russia’s announcement and explained that there is nothing in the OIC charter requiring a certain population of Muslims; there are current members whose population of Muslims does not exceed 15 percent-20 percent, pravda.ru reported on 16 August. A Malaysian spokesman said Russia could aspire to observer status to begin with, pravda.ru reported, and eventually, that is what Russia sought, ratcheting down its initial bid.
The OIC charter does specify that a two-thirds majority vote is required to obtain membership, and population may be one factor that is reviewed, along with other political issues; India was rejected two years ago, although its Muslim population, second-largest in the world, is far greater than Russia’s. Russia’s main interest in joining the OIC was to contain criticism about Chechnya and impress its own growing Muslim population by offering them a relatively painless form of recognition abroad and a formalized outlet for their aspirations, some observers believe.
By encouraging international contacts among Muslims within an approved framework, President Vladimir Putin may hope to co-opt such relationships and keep them away from extremist groups. Russia may also be endeavoring to patch relations with the Islamic world after maintaining a pro-Israel tilt in its foreign policy, and also position itself for political battles around Iraq in the United Nations. Russia is expected to be an observer at the next OIC summit on 16-18 October in Malaysia, the next chair of the OIC. Malaysia has supported Russia’s membership in the face of protests from several other members, notably Pakistan, which has stated that it fears even Israel could apply for membership because of its Muslim minority population, although the real reason for concern about Russia as a precedent was said to be India’s wish to gain membership. No non-Muslim country is currently a member of the OIC.
OIC criticism on Chechnya has been mild and quiet, although Iran, on behalf of the OIC, has objected to the use of force in the Chechen conflict as “disproportionate” and Russian authorities have felt compelled to grant OIC delegations permission to visit the region. As the unity of the UN Security Council has been sorely tested by the war in Iraq, Russia has looked around for other international organizations; the OIC is the second-largest of such organizations.
Russia’s Muslim communities were quick to praise the announcement about the OIC in August, indicating it could be helpful in the struggle against terrorism. In a much-publicized visit to Moscow, Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz, the highest-ranking Saudi to visit Russia since 1926, gave his blessing for Russia’s entry into the OIC, islamonline.net and AFP reported on 2 September. The issue of Saudi support for Wahhabism never came up.
While the burgeoning Muslim population may be a factor exploited for foreign policy, domestic policy has not really yielded to this reality. “Political Research: Muslims in the 2003 Elections,” an unsigned analytical report on islam.ru may well have been titled “Muslims Not Quite Yet in the Elections” although their demographic pressure is a force to be reckoned with. In the 12 years since the fall of the Soviet Union, like other major religious and ethnic groups, Muslims have enlarged their freedoms and their visibility and expect to have a significant impact on political and social issues in the coming years. Despite their numbers, for various reasons, they have not created a coherent and consolidated social movement or party that has a visible Islamic face in the elections.
Islamic parties yet to clear 5 percent hurdle in elections
In past elections, the islam.ru analysis says, Islamic parties formed but rose and fell, split, and wound up not having a major impact.
Among the first to appear was the Islamic Party of Renewal of Russia, led by Akhmed-Kadi Aktaev. His deputy was the current chairman of the Islamic Committee, Geidar Dzhemal. The party wanted to create a Muslim faction in the State Duma, but some of its leaders were accused of Wahhabism. The party split in 1994, and without support, retreated from the political scene. They were also said to advocate preserving the USSR, in order to withstand the West in a union with Turks, Caucasians, and Islamicized Slavs, writes Vladimir Pribylovskii, director of the Moscow-based Panorama research center, in an article on the impact of Islam on the current parliamentary elections in Nezavisimaya Gazeta on 1 October.
Nur (Light), formed in 1995, was among the first officially registered Muslim movements and attracted almost 0.6 percent of the vote in the last elections, islam.ru writes — still less than the Beer Lovers’ Party, counters Pribylovskii, himself a founder of the latter party. Nur’s first general secretary, Akhmed Khaltov, came from Vladimir Zhirinovskii’s Liberal Democratic Party of Russia. Described as an attempt to create a “civilized image” of the Muslim and promote internationalism, Nur advocated equality for all the major religions when the new law on freedom of conscience was being drafted in the State Duma, according to islam.ru. Although it didn’t clear the threshold to gain a seat in the Duma, Nur was mollified by former President Boris Yeltsin granting them two seats in his Political Consultative Council in 1996, Pribylovskii writes.
The movement held a congress in 2000 to debate turning into a party, but has not been active since then, observers agree. The chief obstacle for developing this party and Islam in general in Russia, islam.ru wrote of the debate at the Nur conference, was the split among different factions of Muslims, and the controversial activities of various clerics. Still, Nur remains registered today with the Central Election Commission as one of 20 civic organizations that are entitled to chose a bloc to take part in the elections along with full-fledged parties, Pribylovskii writes.
Out of Nur came the Islamic Party of Russia (IPR), which was not registered due to its religious name, which then transformed itself into the Party of Justice and Development of Russia (PSRR), the name of the current ruling party in Turkey, and also the True Patriots of Russia (the name keeps the same Russian initials of IPR) headed by Zaur Radzhabov, son of Magomed Radzhabov (although the two have attempted to disguise the relationship, Pribylovskii writes).
The PSRR did not establish the required number of regional branches, and now the IPR can either put up its own list or go into a bloc with Nur.
The Union of Muslims of Russia, formed in 1995, was headed by Nadirshakh Khachilaev, from Daghestan’s Lak minority. The union joined the “Our Home is Russia” bloc and supported Yeltsin in the 1996 presidential elections, although with some reservations, and also maintained contact with the late Aleksandr Lebed. This party was subsequently involved in armed clashes in Makhachkala, Daghestan, with police, when party members headed by Khachilaev tried to seize the State Council building in May 1998. Khachilaev was arrested in January of this year on suspicion of his involvement in the 18 January bombing in Makhachkala that killed seven Russian soldiers, before being killed in August. Some union members were also involved in the August 1999 invasion of Daghestan. Most of the Muslim parties as well as Our Home is Russia publicly disassociated themselves with this organization and its leader as a result, islam.ru writes in its analysis.
In 1999, there was an attempt to build a coalition of Muslim organizations for the Duma elections called Mejlis, which included Nur, Muslims of Russia, Refakh (Prosperity), and others, and in which gas company executive Leonard Rafikov, former deputy minister of the Soviet Gas Ministry, figured prominently. But it fell apart, and the gas sponsor went over to Our Home is Russia. Daghestani banker Magomed Radzhabov picked up Nur, but then the Central Election Commission refused to register the party, saying it was late in filing financial papers.
Another group claiming to unite all Muslims nationwide, Muslims of Russia, is headed by Mukaddes Bibarsov, chairman of the Muslim Spiritual Directorate of the Volga region, who left the post of general secretary of Union of Muslims of Russia. While islam.ru characterizes the group as “only existing on paper” for a time — a judgement shared by Pribylovskii in his Nezavisimaya Gazeta analysis — in March 2003 the group became more active and met with deputy presidential administration head Vladislav Surkov, who handles civil society for the Kremlin. A former Russian Orthodox cleric who converted to Islam, Ali Vyacheslav Polosin, has also joined this movement, as has political commentator Shamil Sultanov, a co-chairman of the Party of Russian Regions (included in the Motherland bloc), known for his articles in the ultraconservative newspapers Den and Zavtra. Farid Asadullin, head of the science department in the Council of Muftis of Russia, is also in the party.
Both Sultanov and Polosin were active in the 2002 conference to form the Union of Muslim Journalists, where Polosin was elected head of the union and identified the group’s task as forming a Muslim elite in Russia and spreading the image of “enlightened and humane Islam,” portal-credo.ru quoted him as saying on 22 May 2003.
Polosin is editor of the newspaper Vse ob Islame (All About Islam) and the website IslamInfo and has a widely read outlet for his views. In a 19 June interview with portal-credo.ru, Polosin estimated that 10,000 ethnic Russians had converted to Islam in Russia, primarily when they married Muslims, and largely resided in Moscow and St. Petersburg.
Other groups tried to get started, some of them dubbed “kitchen parties” by Polosin (Pribylovskii calls them “dwarf parties“), at a time when many groups all over Russia were trying to find their bearings. The only civic organization of Muslims that made it into the current Duma was Abdul-Vakhed Niyazov’s Refakh movement. Refakh ran on the Unity list, but then fell into disfavor with Unity’s head, Sergei Shoigu, and was later expelled from the faction, allegedly because Niyazov supported a Turkish opposition party characterized as “Wahabbist.” Described as among the most visible Muslim leaders in Russia, Niyazov is now chairman of the political council of the Eurasian Party of Russia. He has used that platform to express urgent concern about the “enemy image” of Muslims and bitter criticism about the U.S. in Afghanistan — a conflict which he believes is affecting Russia as well, since the number of attacks on visible minorities has increased.
At a meeting of the Eurasian Party’s political council attended by the Iraqi and Palestinian diplomatic missions in Russia, Niyazov said he hoped to clear the 5 percent hurdle for representation in the Duma, RosBalt reported on 9 April 2002. At that time he indicated that he would support any political group except Yabloko and the Union of Rightist Forces, and expressed support for President Putin. The war in Chechnya has split some groups and also made them extremely cautious about association with armed resistance. Salambek Maigov was expelled from the Eurasian Party, after deciding to become Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov’s representative in Moscow. The party supported the Chechen referendum. (It is not to be confused with Aleksandr Dugin’s Eurasia Party, of which some believe it was a deliberately created Islamic “double.”)
Islamic groups positioning themselves to influence ballott
What all these active parties have in common, Panorama Director Pribylovskii writes in his 1 October Nezavisimaya Gazeta analysis, is a dislike of the traditional “Soviet” Islam represented by Telget Tajetdin, the supreme mufti of Russia and the European countries of the CIS, and they sympathize more with the Council of Muftis of Russia. The Union of Muslims of Russia, Refakh, and the Eurasian Party of Russia are under the spiritual leadership of Nafigulla Ashirov, the co-chairman of the Council of Muftis, who denounced the U.S.-led attack on the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001 as a “crusade against Islam.” They are not moderates in that sense, but the are hardly radicals, either.
Traditionally, experts say Muslims have voted with the Communist Party, both out of conservative convictions and in order to win themselves a certain political protection. Yet increasingly, they are supporting other parties across the political spectrum and organizing their own. Muslim parties have sometimes sided with the left and sometimes with the right in pursuit of their own goals, according to islam.ru, and thus have developed a profile of “centrism”; historically, they once sided with the Kadets in the prerevolutionary first Duma. Islamic groups are limited in their expression in elections by the passage of a law barring the use of religious terminology and names in parties. Of all the parties registered for the elections, only the True Patriots of Russia, headed by Magomed and Zaur Radzhabov come close to positing themselves as Islamic. At first they tried to use the term “Islamic” in their party’s name, explaining that it did not violate the election law because Islam is a culture as well as a religion, but by September 2002 had to abandon the name, according to Briefing Notes on Islam, Society, and Politics by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Vol. 5, No. 1, December 2002.
Shireen Hunter, director of CSIS’s Islam Program, said that disunity among Islamic groups is not the only reason for poor results in efforts to participate in the political process and “ineptness in choosing their partners from Russia’s other political parties” but also more seriously, “the federal and regional governments’ manipulation of electoral laws and their arbitrary application…including denial of registration requests and disqualification from elections, often on the basis of flimsy excuses.” Requirements that a party have at least 10,000 members and representative offices in 45 of 89 provinces is also a significant hurdle for Islamic parties.
Nevertheless, the True Patriots of Russia (IPR) claim to have 3.5 million members, drawing not only on Muslim communities but others in Russia concerned about moral and social issues. They advocate banning beer commercials on television, prohibiting capital flight, and improving relations with the Arab world. In “chasing after two hares” — Islam and Russian patriotism — the party is likely to fail, says islam.ru‘s analyst, especially because no nationally known prominent names have been associated with its list.
Refakh joined the Eurasian Party of Russia, headed by Pavel Borodin, the secretary of the Russia-Belarus Union, and head of the Great Russia-Eurasian Union bloc, which has called for “building a multinational, multiconfessional society” based on mutual respect among religions. Pribylovskii cites five deputies associated with Refakh who did make it to the Duma in previous elections, but on other bloc’s lists: Niyazov, Bashir Kodzoev, Kurban-Ali Amirov, Akhmed Bilalov, and Kaadyr-ool Bicheldei, who is actually a Buddhist. Today, Refakh, still registered, is active through the Eurasian Party-Union of Patriots of Russia bloc, with the figurehead of Pavel Borodin; Muslims make up less than half of this anti-Western party.
Pribylovskii describes the differences between the two “Eurasias” as follows: Borodin’s party is a “Turkish-Slavic-Muslim-Orthodox ‘Rossiyania’ in union with China, India, and the Arab world to oppose Western Europe and America, whereas Dugin’s Eurasia stretches from the Pacific Ocean to the Strait of Dover and opposes the Atlantic ‘non-Eurasia’ of Great Britain and the U.S.” The “Eurasian” Muslims differ in their attitude toward Ravil Gainutdin, the head of the Council of Muftis of Russia, who was in the news in April 2003 for responding to Tajetdin’s call for jihad against the U.S. by saying such calls were “impermissible and dangerous” and while Muslims should help Iraq, they should not use unlawful means.
Tajetdin, the supreme mufti of Russia and the European countries of the CIS and a supporter of Dugin’s Eurasia Party, was discredited after he called for a “jihad” against the United States in Iraq. He has essentially disappeared from the scene since then, islam.ru writes. The Eurasia Party itself originally joined Sergei Glazev’s Motherland bloc, then left it, and evidently is not taking part in the elections.
The Party of Russian Regions, which Shamil Sultanov joined, is one of the chief elements of Motherland, the bloc of leftist-patriotic leaders Sergei Glazev and Dmitrii Rogozin. This bloc “hasn’t made any loud pro-Islamic statements,” not surprising given their nationalist profile. Muslims of Russia supposedly indicated recently that they may join an election bloc with the Communist Party, portal-credo.ru reported on 29 September, citing an alleged meeting of Bibarsov with former Krasnodar Krai Governor Nikolai Kondratenko, often the target of human rights groups for his anti-Semitic statements and xenophobic policies, and now selected for the No. 2 spot on the Communist Party’s election list. But Muslims of Russia denied there ever was such a meeting, islam.ru reported, calling it a “provocation” by other news sites. In fact, islam.ru said, Muslims of Russia has issued a statement calling on Muslims to vote “in according with their political convictions for those who, in their opinion, are capable of resolving issues on a national Russian scale,” indicating that they were not throwing their weight behind any specific party or bloc. Bibarsov has supported Yabloko, Pribylovskii says, supposedly in gratitude for Yavlinskii’s criticism of the government’s handling of the war in Chechnya.
Some politicians appear to have invoked Muslim support, but have been vague about specifics, islam.ru reports. Kamilzhan Kalandarov, director of the Human Rights Institute, a member of the Council of NGOs of the Chairman of the State Duma of the Russian Federation and one of the hopeful candidates for the position of human rights ombudsman, claimed that “representatives of Muslim spiritual circles” had unanimously approved the Sergei Mironov-Gennadii Seleznev “two speakers” bloc, although he could not give any specifics. Religious leaders are in any event banned from election campaigning by law.
While these and other factors may inhibit full participation of Muslims in the election, they are making known their concerns in other ways, and using the press and NGOs as an outlet. Recently, when a Islamic cemetery in Chelyabinsk was vandalized, leaders spoke out.
Union of Muslim Journalists Chairman Polosin, Kalandrov, Writers’ Union member Timur Pulatov, and Legacy Center President Akhmed Saadulazimov, as well as Radik Amirov, head of the press service of the Council of Muftis, all protested the incident, seeing it as a part of an “increase in radical nationalist public sentiments” that often “uses religion as a cover,” the leaders said in statement.
Increasingly aware of their clout, the leaders said they wished to “receive from every political party profile information about its position concerning the national question,” they said, referring to ethnic issues in Russia. “We must know how a party will react in the State Duma to dangerous tendencies of pushing the country into the morass of national chauvinism and xenophobia,” the statement read, as cited by eng.islam.ru on 2 September. Parties that have ignored Muslims in the past are now scrambling to play to them. Yabloko party head Grigorii Yavlinskii condemned the Chelyabinsk vandalism, albeit a week after the incident. Muslims are expecting more such gestures, such as visits by officials to mosques, as the December parliamentary elections approach.
Communities are increasingly protesting ethnic profiling after terrorist attacks. In Nalchik, for example, Kabardino-Balkarian law-enforcement officers met with local Muslim clergy to discuss arrests made after recent terrorist attacks in Moscow and Mozdok, islaminfo.ru reported on 7 October, citing the Sova Information-Analytical Center. Law enforcers said the detention of some 60 men, some of whom have already been released without charge, was warranted, and that they found arms in some mosques; Muslim leaders complained that the detainees had been mistreated. Earlier, clergy had protested that the republic’s Interior Ministry was allowing Muslims to enter mosques only during prayer services while they pursued their manhunt, islaminfo.ru reported.
Although certain gestures will be made in the political campaigns, it is unlikely, islam.ru‘s analyst concludes, that an identifiably Muslim faction will form in the State Duma, or that even several Muslim deputies will be elected as such, even though the conditions are more favorable than they have been in the past.
“Today, the likelihood of the creation of a Muslim faction or even a seat in the Duma at least for some deputies who intend to advocate the interests of adherents of Islam in Russia is quite illusory,” islam.ru comments. Yet, perhaps, for the first time in many years, conditions are “fairly favorable for Muslims” (take for example the marked turn of Russian foreign policy toward the Islamic world), islam.ru says, but that opportunity must be seized.
Evidently mindful of the demographic and political pressures that will come from Muslims, Putin has said that he has no objection to them forming civil and political groups as long as they abide by the law — which means they must refrain from extremism and allowing religion to intrude into politics. In any event, islam.ru says Muslims, who are mainly among the indigenous peoples, are more than twice as likely to vote than their fellow Russians. Ultimately, an Islamic political movement will have influence in Russia, the islam.ru analysis says, because “the processes of modernization, which has destroyed the traditional way of life, in the Muslim milieu, where collective values have always been strong, sometimes has an unexpected result. Under the pressure of globalization, in the place of collective farms is coming not an atomized society, but a network of Islamic communities, which in themselves can become a grassroots political organization.” Obstacles to consolidation of the communities include the negative public image of Muslims, the poor level of informedness of Muslims themselves about their own religion, and the fragmentation of leaders as well as the lack of interest in Islam among business leaders.
From other articles on islam.ru, it is clear that regardless of their disunity or fragmentation, Muslims have some common values which they will promote both inside and outside of the political process. They are critical of the U.S. in Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere in the Middle East and want Russia’s relationship with the U.S. to be shaped accordingly. Many do not want their children to watch cable television, or become susceptible to the barrage of advertising. Like a group of women in Kazan who recently protested about half-naked singers and “bare stomachs of anchors and the lack of profound topics” on television, they will call for more local control of broadcasting and more spiritually oriented programming.
They will likely defend the right of women to wear headscarves, and will reject any attempt to engage in ethnic profiling or identification of them as an entire community with the small percentage involved in terrorist acts. “The Black Widows in Tushino were not wearing headscarves,” commented one Muslim leader about the female suicide bombers who attacked a rock concert in Moscow this summer.
This article was originally published by RFE/RL (Un)Civil Societies, Vol. 4, No. 27, 9 October 2003.
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