Staunton, December 9 – The Russian government has never been pleased by the fact that it must now deal with more than 80 Muslim spiritual directorates (MSDs) rather than a single centralized one. Meanwhile, some Muslim leaders – most prominently Talgat Tajuddin of Ufa – have sought to form a Moscow patriarchate-style central leadership to boost their own authority.
But neither the one side nor the other has made much progress over the last 20 years. Indeed, the lack of any theological justification for the existence of the MSDs – they descend from tsarist and Soviet era structures intended to allow the state to control Muslim communities — has opened the floodgates to a hodgepodge of competing Muslim hierarchies.
In some regions, there are as many as six different MSDs each claiming control over some of the parishes, an arrangement that raises questions in the minds of many Muslims and even more government officials as to who is in charge and who can be held responsible for the rise or control of Islamist groups.
A clear indication that Moscow wants to see the amalgamation of the competing MSDs into only one or two was given by Tajuddin, the head of the Central MSD who sometimes styles himself as the Supreme Mufti of Holy Rus but who has been called “the drunken mufti” for his well-known predilection for vodka.
According to URA.ru journalist Anton Olshannikov, Tajuddin declared that “cooperation with government bodies is not only our choice but also the directive of the Most High,” something he has said before and that reflects his aspiration to be a Muslim counterpart to Moscow Patriarch Kirill.
But the Ufa mufti’s words took on special importance this time not only because Sverdlovsk has one of the most complicated MSD networks in Russia but also because officials, both those in the regional government responsible for religious affairs and FSB officers concerned about countering extremism weighed in on his side.
Portions of the 60 Muslim parishes are administered by Tajuddin’s Central MSD, the MSD for the Asiatic Part of Russia, the MSD for the European Part of Russia, the Central MSD for Russia and the European Countries of the CIA, the Moscow Muftiate, the Muslim Spiritual Assembly of Sverdlovsk Oblast, and the Urals Muftiate. Seven parishes are independent.
What this means, officials say, is that when they have a problem with Muslims, they have no idea to whom they should turn or who should be held responsible, a marked contrast as far as the authorities are concerned with the situation with the Russian Orthodox Church where there is a single hierarchy and a single boss.
The existence of so many Muslim bosses, the officials say, complicates their own lives in another way: Many of the MSDs spend their time engaged in intrigues against one another, sending compromising information about those they want to undercut and opening the way for extremist groups who denounce all of these Muslim leaders.
Olshannikov says that the authorities have decided to push for the unification of some if not all of the MSDs to simplify the situation and to do so either by a “soft” or “hard” strategy. The “soft” strategy will involve getting those MSDs who are not far apart ideologically or politically to agree to unite with the carrot of government assistance and the stick of being potentially subject to charges of supporting extremism if they don’t unite.
According to Yakov Silin, the Sverdlovsk deputy prime minister who is responsible for inter-confessional concord, the authorities view “the unification of the MSDs as a matter of importance,” although the powers that be are not in a position to achieve their unification “at any price.”
“The leaders of these organizations have various positions, and behind them stand a definite number of believers,” Silin said. “If they themselves consider it necessary and turn to us, we will, within the limits of reason and the law, provide assistance. But uniting them into a single organization is not the goal.”
But officials in the force structures and special services are prepared to go further and apply the “harsh” approach, forcing the MSDs to unite through legal charges and other means, because they believe that this is a necessary precondition for a successful struggle against extremism. That struggle is more important, they say, than simple administrative convenience.
A source whom Olshannikov described as “close to the special services” said that, “as a result of the planned unification [of MSDs] in Sverdlovsk region, there will remain two or a maximum of three spiritual administrations.” Two would be ideal, he said, because that would provide balance and a useful way for the authorities to intervene.
On the one hand, the officer said, the authorities could always play one against the other. And on the other, they would then be in the position to bring charges of extremism against one at any time – and everyone would know that in advance – and thus keep both in line and the real extremists at bay.