Why does Islam have no future in Russia?
By “Iskander Dzhalid”*, special to Prague Watchdog
A discussion of modern Russian Islam is impossible without an understanding of the history of its interaction with the state since ancient times. Russia inherited its negative image of Islam from Byzantium. The horror the Byzantines felt when confronted by the possible onslaught of the "pagans" created an almost entirely hostile view of Islam and Mohammed, both there and in Russia.
By the reign of Ivan the Terrible Russia had already entered on a predetermined plan of rapprochement with Western Europe rather than the Muslim East. The rapid dynamics of the public debate about false and true religions further defined the national attitude towards Islam. One passage in the medieval chronicle The Tale of Bygone Years describes for Prince Vladimir the Great the "Bulgars of the Mohammedan faith”, among whom “there is no gladness, only sorrow and a great stench” and whose abstinence from pork and alcohol is seen as contrary to the ways of the supposedly drink- and pork-loving Russians. The prince makes his choice in favour of Christianity.
There was now a strict separation of people on cultural and religious grounds into Orthodox (pravoslavnye) and Aliens (inorodtsy). In order to contain Islam, it had to be transformed, squeezed into the state system. A typical example of this is seen in Lomonosov’s five-act tragedyTamira and Selim, where the Muslim Crimean grandee Nadir calls for the glorification of Russia, appeals to Muslims to folfow the example of Prince Vladimir, and identifies Russia with the final victory of Truth.
The taming of Russia’s Muslims was done by the classic method of the carrot and the stick.. In the mid-eighteenth century campaigns were aimed at the conversion and baptism of Muslims and the destruction of mosques. When Catherine the Great lifted the ban on building mosques, the Tatars called her "Ebi Pashta” (The Grandmother-Empress). In 1788 a muftiate was established, and a new Muslim clergy created to go with it. To this day, Russia’s Muslim community has an organization similar to that of a church, which has few points in common Sharia. Catherine the Great kept a close eye on the mullahs of the Kyrgyz and Kazakh regions, ensuring that they were highly "reliable and loyal people with the duty of educating their flocks in the spirit of obedience to Our Royal House."
By the nineteenth century the Muslims were already under full state control. Their attempts to obtain independence and the establishment of Sharia law were suppressed with extreme cruelty, and then the inevitable carrot was offered. The attitude to Islam is conveyed very accurately in the instructions that were given to the nineteenth century rector and director of Kazan University, M. L. Magnitsky. The instructions say that that in explaining the history and literature of Oriental peoples a professor should not concentrate too much on aspects that relate to Islam and Mohammed...there is no need for him to dwell on the contents of the Koran – on the contrary he must expose the “folktale traditions” on which the Koran is founded. . With regard to Muslim poetry, he needs to draw the students’ attention to its superficial nature, and how “it is distinguished by mere gleams of thought and bold turns of expression." The professor must demonstrate that in Arab wisdom “there is nothing original, for it has been borrowed from the Greeks."
The same anti-Islamic sentiment was typical of the opponents of the existing system –, the Decembrists. In Russian Truth, the manifesto of the Southern Society of Decembrists, Pestel says: "The Crimea... the entire Caucasus, the lands of the Kyrgyz, all the Siberian peoples, and the various other tribes living within the state ... can never form separate states... and must renounce forever the right of individual nationality." In the interests of security, Pestel recommended the unification of "all the lands of the Caucasian mountain peoples who are not under Russia’s control..."
As can be seen, Pestel's political views have largely been embodied in Russian reality. After 1917, the attempts of Russia’s Muslims to establish their own governmental structures were cut short when the Red Army took Kazan and Ufa. By 1923 the attempts to establish Sharia courts in the North Caucasus were foiled, and a full-scale suppression of Islamic religious and cultural life began. Again the standard scheme of carrot and stick was used, this time with the carrot coming first. In 1917 Stalin sent a letter written in Arabic congratulating Ibrahim Gotso on his election as leader of Dagestan’s Muslims. A few years later Gotso was liquidated. In 1920, Stalin was the inspiration of a pamphlet on the subject of "The Roots of Communism in the Holy Koran”. This was followed a short time later by mass killings of Muslims who possessed copies of the holy book. Stalin also laid the so-called "ethnic time-bombs", which were used to achieve ethnic demarcation. The slight easing of repression during the Second World War brought a kind of relief to Muslims, but this was solely for the benefit of the Soviet state. And the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan once again clearly showed the true status of Islam in the USSR.
In the post-perestroika era the Russian state and its various “services” foresaw a surge of interest in Islam. The juxtaposition of "traditional Islam" with "Wahhabism" gave rise to heated conflict on Internet forums, and led in the end to actual killings. Islam was associated with terrorism. Many films were released in which the villains were in one way or another linked to Islam. The constant presence of Christian themes on Russia's television channels continues to fuel the ancient Byzantine attitudes. Russia’s rulers tell the muftis who can or cannot be considered a Muslim, and the Good Muslim can only be one who agrees with the policy of the state.
*"Iskander Dzhalid" is the pseudonym of a Russian journalist currently resident in the United Kingdom
(Translation by DM)
© 2010 Prague Watchdog (see Reprint info).