Friday, October 10, 2014

Window on Eurasia: Older Tatars in Moscow Forming Prayer Rooms to Avoid Immigrants and Use of Russian in Religious Rites

Paul Goble


            Staunton, October 10 – Older Tatars, who until two decades ago, were the defining face of Islam in Moscow are now retreating to self-organized prayer rooms to avoid having to interact with the far more numerous Muslim migrant communities from Central Asia and the Caucasus and from having religious services conducted in Russian rather than Tatar.


            That is just one of the findings of a new study of how various parts of the Muslim community in the Russian capital are adapting to the city and to each other that has been prepared by ethnologist Dmitry Oparin, and historian Marat Safarov of Moscow State University (


            Until the late 1980s, Tatar Moscow and Muslim Moscow were coterminous, and other Muslims who came to the city adapted to the Tatars and their dominance of the city’s only mosque at that time. But in the 1990s, Muslims from the Caucasus, and then in the 2000s, Muslims from Central Asia flooded the capital and changed the situation “radically.”


            The numerical dominance of these groups was exacerbated by the demographic decline of the Tatars themselves. Most Moscow Tatars at that time were Mishars from predominantly ethnic Russian regions, were assimilated, and had very few children. Moreover, immigration from these areas by the 1980s had largely dried up.


            To the dismay of the Moscow Tatars, the shifting ethnic and linguistic balance of the Muslim community in Moscow has meant that “ever more often” homilies are in Russian, with Tatar and Arabic used in a supporting role, even though in the four main mosques of Moscow, Tatars dominate the religious leadership.


            (The exception is the Otradnoye mosque which is de facto an Azerbaijani facility and which was not the focus of the research the two scholars conducted.)


            “Moscow Tatars,” the two say, are “an integrated and urbanized population who despite their faith view migrants through the eyes of an average Muscovite. Not through the eyes of a Muslim but through the eyes of someone whose life has changed in connection with migration,” and many of them, especially the older ones, don’t like what they see.


            But among younger Tatars, “those who do not remember the mono-ethnic Muslim space of Moscow,” there is a different reaction.  Many of them insist that “all Muslims are brothers” and often accept some of the values, religious beliefs, languages, and personal and more assertive behaviors of the immigrants. That sets them at odds with their own elders.


            Russian is increasingly the language of all these groups, but as Moscow Muslims make this shift and are aided in it by imams and mullahs, what is emerging is “a unique Russian Muslim language, very interesting and absolutely eclectic which takes something from the translations of the Koran into Russian and something from the Bible.”


            The spread of this language is offensive to many older Tatars who are responding by absenting themselves from the mosques and forming their own prayer rooms at home, an intriguing reemergence of a Soviet era pattern when such places were often the only place where Muslims could practice their religion without state interference.



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