Staunton, May 14 – By “restraining the intellectual and social development of [its] Muslim community” through bans on theological literature and new mosques, Russia risks producing “its own Muslim ‘Harlem,’ a generation with a marginal and enclave mentality who are indifferent to all-Russian values” and thus a real rather than mythical threat to the country.
Moreover, Damir-Kharat Mukhetdinov argues in a commentary posted online today, Russia and Russians should recognize the dangers of such self-fulfilling prophecies because their tsarist predecessors did much the same thing on the basis of equally distorted understandings of the nature of the Muslim community at that time (damir-hazrat.livejournal.com/97614.html).
The tsarist government believed that it was being challenged by pan-Islamism and pan-Turkism, despite all the evidence to the contrary, and took actions against these “mythical” threats that had the effect of driving a deep wedge between the Russian Orthodox majority and the growing Muslim minority at that time.
Mukhetdinov says he was driven to these bitter reflections by his recent reading of a new Russian translation of Robert Geraci’s 2001 book, Window on the East: National and Imperial Identities in Late Tsarist Russia, in which the University of Virginia scholar discusses the shortcomings in the understanding of the Muslim community of the Russia Empire.
Geraci’s book, the mufti writes, focuses on the policies of the Russian Imperial state to the peoples of the Volga-Urals region and in particular on “the policy of cultural integration and assimilation of the Muslim and Finno-Ugric peoples” there, a policy generally referred to as “Russification.”
“Integration and support of the unity of the civic nation is a necessary condition for the survival of any multi-strata state and of any empire,” Mukhetdinov says, but he notes, as Geraci shows, that the Russian imperial authorities “turned out to be not in a position to solve the tasks which stood before them.”
The authorities at that time were neither consistent nor decisive, in part because the Russian elite itself was very much divided on how to approach the non-Russians and especially the Muslim communities, with some focusing on language, others on religion, and still a third on promoting the loyalty of groups who nonetheless could maintain their own characteristics.
Indeed, Mukhetdinov suggests, “through a study of the transformation of the views and approaches to the administration of non-Russian peoples among the civil and religious elites of the Russian Empire, Robert Geraci analyzes the transformations which were taking place in the ideas of Russian nationalism” more generally.
As Geraci shows, “if in the middle of the19th century, the complete assimilation and swallowing up by ethnic Russians of the non-Russian peoples appeared to be a completely achievable and necessary task, then by the beginning of the 20th century,” such achievements came to be viewed as totally impossible.
That is because of the dramatic changes in the Muslim community itself. During that period, “thanks to the jadid medrassah and the acquisition of Russian by the younger generation of Tatar Muslims, the Tatar community ceased to be a cultural enclave and began to interact with both Russian and West European culture.”
That generated “almost panic” among Russian government officials “who considered that the most correct course of action was the immediate closing of any channels between cultures and the return of the Tatar community to the conditions of a cultural ghetto” in which it had existed earlier.
In order to justify the kind of repressive measures that such an attempt would require, Russian officials began talking about “the threats of ‘pan-Islamism’ and ‘pan-Turkism,’” even though they could seldom find much evidence of either. The situation often approached “the absurd” in which the absence of evidence was taken as confirmation of their assumptions!
And at the same time, Geraci notes, Russian officials of that time found it easier to try to give new life to their own stereotypes about Muslim fanaticism than to consider how “secularization, self-criticism and discussions initiated by the jadid movement” were “challenging this assumption and making it untenable.
Mukhetinov says that he is discussing Geraci’s book “not because [he] considers assimilation the correct policy or wants as a representative of the Tatar Muslim community to point out the shortcomings of the Russian community of that period,” but because Geraci’s arguments “force one to think about analogies now in Russia and in Western Europe.”
Because of its size and “historical role,” Russia even today “continues to be an empire just as it was a century ago,” and like its predecessor, it needs “a foundation which will hold together is territory and ethnic communities into a single whole.”
Some view Russian Orthodoxy as playing that role, Mukhetdinov says, with their constant refrains that “Russia is an Orthodox country.” Others see the need for the russificaiton of the entire population.” Both approaches, however, “contradict the interests and convictions of the non-Russian and non-Orthodox peoples of Russia.”
But they are also opposed by “the ideological wing of the Russian national state” which “does not want to swallow and ‘transform’ the entire ‘alien’ mass.” Consequently, “in order to isolate Muslims from participation in public life,, from the use of their civic rights regarding religion, definite political technologies are erecting an ideological wall,” invoking “the mythical threats of separatism and Islamism” just as their predecessors did more than a century ago.
That creates the very real danger that the Russian state will create exactly what it most fears: an isolated and increasing hostile Muslim community opposed to the values of other Russians. That is a tragedy that Russia could avoid if it recognized what is really going on among its own Muslims and reached out to them rather than continuing to push them away.