The Russian government is seeking closer ties with the Muslim world and has applied for observer status at the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC).
Moscow (CNSNews.com) October 22 – Last week, President Vladimir Putin made a largely unexpected appearance at an OIC summit in Malaysia. He told the gathering of leaders from the 57 OIC members that Russia’s 20 million Muslims were an inalienable part of the Russian nation.
Putin also thanked the OIC and the Arab League for sending observers to the recent presidential election in breakaway Chechnya. Western organizations refused to serve as election observers, but the league and OIC sent delegates, who gave the election the “thumbs-up.”
Putin attended the summit as a guest, but he repeated his hope that Russia could obtain official observer status.
Roughly 15 percent of Russia’s population is Muslim.
OIC membership is not restricted to countries with a Muslim majority – or even a large minority. Although most members are overwhelmingly Muslim, others are not. Guyana in Latin America, for instance, is a member despite having a Muslim minority of just 9 percent.
One of three current observers, Thailand, has a Muslim population of just 4 percent.
On the other hand, India’s application for membership was rejected two years ago despite the fact that its Muslim community, some 125 million strong, is the world’s second largest, after Indonesia. Indian newspapers reported earlier this year that Delhi’s latest attempts to get OIC membership failed after archrival Pakistan threatened to withdraw if India was accepted.
Putin’s presence at the conference meant he was there when Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad made his now-infamous speech charging that Jews control the world and portraying them as the enemies of Muslims.
Mahathir also told the summit that Muslims should emulate the Jews, using brains as well as brawn to ensure ultimate victory.
The speech was greeted by an ovation from the assembled leaders, but Putin sidestepped the subsequent controversy.
Asked about Mahathir’s remarks, Putin gave an ambiguous reply, merely saying Russia was a multinational country with “certain traditions of interactions between nations and religions.”
By approaching the OIC, Putin is seen here as aiming to reposition Russia as an ally of Muslim causes. This effort is also seen as an attempt to counter the perception that the war in Chechnya is a battle between Christianity and Islam.
Significantly, Akhmad Kadyrov, the Muslim leader and Putin loyalist just elected president of Chechnya, was among the delegation that accompanied Putin to the OIC meeting.
Russia’s gesture toward the OIC was a major morale boost for the country’s Muslims, said Ismail Berdiyev, the mufti for the North Caucasus, who was also part of the delegation.
Russia’s chief mufti, Ravil Gainutdin, said in Moscow Wednesday that Russia would need at least two more years to get OIC observer status. He praised the official Russian Orthodox Church for supporting the bid.
At the same time it has been wooing the OIC, the Russian government has been keen to prevent any signs of radicalism among the country’s Muslims.
When a top leader, mufti Talgat Tadjuddin, called for a “holy war” against the United States last April for its attack on Iraq, he was promptly silenced by the authorities.
Tadjuddin, an outspoken critic of the war, led a last-ditch “peace delegation” to Baghdad, departing the city just two days before U.S. bombing started.
The day after Tadjuddin’s jihad call, the local prosecutor’s office issued an official warning for him not to break laws forbidding inciting ethnic or religious hatred.
Since then, little has been heard from the mufti.
(CNSNews.com Pacific Rim Bureau Chief Patrick Goodenough contributed to this report.)
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