Thursday, May 2, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Mufti Says Ethnic Russians Should Not Convert to Islam

Paul Goble

            Staunton, May 2 – Khaydar Khafizov, the mufti of the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous District, says that the conversion of ethnic Russians to Islam is “impermissible and a dangerous phenomenon for Russia,” a remark that reflects a hardening of the view that ethnicity and religion should correspond and one that has provoked discussion.

            The leader of the growing Muslim community in a gas-rich region of Russia’s Far North, Khafizov made his comment at a recent session of that autonomous district’s consultative council on ethno-confessional relations there in reaction to reports of ever more conversions among ethnic Russians to Islam.

            The notion that ethnic Russians must not convert to Islam has long been the position of the Russian Orthodox Church which despite promises not to engage in missionary work among Muslims nonetheless takes great pride in reporting the conversion of Muslims in the Russian Federation to Christianity.

            Most Muslim leaders in the Russian Federation have agreed to avoid conducting missionary work among peoples which historically have followed a different religion, although they have engaged in outreach to communities which do not have in their background one of the four “traditional” religions of Russia – Orthodoxy, Islam, Judaism and Buddhism.  

            And some Muslim leaders there have acknowledged that ethnic Russian converts to Islam often become the most radical followers of the faith, not only because they are most likely to be subject to propaganda from such people but also because they tend to display the fanaticism that is often found among the newly converted to any religion.

            But Khafizov’s statement represents a hardening of the view that religion and ethnicity should be coterminous in the Russian Federation, and not surprisingly, it has sparked discussion. The Specter news agency offers a survey of opinion about it (

            Ruslan Gereyev, director of the Center for the Study of Islam in the North Caucasus, said that “the Islamization of [ethnic] Russians to a large extent is the result of poor work by the Russian Orthodox Church and by officials who do not devote to ethnic Russian youth the necessary attention.”

            “The spiritual defense of the ethnic Russian population in Russia doesn’t exist,” he continued.  “As a result of this, Russians are the first to fall victim to alcoholism, drug abuse, and totalitarian sects and are subject to infection by the virus of radical Islamism.” Many Russians, especially young women, thus convert and become potential suicide bombers.

            The number of Russian converts to Islam “will only increase because the emissars of the jihadists have special plans for ethnic Russian girls,” he continued. And the work of the jihadists with the ethnic Russian population is “unfortunately, more productive than similar work by the structures of the Russian Orthodox Church or traditional Islam.”

            A  major reason for the success of the jihadists in this direction, Gereyev said, is that they provide simple and clear answers to all questions while the Russian Orthodox Church and Muslim imams and muftis talk about the complexities and dilemmas that any believer inevitably faces.  For some, simple wins out.

            Vasily Ivvanov, a researcher at the Volga Center for Regional and Ethno-Religious Ressearch of the Russian Institute for Strategic Research, focused his comments on the National Organization of Russian Muslims (NORM) and on its involvement with “Tatar national separatists.”

            That alliance means, the Kazan researcher suggested, that “ethnic Russian Muslims from NORM dream about the collapse of Russia.” Given that, “one can hardly call them Russian people.” But they are seldom if ever accepted by traditional Muslims, however much they may try.

            “Ethnic Muslims in Russia are prepared to see ethnic Russians are fellow believers, but they do not want these ethnic Russian to occupy any positions in the spiritual hierarchy.” Thus, even while they are cut off from the ethnic Russian community which views them as “traitors,” ethnic Russian Muslims are “second class” people in the umma.

            That isolation predisposes them to extreme action and even to terrorism, Ivanov said.

            Finally, Akhmet Dzhafaroglu, a St.Petersburg specialist on Islam in Russia at the Russian Institute of Strategic Research, suggested that ethnic Russian Muslims are cut off for another reason: they seldom know the national languages of the traditional Muslim communities such as Tatar or Chechen, and thus they are always trying to prove that they are true Muslims.

            An example of this phenomenon was Shamil Basayev, whose Russian ancestors were captured by Imam Shamil in the 19th century and who sought by his extreme actions to demonstrate that he was truly part of the Chechen community.  But despite that, Dzhafaroglu said, he was always called “the Chechen with a Russian tail.”

            Other ethnic Russian Muslims today are in an even worse position psychologically, he continued, because they do not want to study Tatar or Chechen or any other “Muslim” language. As a result, “the typical ethnic Russian Muslim is characterized by self-love, aggressiveness and intolerance toward other religions and convictions.”

            Such people are especially aggressive “toward Russian Orthodoxy and the Russian patriotic tradition, in a word, to everything which makes a Russian man a real Russian,” Dzhafarov argued. Not welcomed by traditional Muslims or their own nation, these people are emplaced only by “radical Islamists.”

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