Staunton, October 29 – “Traditional” Islam in Russia is losing ground to its ‘non-traditional” competitor, especially among the young, but the division between the two is not insuperable and the future of Islam in the Russian Federation is likely to be “a hybrid” combining elements of each, according to Aleksey Malashenko.
In an extensive article in Nezavsimaya Gazeta today, the Moscow specialist on Islam says that while the events in the Muslim world have had an impact on Russia’s Muslims, developments within the Muslim community inside the country, although they have attracted less attention, have been far more important.
On the one hand, Malashenko says, there has been a continuation of the trends which developed in the early 1990s, “the continuation of ‘the Islamization’ of the Islamic community” which had been subject to Soviet atheism. And on the other, there have been certain new developments reflecting social and political changes over the last two decades.
Muslims remained Muslim in Soviet times far more than Orthodox Christians remained Orthodox, but they still had to recover, Malashenko says; and the process has proven to be “a more complicated and contradictory phenomenon because Islam in Russia has at a minimum two mutually opposed versions, the traditional and the non-traditional.”
The first of these is rooted in the local ethno-cultural tradition and is based on the Hanafi of Shafi schools of Sunni Islam or on Sufism (muridism), the Moscow scholar says. The second, “non-traditional” Islam, in contrast, is sometimes called “Arab” or Salafi Islam “does not recognize local cultural roots.”
These two trends are competing for members. The larger part of the Muslim community in Russia is traditional, but increasingly young people are turning to non-traditional Islam because it “attempts to provide answers to sharp social and political questions which are agitating Muslims” now.
That has put the traditionalists in a difficult situation: “they must make traditional Islam more attractive especially for the younger generation” by providing the kind of social and political commentaries that they have generally avoided. “This process is already taking place although the traditionalists do not publicly acknowledge that fact.”
That is not especially surprising let alone “negative” or “criminal,” Malashenko says. Instead, it parallels what is happening in Orthodox Christianity where the Russian Orthodox Church is “politicizing Orthodoxy” as part of its outreach efforts.
Moreover, “despite the competition between the traditionalists and the Salafis, they have a basis for dialogue. Both support Islamization, with the major difference that the traditionalists believe this can happen within the borders of the Russian Federation, while the radicals think that an Islamic state must ignore national borders.
This difference often leads to unexpected divides: Traditional Tatar Muslims want to have their prayers in Tatar while the radicals as “internationalists” prefer to have them in Russian. “What is more useful for the Russian state – moderate Tatar ‘nationalism’ or recognition by the Salafis of the importance of the Russian language?”
To be sure, Malashenko says, there is “an extremist wing in Salafism” in Russia, but it is not the dominant one. Whether it will become so depends on what the traditionalists do and how the authorities and force structures use the carrots and sticks available to them.
“The future,” he concludes, will involve “’hybrid Islam’ in which will be combined its traditional and non-traditional interpretations, and the divide between them will become as is already happening ever more conditional,” something that both religious and secular leaders are going to have to cope with.
After discussing the conflicts among the Muslim Spiritual Directorates (MSDs), which have heated up in recent months, and the emerging role of Chechnya’s Ramzan Kadyrov as an all-Russian Muslim politician, the Moscow expert draws one final and more unsettling conclusion.
Malashenko argues that the current economic crisis in Russia is going to have an impact on Russia’s Muslims just as it is having on other Russians as well. “As is well known,” he writes, “in the Muslim milieu, protest attitudes in part are expressed via religion. From this it follows, that the crisis is creating favorable ground for the growth of Islamic radicalism.”
That trend, he says, is something which both the Russian authorities and Russian society must prepare themselves for.