Religious Strife in Russia

By Astrit Dakli, January 15, 2013

Mosque in Kazan

Mosque in Kazan

After four generations of being an officially secular state, Russia now has something akin to a war between moderate and hard line Islam being fought on its doorstep while the Orthodox Church is becoming heavily involved in Kremlin politics.

In the closing days of 2012, the Russian Caucasus saw the murder of Ibragim Dudarov, deputy-mufti of the Autonomous Republic of North Ossetia. He was killed near the region’s capital city, Vladikavkaz on 26 December. The assassination of a Muslim cleric in the Caucasus would barely make the headlines these days, if it were not for the fact that North Ossetia is the only Caucasian Republic in the predominantly Muslim region where the majority of the population is Christian (albeit following its own version of Christianity which is mixed with paganism and Zoroastrianism). The spreading of religious violence to North Ossetia is further confirmation that the Caucasus conflict is shedding its original motivations of ethnic and political separatism and is taking on the mantle of a genuine religious war, being fought between opposing Islamic factions in street battles and assassinations.

This conflict may appear to be simply the continuation of the war which has bloodied the whole region on and off since 1994, and in fact the two are strongly inter-related with many of the protagonists being the same. However, this is an entirely new type of conflict for Russia, where the Islam issue has become a problem only in the last few years – the exact dimensions of which are still difficult to ascertain. One thing, however, is clear: the increasingly “religious” nature of State institutions, which in theory are secular, is exacerbating the situation.

These hostilities have to be seen from a number of perspectives. First, there is the conflict within the Muslim world, between a more traditional and moderate Islam which is linked to State institutions (especially to the local authorities in the regions which are predominantly Muslim) and the Salafi sects, which have imported their variety of religious fundamentalism from Saudi Arabia. Salafis want the introduction of Shariah Law and dream of establishing an absolute theocracy – the Caliphate. There is also a conflict under way – which for the moment is still somewhat symbolic in nature – between Islam as a whole and the Orthodox Christian majority in Russia, represented primarily by the Patriarch of Moscow, but also, increasingly, by the supposedly “secular” institutions of the Russian Federal state.

In a country where anti-religious propaganda has reigned supreme for at least four generations, this might come as a bit of a surprise, but it is now undeniable that the problems linked to religion have become so crucial as to put them at the top of the political agenda, sweeping aside traditional State atheism, as well as the more recent attempts to keep public institutions neutral and equidistant to all of the different religions that co-exist in Russia.

Alongside the dominant Orthodox Christian Church, other religions officially recognized by the State include Islam, which is experiencing tumultuous growth, and Judaism which still has a strong following despite massive emigration to the USA and Israel. Buddhism too is considered one of Russia’s traditional religions with one of its most important centres in eastern Siberia. This is without listing the many “minor” faiths and beliefs, some of which are recent imports – like the various Protestant religions, and even Roman Catholicism – while others have existed since the dawn of time such as Shamanism and Animism, practised by some of the indigenous peoples in Siberia.

After being reduced to a semi-clandestine and folkloristic status for nearly seventy years, the religious communities of post-Soviet Russia since the ‘90s have begun a process of expansion and proselytism – which in some cases has been quite aggressive – forging increasingly close relationships with political power, both at a local municipal level as well as at higher levels within the Russian Federation. This is particularly true for the two largest religious communities, which can count on significant funding and powerful hierarchies.

During the presidencies of Boris Yeltsin and his successor Vladimir Putin, the Patriarchs of Moscow (Alexis II and then Kirill I) enormously enlarged upon their influence in the political life of Russia, particularly in relation to its legislative and judicial activity. One of the most emblematic episodes in recent times was the trial of the three members of the feminist punk group, Pussy Riot, whose performance in the Cathedral of Our Saviour in Moscow spectacularly denounced the collusion between political power and the religious authorities, for which they were subjected to a witch-hunt on the explicit instructions of the Patriarchy.

During the Pussy Riot trial, the Islamic religious authorities in Russia stood side-by-side with the Patriarchy on the issue, but this “holy alliance” between the State and the two main religions of Russia in reality is not that solid. Just a few weeks after the conclusion of the Pussy Riot trial, last autumn, three other young women – girls from a school in Kara-Tyube, a remote village in the south on the frontier with the Caucasus, with a Muslim majority – caused a serious problem for the State and indirectly for the Orthodox Patriarchy, as they insisted on their right to wear the veil in class at school, which went against school regulations.

The story hit the headlines of the national newspapers after the Federal Education Minister, Dmitriy Livanov defended the girls (“I can’t see that they have committed any crime”, he said) to be immediately contradicted by President Vladimir Putin and a parliamentary commission, which once again proposed the idea of obligatory uniforms (obviously excluding veils) for all students, just like in Soviet times. He intervened to defend the secular nature of the State, a principle that is somewhat difficult for him to support with any credibility, given the way that this principle is being systematically undermined when it comes to the Orthodox Church. The end result has been that the alliance between the authorities of Russia’s major religious groups, which had already been showing signs of strain for the last two or three years, weakened even further.

Problems began when the Muslims of Moscow and St Petersburg – whose numbers have increased significantly due to the massive immigration of workers from the ex-Soviet Republics of Central Asia and the Caucasus – put in a request to build new mosques to provide the immigrants with a proper place of worship. It was a completely legitimate and justified request – when you think that in Moscow there are only four “official” mosques for a Muslim population that is estimated at two million. The local authorities did initially support the request, and approved the construction projects. But, they didn’t count on the vociferous popular opposition, frequently encouraged by right-wing activists and Orthodox priests, which completely blocked any and all initiatives before they had a chance to get underway. The problems do not end there. In the majority of Russian cities, Muslim immigrants have for years been targeted by groups of racist young skinheads, already responsible for dozens of murders. As a result, the immigrant communities (in particular the Caucasian community) have begun to form self-defence groups which react violently to these attacks, despite the continued calls for calm and moderation from the Imams and the Council of Muftis.

The Patriarch is also finding himself in difficulty. Up until recently, the Muslim authorities had been useful to him in eroding various secular strongholds in national legislation and in government itself, on issues ranging from abortion, to civil liberties and the school curricula. But now it is increasingly hard for him to reconcile his traditional alliance with those authorities with generalised fears of a Muslim demographic explosion. That, coupled with growing Islamic proselytism, has led to forecasts of the Muslim population ‘overtaking’ the Slav-Orthodox population in Russia by the middle of this century.

In fact the stance taken by the Patriarchy on a range of issues now shows evident, if undeclared, sympathy for the positions embraced by the racist, fascist far-right, with Federal government policy following close behind.

On the Muslim side, the intermingling of the religious hierarchy and state authorities is quite extensive at a local level in the regions where Islam is the majority religion. In Chechnya, for example, last November the construction of an immense new mosque, that will welcome 10,000 worshippers, was begun amid great fanfare. It is to be named after the local leader, Ramzan Kadyrov who commissioned it. Another large mosque built in Grozny was named after Kadyrov’s father (ex-guerrilla, former religious leader and predecessor to his son in the role of Republican president). More generally in Chechnya, in the silence-consent of the Kremlin, the codes which regulate the administration of justice – that is to say Federal laws – have been substituted de facto by a “personalised” version of Shariah (Islamic Law) developed by Kadyrov himself, in an attempt to hinder the spreading of radical Islamic sects.

If in Chechnya, Kadyrov is doing everything he can to present himself as the protector of Islam, in the nearby autonomous republics of Dagestan, Ingushetia, Kabardino-Balkaria, and even in the predominantly Christian North Ossetia, it is open warfare between the various Islamic factions. With the radicals linked to the Salafi sect trying to dominate the traditional moderates who have ties with local government – daily life in these republics has become a steady stream of murderous attacks and violent revenge killings. Imams, muftis and simple mullahs are being targeted both in urban centres and remote villages, often killed along with their relatives and their closest followers. This is a struggle for power. The moderates depend on (and, in many cases, are substitutes for) the civil authorities. They use the weapons of the local police forces, at times even receiving the support of Federal forces, while the Salafis, in pursuing their ideal of a caliphate, have merged together with the rump of the separatist guerrilla movement which has for years been tirelessly fighting for the creation of an independent state in the Caucasus.

This religious war does not look like ending any time soon, nor indeed stopping at the borders of the Caucasus. Even in the central regions of Russia, in the industrial and oil-producing area between the Volga and the Urals where there are large Muslim communities (they are the majority of the population among the Bashkiri and Tatar peoples, who are the heirs of the ancient khanates that dominated Russia for centuries) religious extremism is taking hold, as demonstrated by the recent spate of assassinations targeting moderate Islamic leaders. The most shocking attack was that on the head Mufti of Tatarstan, Ildus Faizov (one of the most authoritative leaders of the Muslim community in the Russian Federation) who fortuitously survived an attempt to blow him up (with dynamite), whilst on the same day his deputy was machine-gunned to death in his own home. A few days later, another religious leader, the 74-year-old Sufi Sheikh, Said Atsayev, who enjoyed enormous respect throughout Russia, was killed on the streets of Makhachkala in Dagestan by a suicide bomber.
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Astrit Dakli is an expert in Russian, Central Asian and Eastern European affairs and was previously a journalist with Il Manifesto

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