Window on Eurasia: When the Russian State Won’t Help, Muslim Groups Do

by Paul A. Goble  |  June 20, 2005  |  ARTICLES

Muslim organizations in the Russian Federation are providing significant assistance to some of the most disadvantaged segments of that country’s population – Muslim and non-Muslim alike – now that the Russian government has shown itself to be either unwilling or unable to offer such help.

Perhaps the clearest example of such activities by Muslim groups is the work of the Department of Social Support and Charity in the Muslim Spiritual Directorate (MSD) of the Middle Volga, a detailed description of which was provided this week by the Islam.ru website (http://www.islam.ru/pressclub/tema/gandjaliev/?print_page).

That department was created in 1999 to help cope with the arrival of some 200,000 refugees and forced migrants into the Middle Volga region.  This wave of people – nearly two-thirds of whom were non-Muslims -- overwhelmed the capacity of state to cope, and consequently the MSD stepped in.

Not only did it raise and distribute funds on its own, but it worked with the Red Cross and Crescent organization as well as with state hospitals and other institutions to ensure that these new arrivals received adequate medical care and got the chance to have some kind of summer holidays. 

The department’s head, Ali-khadzhi Gyandzhaliyev, pointed out that the MSD as Islam requires had always been involved in charitable activities, but the arrival of these forced migrants forced the Muslim authorities to create his department, a body that has now taken on even more responsibilities as the state has retreated in this area.

Three years after the forced migrants arrived, Gyandzhaliyev said, his department felt it could end its work in this direction after Moscow adopted a law providing assistance for such migrants.  But that law only provided funds for them to return home; it did nothing to help those who decided to remain.

Many of the latter were living in houses without heat, water or even glass in the windows of their apartments, and the MSD department did what it could to provide assistance. Because of that effort, many non-Muslims came to view his department as a better and more reliable source of help than the Russian government had been.

That is all the more so, Gyandzhaliyev said, because officials in local Russian government offices often appear indifferent to the sufferings of those who appeal to them. He said that he had seen cases where such officials had told aging veterans to return the next day because the regular office hours were now over.

Gyandzhaliyev said that his department tries never to do that but rather makes an effort to help people regardless of when they appeal to it.  “We have lines” at our offices as well, he said, but “we attempt to do everything quickly and accurately because we must distinguish ourselves.”

That appears to be happening, and Gyandzhaliyev reported that recently two ethnic Russian and Orthodox veterans of World War II had decided to sign over their pensions to the MSD for the construction of mosques because that body rather than the state had helped them to go on vacations in each of the last four years.

Indeed, he continued, ever more of those who now give money to his department are non-Muslims appalled by the indifference of the government to their fate, the recent reductions in government assistance programs, and the rudeness of many local officials in dealing with their applications for assistance.

Given the low standard of living in many parts of the Russian Federation, Gyandzhaliyev said, everyone including the government should be doing more to help.  His department, he acknowledged, as of now lacks the funds to help all those who now turn to it rather than the state for assistance.

But he said he works to ensure that those in his office work hard to provide a sympathetic hearing to all those in trouble, something he argued often works wonders by itself and something he pointed out that all too often continues to be lacking among officials in the Russian state bureaucracy.