Window on Eurasia: Russia’s Muslims Urged to Put Citizenship Ahead of Faith

by Paul A. Goble  |  June 13, 2005  |  ARTICLES

Russia’s Muslims should identify themselves first as citizens, then as Muslims and only latterly as members of particular nationalities, according to a leader of Russian Islamic Heritage (RIH) organization, a group that seeks to unite the historically Islamic peoples of the Russian Federation.

Speaking to a conference of Muslims in Nizhniy Novgorod last week, Shamil Beno, the co-president of the RIH group, said that such an ordering of identities will have the effect of uniting the community of believers in the Russian Federation and thus give them more influence in the state.

Beno’s remarks as well as other participants in that meeting were reported in the Moscow newspaper “Gazeta” today and have been disseminated by the Interfax news agency (http://www.interfax-religion.ru/print.php?act=news&id=4434). Although some Muslims at the meeting disagreed, many supported his ideas and indicated that they plan to cooperate with his group.

According to “Gazeta,” the meeting in Nizhniy Novgorod was the joint action of the Mishars (a subgroup of the Tatars) and the RIH. The central Russian government was very much against the holding of such a meeting, the paper said, but the local governor, Gennadiy Khodyrev, took part and even received an award from the group.

Speakers celebrated the fact that the Muslim community in that region has become increasingly active and well-organized.  In Nizhniy Novgorod itself, there are now three mosques (compared with a total of five in the city of Moscow), and in the oblast as a whole there are 55 Muslim religious organizations.

Moreover, local Muslims are increasingly asserting their values. One participant noted that there “even 70-year-olds are now studying Arabic” and that “in our families there are many children, abortion is something shameful, and Muslims do not throw to the fates orphans and older people.”

At this meeting, Umar Idrisov who heads the oblast Muslim spiritual directorate called on all the Muslims of the country to unite under a single mufti, a remark that was widely reported earlier.  But more immediately important were accords between Muslim groups across the Russian Federation to cooperate in very specific ways.

Beno and Idrisov specifically agreed to an educational exchange between their two regions, the northern Caucasus and Nizhniy Novgorod respectively. Universities in Nizhniy as of next year will enroll the best students from the Caucasus, and the ten best Muslim students from the two regions will be given support to study at Harvard, the Sorbonne and at Cairo’s Al-Azhar University.

Such practical, concrete measures are precisely what the RIH leadership promised to undertake when that group was organized earlier this year.  And Beno told “Gazeta” that his group both on its own and in cooperation with other Muslim organizations plan to do even more in the future.

For too long, he suggested, Russia’s Muslims have been distracted and divided by what he called secondary concerns such as deciding upon the total number of Muslims in the country, introducing the Latinization of Tatar, and debating whether Tatars are a single ethnic community or four different nationalities.

“In Chechnya today,” he said, there are 28,000 orphans,” something that must be “a first-order concern for all Muslims.” And he pledged that “we will resolve not invented problems but real ones, the lack of books, obstacles to the opening of medressahs, official arbitrariness, and the deaths of people.”

By shifting the attention of Russia’s Muslims away from the issues that have divided them to ones on which they can agree and by calling on them to assert the primacy of citizenship, Beno and RIH are creating a powerful influence group, one the Kremlin may find hard to ignore even though it did not want this meeting to take place.