New laws and rhetoric that defines parameters for acceptable forms of Islam in Russia run the risk of turning into draconian laws that can potentially be used to persecute Russian Muslims.
“We, the below-named, promise and vow before almighty God and the great Prophet Muhammad on four of his most just books, the Gospels, the Torah, Psalms of David, and the Qur’an, that we . . . must serve as loyal subjects of his imperial majesty . . . In concluding this our oath, we kiss the Qur’an of our Prophet Muhammad. Amen.” An oath sworn by Muslims of the Russian empire, 1809
Russia has ruled Muslim populations for over five hundred years, and since the early nineteenth century, Muslims presented a unique challenge for Imperial Russia. Catherine the Great adopted a policy of co-opting Muslim clergy and utilising them to be able to control and assimilate the Muslim population by inaugurating a policy of religious tolerance that made Islam an essential pillar of Orthodox Russia. For generations, the Tsars supported a particular type of Muslim figure in exchange for ensuring that forms of Islam seen by the state as potentially destabilising would be controlled.
This model informed policies within modern Russia through the institutionalising of Islam as a solid pillar of governance to mobilise religion for its benefit. Russia occupies a unique position in the Muslim world and has a very complex relationship with Islam due to the nine Muslim republics within it – with a total population of 25 million Muslims.
The Kremlin is aware of the historical allegiances of the Russian Muslim Tatars, and the Crimean Khanate’s connections with the Ottoman and Safavid empires. Russia has had 200 years of sporadic warfare with the Muslims of the North Caucasus and the suppression of the Chechen quest for independence between 1994 and 2000.
The stereotype of Muslims being ‘Islamic extremists’ is derived from the continued clashes and tension in the North Caucasus, like in Dagestan and Chechnya. Russia’s Muslims are viewed by the government as “potential Islamic fundamentalists” that represent an “imminent threat to the integrity of the Russian Federation.”
It is imperative to question whether this threat is superficial and whether this discussion is being encouraged by the authorities to use the perceived threat of Islam as an excuse for crushing opposition. Islam is seen by Moscow as a transnational, millennialist challenge that threatens to encompass Russia.
In the last few years, the Kremlin has been widely using the phrase “traditional Islam” to regulate and design a new form of Islam that is difficult to define due to its several connotations.
The term has confused Muslims with its varied usage in designating forms of Islam that are inscribed in Russian history, and seen as ‘moderate’ as well as loyal to secular authorities.
In the Muslim religious environment, the term “traditional Islam” was first proposed by the High Mufti Talgat Tajutdin in the early 1990s in response to “new realities threatening the stability of Russia and the post-Soviet space in general.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin has stated that traditional Islam is an integral part of the Russian cultural code and an essential component of Russia’s cosmopolitanism. He has also defined the hijab as not a part of “traditional Islam” – merely borrowed from an alien tradition. This statement has raised eyebrows among Muslims and in particular Muslim women who feel the brunt of his words.
The neologism which was designed to facilitate an understanding of Islamic realities, has, on the contrary, forced Muslims to question what it means to hold onto “traditional Russian Islam.”
According to some scholars, traditional Islam is best described as Russian Islam, or Islam within the context of a post-Soviet country. Repeatedly this phrase has been used within this context by the state and public figures, to ensure that Muslims support the statehood of their homeland and live in peace and harmony with other faiths.
The second interpretation of the phrase is viewed as a ‘popular Islam’ which refers to nominal, ethnic Muslims, in whose lives Islam is nothing more than the memory of their traditional practising grandmother, whose remnants partly survived after the era of enforced atheism.
Russia’s growing interest in situating itself as a platform to define “mainstream” traditional Islam has allowed it to use religion in its interest to influence domestic and international audiences. As such, this concept has aided Russia’s security and geopolitical standing as it employs religious diplomacy within the Muslim World.
Recent laws on extremism, known as the ‘Yarovaya Package’, has made it easy for authorities to brand any belief, individual, writing, or group as “extremist”. The law states government officials may prohibit the activity of a religious association for violating public order or engaging in missionary “extremist activity”. As a result, police conduct raids on homes and places of worship where private gatherings and activities take place. Whatever is not deemed as “traditional” Islam in Russia is seen as “fundamentalist, Wahhabist, Salafist, radical” and will be seen as a challenge to the Kremlin.
Labelling institutions as ‘extremist’ has now reached absurd proportions. Any Russian court can declare material (book, leaflet, song, slogan, video, website or webpage) “extremist” or “not traditionally Islamic.” The Justice Ministry is then empowered to list that work on its Federal List of Extremist Materials, including classic literature such as the book ‘40 Hadith’ by Imam Nawawi or works written by one of the most prominent and influential Islamic philosophers, Abu Hamid Al Ghazali.
On 21st January 2019, a court in the Russian city Samara banned a translation of the Quran and blacklisted it as extremist – which outraged many Russian Muslims. This version of the translation by an Azeri theologian named Elmir Kuliyev is one of several available in the country, and for more than ten years it was used as ancillary literature in Muslim educational institutions. The Quran translation case seems to have gone further in regulating a large and long-established minority by narrowing the field of Islamic education in the Russian language.
According to the Kremlin, all foreign Muslims are the principal factor behind the radicalisation of Muslims in Russia. Any Islamic idea, book and organisation influenced outside of Russia can be branded as “non-traditional Islam.”
The “domestication” of Islam has created dilemmas for Russian Muslims in contemporary Russia and raised concerns of how they relate at the same time to secular authorities. The concept of ‘traditional Islam’ will make it easier for Russian authorities to repress religious communities, stifle peaceful dissent, and detain and imprison people.
Similarly as China has clamped down on its Muslim population of Uyghurs, one must question just how far Russian authorities are willing to go in regularising Islam in the country. To what degree will a large section of the population become marginalised, and to what extent will draconian measures be adopted in suppressing the identity of millions of Muslims who are unlikely to remain silent for much longer.