Copyright 1998. Emory University Law and Religion Program
Copyright 1998. Donna E. Arzt


Donna E. Arzt[1]


Moslem faith in Russia is able to derive nourishment from sources which are not only purely spiritual....The emergence of so many new states in which Islam is a powerful factor, the new role of the Moslem religion as a link between the peoples of Asia and Africa...the growing importance of the Moslem world is bound to exercise a certain influence even on such Soviet Moslems as have thrown religion overboard.

Walter Kolarz, Religion in the Soviet Union (1961)[2]

Any study of the various Muslim communities of Russia which is part of a larger exploration of religions and religious conflict within the Russian Federation must treat Islam as a special case. For one, Islamic concepts of community, of proselytizing and of interfaith relations are unique and cannot easily be assimilated to Christian, Judaic or European human rights models.[3] For another, because most Muslims of the Soviet empire were non-Slavic peoples living in their own eponymous republics or autonomous regions, which had been originally demarcated to order to insulate them from Turkic and Iranian influences, their relations with non-Muslims in the post-Soviet era are as much a question of ethnicity, geopolitics and nationalism as one of religious doctrine.

The concept and practice of proselytizing within Islamic thought and history is closely connected with the survival and identity of the umma, the Muslim community of believers, which is traditionally a political unit as well as a spiritual one. At the present time, the various Muslim communities of post-Soviet Russia are confronted both with the legacy of Communism’s secularistic leveling and with a type of inter-religious tension that often takes on political and even racist manifestations. This constitutes another reason why the problem of proselytizing must, for the Muslim umma of Russia, be addressed as an aspect of the nationalism question as much as a question of religious freedom.[4]

Russia’s Muslims have not, for the most part, been the recent target of Western-supported evangelical movements - nor, for that matter, have they historically made great efforts to convert the Slavic population away from Christianity. Nevertheless, they have always been the subject of Russification campaigns and currently play an important role in Russia’s geopolitical strategy within the Commonwealth of Independent States, vis a vis the West and in the greater Islamic world. The conflict in Chechnya, for instance, represents a potential shattering of the ever fragile post-Soviet federalism as much as it does the possible advent of politicized Islamism in Eurasia. Hence, Russia’s Muslim communities cannot be studied endogenously or automonously from Russian political, economic and security interests. As noted by Walter Kolarz as early as 1961, the growth of Islam in the rest of the world has an impact on individual Muslims within Russia’s borders. In other words, to understand the contemporary status of the Muslims of Russia, one must look transnationally, and in fact eastward from Moscow as much as westward.

This study will first introduce some of the relevant legal, historical and demographic background before concentrating on the period after 1979, and particularly after 1991. In order to appreciate the unique place of the Muslim community among Russia’s religious and minority groups, one must first become familiar with what Islamic and Russian law provide and prohibit in the realm of proselytizing and inter-religious relations. (Both of these legal topics will be covered in more depth as part of the overall Problem of Proselytizing Project, the former by this same author.) These contextual sections will be followed by a series of cross-sectional views of the growing politicization of relations between Islam and Orthodoxy within Russian society and polity.


A.  Proselytizing in Islamic Law

Although Islam accepts both the Jewish and Christian Testaments as books of revelation, albeit inferior to the Quran, it does not adopt their use of the term ’proselyte’ as either ’a resident alien in the land’ or one who has left her religious community and converted to another religion.[5] The more positively connoted term ’evangelical’ is, similarly, of Christian origin, while ’missionary’ is asociated by Muslims with Western colonialism and ’Orientalist’ thinking. ’Conversion,’ too, evokes images of the Crusades.[6]

The Arabic word tabligh roughly translates as ’proselytization,’ while al-Da’wa is ’the Call to Preaching.’ But these are used much less often than jihad, which itself is frequently misunderstood by non-Muslims when translated into English as ’Holy War.’ In fact, it is more accurately translated as the duty to ’struggle’ or ’sacrifice.’ The struggle can be personal and internal, as against cravings and temptations that prevent one from behaving virtuously, or it can be communal and external, which requires combating evil and spreading the cause of Allah among the unbelievers. Most scholars of Islam consider the forms of jihad which involve armed fighting to be defensive, limited to resisting external aggression, and thus only transitory.[7] Because Islam does not separate the temporal and spiritual spheres of life, jihad can have the quality of political organizing: ’The mission facing the Muslim is first to reform individual hearts and minds, and on the basis of that to reform society, and ultimately, the good society will install the virtuous state,’ in the words of Hassan al-Banna, the Egyptian founder of the Muslim Brotherhood.[8]

Yet jihad, along with its corrolary, hijirat, meaning migration, has historically served as a rallying cry for territorial expansion of Islamic rule. ’[M]igration has been a persistent and recurring feature in the Islamic faith, and its successful evolution and propagation. Migration was intended to protect the faithful from further persecution, weaken the society of "non-believers," and enable them to take part in the creation of a new Islamic community.’[9] Some Islamic jurists argue that the only legitimate reason for Muslims to remain outside the dar al-Islam, that is, outside their own states, is da’wa, proselytization.[10] Moreover, dying in battle has been considered the highest form of witness to Allah, for which one will attain paradise in the hereafter.[11](Oxford University Press, New York, 1992), p. 33; Abdulaziz A. Sachedina, ’Freedom of conscience and religion in the Qur’an,’ in David Little, et al., (eds.), Human Rights and the Conflict of Cultures: Western and Islamic Perspectives on Religious Liberty (University of South Carolina Press, Columbia, S.C., 1988), p. 84; and Majid Khadduri, The Islamic Conception of Justice (Johnson Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1984), pp. 164-170.

While Muslims have a duty to propagate Islam among non-Muslims (’infidels’), Islamic law prohibits non-Muslims living under Muslim rule from propagating their faith among Muslims and from preventing one of their own from converting to Islam, further intensifying the potential antagonism. Conversely, for Muslims, submission to foreign domination is a religious crime; actual conversion to another religion was traditionally a capital offense.[12] However, ’recognition of the right of non-Muslims to live according to their convictions and at the same time in peaceful harmony and close cooperation with Muslims was one of the Prophet’s prominent achievents.’[13] Islamic law grants the protected status of dhimma to communities of the other monotheisms, Christianity, Judaism and Zoroastrianism. Freedom to practice their religion, including freedom from pressure to convert, was one of the traditional privileges of dhimmis.14

As noted below, for most of the twentieth century, only a portion of the Muslim population of the Soviet Union could be classified as adhering to traditional Islamic beliefs. Therefore, the duty of jihad was not a persistent factor in relations with the rest of the country’s population, at least not in the republics, such as Russia, where Muslims were not a majority, and at least not until the late 1970’s, when a growing sense of Soviet Muslim identity became galvanized by Islamist movements in Iran, Afghanistan and elsewhere outside the country. Nevertheless, proselytizing is a traditional function of Sufi brotherhoods, the mystical societies which in Daghestan and Central Asia survived into the Communist era and which earlier had played an important role in converting African, Balkan, Turkic and Caucasian peoples of the Russian Empire to Islam.[15]

B.  Proselytizing in Post-Soviet Russian Law

Prior to the dissolution of the Soviet Union, religious proselytizing by any group in the USSR was prohibited and criminalized, while ’anti-religious proselytizing’ was encouraged and, in fact, part of state policy. Thus, both Stalin’s 1936 Constitution and Brezhnev’s 1977 updated Charter distinguished between ’freedom of religious worship,’ which was limited to professing beliefs and performing rites, and the actual freedom ’to conduct atheistic propaganda.’[16] Soviet criminal codes penalized:

’active participation...under the guise of preaching religious doctrines’ in ’the organizing or directing of a group’ whose activity is ’connected with...inducing citizens to refuse social activity or performance of civic duties’, including ’mass dissemination’ of documents that urge nonobservance of legislation on religious cults.’[17]

Organizers of ’atheistic upbringing’ were trained to counter religiosity, thought to be particularly prevalent among housewives, though it was noted in 1984 that ’Islam presents special problems for atheistic propagandists because of the extent to which religion permeates daily life.’[18]

Formally, this situation changed in October 1990 with the adoption of the USSR Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations,[19] which replaced anti-religious legislation from 1929 and which in article 3 permitted every citizen ’to express and disseminate convictions associated with his attitude toward religion.’ The same article also prohibited ’compulsion of any kind’ regarding a citizen’s ’determination of his attitude toward religion.’ A similar Russian Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Belief was adopted the same month, later becoming effective in the post-Soviet Russian Federation and bolstered by the guarantees of religious freedom promulgated in the 1993 Russian Constitution.[20] Nevertheless, the new Russian Constitution and legislation continued, as in the Soviet era, to prohibit the incitement of discord and hatred on religious grounds, to require separation of church and state,[21] and to prohibit religious parties.[22]

The 1990 religious freedom law’s provisions on the activity of religious organizations, particularly article 14 concerning ’professional religious work,’ led both to an early 1990s renaissance of religious activity by indigenous and foreign-based church groups and, soon thereafter, to a backlash of proposed legislation which would, inter alia, have amended article 14 to prohibit religious activity on Russian territory by non-citizens, foreign organizations and their representatives, and required registration of all indigenous religious groups. An initial version of these changes, strongly supported by the Russian Orthodox Church, officially appointed Muslim spiritual leaders, a plurality of popular opinion, right-wing nationalists and even the Communist Party, were passed by the Duma but not enacted due to Boris Yeltsin’s veto and subsequent dissolution of the legislature after 1993’s aborted coup.[23]

Yeltsin vetoed a later permutation of the amended legislation in July 1997 on the grounds that numerous provisions ’curb constitutional human and civil rights and freedoms, make confessions unequal and are inconsistent with Russia’s international commitments.’ Moreover, he stated, signing it could ’trigger religious strife in the country.’[24] Nevertheless, further attempts to enact broad restrictions on missionary and other activity by ’non-traditional,’ ’foreign’ and minority religions persisted on the federal level, culminating in new legislation, effective the first of October 1997, which Yeltsin finally signed into law, despite the fact that it was substantially similar to the version he vetoed in July.

The new legislation was prominently endorsed by Patriarch Aleksii II and the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church, who declared it ’a matter of the spiritual health of the nation, the future of the fatherland, and the preservation of its unique form.’[25] The Patriarch has stated his deep conviction that ’sects and pseudo-missionaries are driven by the wish to sow the seeds of religious enmity in Russia, not to educate people. This is a source of danger not only for the church but also for the state.’[26] Boris Yeltsin does not disagree with these sentiments.[27] This new Russian Federation law, ironically titled, ’On Freedom of Conscience and on Religious Associations,’ pays special homage in its preamble to:

the special contribution of Othodoxy to the history of Russia and to the establishment and development of Russia’s spirituality and culture; respecting Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Judaism and other religions and creeds which constitute an inseparable part of the historical heritage of Russia’s peoples.[28](emphasis added)

Even the Communist Party is said to have supported guarantees of ’priority for traditional religions,’ including Islam, in the list of those deserving of protection against ’the infiltration of foreign faiths’.[29] An earlier, ultimately vetoed version of the law contained somewhat different preambular language, which placed Islam in an ambiguous middle position between Orthodoxy and other ’traditional’ religions, if not exactly ’equal’ to the former:

respecting Orthodoxy as an inseparable part of the All- Russian historical, spiritual and cultural heritage, and equally Islam with its millions of members, and also Buddhism, Judaism and other religions traditionally existing in the Russian Federation.[30](emphasis added)

The potential impact of this new legislation on the various Muslim umma of Russia will be explored in a final section, part IV.D., of this study.

Meanwhile, even before the fall of 1997, about one-third of Russian republic, regional and local governments had already enacted laws which had the same or even stricter consequences than the all-federation legislation, even though they contradicted the 1993 federal Constitution and the 1990 law. Over 25 other regions were debating restrictive ordinances at the time the federal law was enacted.[31] Many of these local laws are throw-backs to the Communist era, in that they treat religion as such as a threat to the public interest.[32] As of this writing, it is not clear what status these local laws will have now that Federation-wide legislation is in effect, though local authorities are expected to have primary responsibility for enforcement of the new federal law.[33]


A.  Geographical Distribution

Although Muslims can be found throughout the former USSR, major groupings within the Russian Federation are easily identifiable geographically. In the early 1940’s, Stalin’s authorities divided the USSR’s Muslim communities into four ’spiritual directorates’ which, though intended to serve as control mechanisms for Moscow, also reflected the four major geographical and political groupings of the Muslim population in this century. The first two regions - corresponding to the Spiritual Directorate of Central Asia and Kazakhstan, where about 65 percent of the USSR’s Muslims lived in the Stalinist era, and the Spiritual Directorate of the Transcaucasian Muslims, covering the Georgian, Armenian and Azerbaijan Republics - are beyond the scope of this study, as they are outside the present boundaries of the post-Soviet Russian Federation. The third was the Spiritual Directorate of the Muslims of European Russia and Siberia, most of whom resided in the former Tatar, Bashkir and Chuvash ASSRs in the forest-steppe zone along the middle of the Volga River. The fourth was the Spiritual Directorate of the Northern Caucasus and Daghestan, located between the Black and Caspian Seas, covering the old Chechen-Ingush, Daghestani and Kabardo-Balkar ASSRs, Adygeia, and the autonomous provinces of Karachai-Cherkess and North Ossetia.[34] These regions of present-day Russia, where Muslim populations form a majority even today, are depicted on Map A at the end of this chapter.

While the Volga Muslims reside in an isolated enclave in the middle of Russia, the North Caucasus ’mountain peoples,’

particularly the Daghestanians, live contiguous to the now-independent Shi’ite Muslim state of Azerbaijan, which is itself contiguous to Iran, thus making the North Caucasus a latent frontier between Russia and the Middle East. See Map B at the end of the chapter. Naturally, the North Caucasus communities historically maintained closer ties to the Muslim centers of Baghdad, Cairo and Damascus, while the Volga Muslims have traditionally had closer contact with Christians. Unlike the rest of the Muslim communities of the former USSR, which predominantly follow the Hanafi rite of Sunni jurisprudence, the Muslims of Daghestan are Sunnis of the Shafe’i rite, their communities still heavily permeated by Sufi mystical movements.[35]

B.  Historical Overview

1.  The Pre-Soviet Era

Unlike Catholicism and Protestantism, Islam has a long - and tortuous - tradition in Eurasia. In the 7th century, long before Tsar Ivan the Terrible set out to create a continent-wide Russian empire and 300 years before the Kievan Rus converted to Orthodox Christianity, Arab Muslims conquered Central Asia, the northern Transcaucasus and the eastern Caucasus. In 642, only twenty years after the Prophet Muhammed founded Islam, the Arabs occupied Daghestan, over 800 kilometers (500 miles) from Mecca and Medina. By the 8th century, the majority of southern Daghestan was Muslim, while Islamization in the more northern mountain region lasted until the 12th century, when the last major Christian and Jewish enclaves there disappeared. Islam reached the ’Fur Road’ along the Volga (present-day Tatarstan) and into the Urals (present-day Bashkiria) in the 9th and 11th centuries, respectively, through the itinerancies of Arab merchants and mullahs.[36]

When the Mongols arrived in the early 13th century, bringing with them Buddhism and Nestorian Christianity, Islam in Central Asia suffered a major setback, though due to Sufi brotherhood activity, it survived among the masses. By the next century, the Mongols themselves became Muslim and soon brought Islam to even wider expanses of Eurasia, including Crimea, the Steppe region of southern Russia, western Siberia and the rest of the Caucasus. Russian historians frequently characterize the years from 1200-1500 as the period when the Russians endured a ’Tatar yoke’ imposed by the Golden Horde. While their treatment by the Mongols was probably not as severe as this label implies, in fact the Russians were ’the only Christian nation of Europe, apart from the Spanish and the Balkan peoples, to have experienced a long Muslim domination, and this has left a deep, long-lasting imprint on Russian-Muslim relations.’[37] According to scholars Alexandre Bennigsen and Marie Broxup, this explains:

the deeply rooted, almost atavistic, hatred of the Russians towards the Muslims in general and toward the Turco-Tatar Muslims in particular. It has survived for centuries and it makes the cultural or biological symbiosis between different Soviet nationalities a hopeless dream.[38]

By 1600, Islam had also been spread by the Ottoman Turks to the southern Transcaucasus. But the new converts were Turkic peoples; there is no evidence that any efforts were made to force Slavs to become Muslims.[39]

Muscovy fought back in the 16th century, conquering Tatar territories such as the sovereign Khanate of Kazan and the Volga region, expelling Muslims from the important cities and the best lands along the rivers. Tsars Basil III, Ivan IV (’the Terrible’) and Feodor created a Great Russian Orthodox state, with Moscow as the ’Third Rome.’ Though known as a blood-thirsty tyrant, Ivan’s policy toward the Muslims was in fact religiously tolerant; thus, the corresponding Tatar resistance to Muscovy was far less than a jihad. In 1555 Moscow ordered the Church to ’baptize those Tatars who seek baptism voluntarily, but without the use of force.’ Bashkirs and Chuvash fairly readily converted to Christianity, while most Tatars refused. The conversion of Christians to Islam was strictly forbidden.[40]

Yet when Boris Godunov in 1604 and later Tsars pushed southward toward the Caucasus, the Russians were met by the Daghestani and Chechen murid movements of students who followed a Sufi master. Organized by the Naqshbandi[41] brotherhood and aligned with the Ottoman Turks, these Caucasians successfully repelled the invaders, thereby entrenching the presence of strict orthodox Islam in the region until 1856, when the last Sufi leader, Imam Shamil, was forced to surrender after a 30 year armed struggle against colonial domination. Even after this defeat, which sent many Naqshbandi leaders into Siberian exile, another underground Sufi brotherhood, the Qadiriya, converted the animist Ingush to Islam, while Moscow made little attempt to Russify the mountain peoples, not even subjecting them to military service.[42] For all intents and purposes, the Muslims of the Caucasus were physically and culturally part of the Islamic world until the late-nineteenth century.

Until the reign of Catherine II, Tsarist policy toward the more physically isolated Tatars was far less liberal than under Ivan. No longer treated as equals, Tatars were offered the choice of conversion or expulsion from major cities and confiscation of their land. Islamic religious activity was severely limited, with mosques and schools closed if not destroyed,[43] while the masses were subjected to strong Russification efforts. Even under Peter the Great, whose government welcomed ’foreigners,’ the presence of ’a large body of Muslim Tatars a mere 200 miles east of Moscow was seen as an intolerable blight on this landscape which had to be eliminated, and their conversion to Orthodoxy was seen as the best way of solving this "nationality problem".’[44] This time, a violent jihad erupted, with a resulting hijra (migration) of Tatars eastward to Central Asia. Bennigsen and Broxup note: ’This has left the Tatars with a lasting hatred of Russia which they passed on to other Muslim peoples similarly subjugated and which still survives, more than four centuries later.’[45]

Catherine II (’the Great’) was, unlike her predecessors, personally intriqued by Islam, considering it a ’reasonable religion,’ better suited to the task of civilizing Asia than was Russian Orthodoxy.[46] Like her predecessor Ivan the Terrible, Catherine had an ’"imperial" approach towards Russia and understood that a multinational empire, in which the proportion of non-Russians was constantly and steadily increasing, could only survive if all subjects, notwithstanding their creed and cultural background, were treated as equals.’[47] Catherine restored power and property to Muslim religious authorities, closed the schools for Tatar converts, provided mullahs for Tatar army units, and in the 1780s created the Muslim Spiritual Assembly of Orenburg, later moved to Ufa (in present-day Bashkiria), whose jurisdiction over religious training and publication extended over both European and Siberian parts of the empire (excluding Crimea).

This liberalization soon produced economic prosperity in the Volga region, the rise of a Tatar nationalist movement, and a Sufi-led ’Tatar Renaissance’ in which Tatar merchants, acting as missionaries, further spread Islam to Bashkiria, western Siberia, and the Kazakh steppes, with the mass construction of mosques subsidized by the Russian state. By the 19th century, the elite among the Tatars were able to send their children to schools in Istanbul, Cairo and Medina and could make pilgrimage to Mecca. During the same period, due to a proselytization program which was ’national in form, Orthodox in content,’ over 100,000 Tatars converted to Orthodoxy, though they were not culturally or linguistically Russified and many would revert back to Islam after the Manifesto of 1905 granted freedom of conscience. Similar 19th century Christianization efforts in the Caucasus and Central Asia were not at all successful.[48]

To summarize this history, Tsarist treatment of Muslim Russia varied according to the time period, the territory and nationality targeted, and the degree of resistance by the specific Muslim community to their invaders. As far as Islam is concerned, the title which Lenin and others attached to Tsarist Russia, ’the prison of nations,’[49] is not entirely accurate. In general, the Tatars became integrated into the empire, while the Caucasians remained aloof. Perhaps the only prevailing theme is the persistence of mutual distrust, if not hatred, between the various Muslim nationalities and the Russians, a friction that was based more on political and national grounds than on religious difference. Nevertheless, by the end of the 19th century, ’Russia presented a vast continental, multi-ethnic and polyreligious empire,’ at least one-quarter of which was Muslim.[50]

2.  The Soviet Era

Although Islam suffered less under the Soviets than did Orthodoxy or Judaism, Communist protection of Islam was a short-lived affair, following on Lenin’s December 1917 ’Message to Working Muslims in Russia and the Orient,’ which declared ’free and unassailable...your creed and customs, your national and cultural institutions,’ from that time onward.[51]Kappeler et al. (eds.), op.cit., p.163. As it did with other religions, official Soviet policy split Soviet Islam into official and unofficial sectors, the former serving artifically to give the appearance of Muslim support for the Communist regime under the aegis of the Party-controlled Council of Religious Affairs, but in fact constituting perhaps no more than one percent of all Islamic activity in the country.[52] In this respect, the Bolsheviks missed the boat, because Islam as a religion lacks the clerical hierarchy and extensive institutions of the other monotheisms. It thrives, instead, in its informal sector, which was able to out-survive the ’Communist yoke’.

The Russian Revolution was particularly bloody and long-lasting in the Caucasus. Not until 1936 did the Bolsheviks fully subdue the Daghestan-Chechnya revolt, a widespread movement of guerilla fighting mountaineers of the Naqshbandi brotherhood, begun in 1920. Shariah courts were then abolished, waqf (religious society) property was nationalized and Sufi leaders were executed or otherwise purged, even though Sufi doctrine resembled Communism in some egalitarian respects.[53] The RSFSR, along with the Central Asian and Transcaucasian republics, penalized certain Islamic practices such as bride purchase as ’Crimes Involving Vestiges of Local Customs.’[54] However, in Tatarstan, which was made into an autonomous republic in 1920, fewer mosques were destroyed than in the Caucasus, though medressehs (religious schools) there were permanently closed after the Revolution.

One of Stalin’s first purge victims was Mirsaid Sultan Galiev, the most prominent Muslim Communist Party member, who opposed the Party’s nationality policy for conserving the non-Russian peoples in a ’colonial state.’ After his show trial, thousands of high-ranking Muslim clerics and intellectuals disappeared under indictments for crimes such as ’being Sultan-Galievists,’ ’bourgeois-nationalists,’ ’pan-Turkists,’ ’pan-Islamicists,’ and the usual ’anti-Communists, spies and traitors.’[55]

By 1937, after twenty years of Communist atheistic propaganda,[56] approximately 15 percent of adult Muslims of the Soviet Union described themselves as non-believers, while Islamic illiteracy was growing among those who remained in the faith.[57] During the Stalinist period:

’[h]igh’ Islam suffered serious damage: the development of traditional religious-philosophical thought was undermined after losing its audience; the modernist branches were uprooted; Muslim education and Koranic knowledge were strictly localized; and the circle of those who were officially allowed to conduct religious services was greatly narrowed.[58]

By contrast to this, the ’Islam of the masses’ was able to consolidate and as a result, ’while the sense of confessional fraternity and knowledge of basic Islamic teachings declined, the rituals and local cults not only survived but became the main distinctive signs of ethnicity.’[59]

Despite the compulsory teaching of the Russian language and the termination of schools in which native Turkic, Iranian and Caucasian languages were taught, the penetration of Russian into Muslim communities was relatively slow and shallow. (Conversely, Russians living in Muslim republics were not required to learn the indigenous tongues; only a very few ever did.) However, in the late 1920s, languages written in Arabic were forcibly converted to the Latin alphabet; Stalin soon thereafter ordered that they be written in Cyrillic. Thus, while Soviet Muslims often refused to learn Russian, they became more and more cut off from their own cultural heritage and from the rest of the Islamic world outside the USSR.[60]

In 1944, after a new revolt broke out in Chechnya, virtually the entire Chechen and Ingush populations along with the area’s smaller communities of Karachays, Balkars, Avars, Muslim Ossetians and Cherkess - a total of between 425,000 and 800,000 people - were forcibly deported to Siberia and Kazakhstan, for ostensible ’treason and collaboration with the enemy’.[61] While the World War provided the pretext of military necessity, the deportations served a more punitive function. Simultaneously, tens of thousands of Russians and Ukrainians were implanted, in order to make the future restoration of the Chechen-Ingush ASSR impossible and to create a more ’loyal’ and ’reliable’ border with Turkey.[62] Nevertheless, according to Bennigsen and Wimbush:

Most Soviet specialists of anti-Islamic propaganda recognize that the attempted genocide through deportation of over a million North Caucasian Muslims had a striking, unforeseen result: far from destroying the Sufi brotherhoods, the deportations actually promoted their expansion. For the deported mountaineers the Sufi orders became a symbol of their nationhood in the hands to which they were exiled. Moreover, these orders proved efficient organizers, thus to ensure the community’s survival.[63]

Systematic persecution of Sufi brotherhoods in the Caucasus continued through the Khrushchev era, with members being criminally accused of economic sabotage, terrorism and armed rebellion. The deported Chechens and Ingush began an unauthorized return home, despite arrest orders and the prohibited sale of rail tickets to them. ’Alarmed by Khrushchev’s failure to refer to [their deportation] in his speech at the Twentieth [Communist Party] Congress, the Chechens and Ingush sent a delegation to Moscow.’[64] When they began to restore their ancestors’ cemetaries and rebury the dead they had carried back from Central Asia, it became clear to the authorities that they were back in the Caucasus for good. They were therefore officially allowed to return in 1957, with a Kremlin decree that cleared them of the charge of collective treason.[65]

Until 1979, official Soviet propaganda trumpeted the idea that any kind of link between Islam and ethno-nationalism among the Turkic peoples of the USSR was fanciful, a mere mirage. ’Soviet leaders had always denounced such assertions as that linking Islam and national identity as one of Islam’s weaknesses, stating that Muslim spiritual leaders were deluded in their efforts to convince believers that [Soviet Muslims] had contributed to the progress of Islamic civilization.’[66] How wrong this Party line would prove to be.

Two world events in 1979 -- the militant Islamic revolution in Iran and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the latter of which led to nine years of military action against Islamic insurgents -- acted as a catalyst within the USSR’s Muslim umma, precipitating a heightened apprehension by Soviet officials over ’the potentially subversive effects of dynamic Islam on their own rigidly controlled Muslim peoples.’[67] Home-grown fundamentalist movements, mostly in Central Asia, were influenced by the Afghan mujahedin, who were successfully battling the increasingly dejected Red Army, as well as by the growing disenchantment with socialism throughout the Middle East. Sufis stepped up their underground activities in the Caucasus, distributing Islamic books, organizing religious ceremonies, even operating clandestine Shariah courts. The number of North Caucasians reportedly belonging to murid groups in the 1980s, about 60,000, was virtually the same as the corresponding number in 1917.[68]

In sum, despite the overall Soviet destruction of over 30,000 mosques, the closing of over 14,000 Islamic religious schools and the loss over the decades of approximately 45,000 Muslim clerics,[69] traditional Muslim culture was substantially able to survive Soviet rule. Due to Islam’s inherent flexibility and adaptability, and because, unlike Christianity, the practice of Islam does not require an official clergy and formal religious premises, it continued to be ’a key institution of socialization’ for the bulk of Soviet Muslims. Incomprehending as it was about the dualistic, ethno-religious nature of Muslim identity, ’the Soviet atheistic advance, though devastating for the Moslem elite, mosques, medressehs, mazars, etc., failed to eradicate Islam itself.’[70] With the coming of perestroika, Soviet Islam could easily undergo a renaissance, having never really been extinguished.

3.  The Gorbachev Era

When Mikhail Gorbachev stepped into the Communist Party’s leadership in 1985, he inherited a country in which the Ayatollah Khomenei’s Iranian messianism and Afghan mujaheddin agitation and propaganda, as well as other external Muslim influences, were aggravating domestic Muslim political ferment, which had already begun even before 1979.[71] His predecessors in office, Brezhnev and Andropov in particular, had assumed that Soviet nationality problems had been resolved ’successfully, permanently and irrevocably’.[72] Without a single Muslim advisor in his Politbureau, and no personal experience working in a Muslim region, Gorbachev continued his forebears’ policy of limiting Islamic activity to a small group of officially licensed institutions and using the party press to attack vehemently all manifestations of Islamic religious revival.

In November 1986, Gorbachev gave a hard-line speech to Communist Party functionaries calling for ’a decisive and unconditional struggle against religious manifestations’ and a strengthening of atheist propaganda. He also criticized local Party members who had personally participated in religious rituals for ’pandering to obsolete views’. Significantly, the speech was delivered in Tashkent, so it was naturally interpreted as an attack on Islam.[73]

A secret Politbureau resolution that same year reportedly declared that Islam was a hindrance to Soviet social and economic development, while Vladimir Kryuchkov, the head of the KGB, stated openly in the Supreme Soviet that Islam ’is a very dangerous thing, in view of its fanaticism and unscrupulousness in choosing ways and means.’[74] Even as recently as 1988, Muslims who preached Islam were expelled from the Communist Party and the Komsomol (Communist Youth League), while mullahs who were not approved by the government were subject to official pressure. Gorbachev’s ’glasnost press’ continued to condemn Islamic radio broadcasts from Iran and elsewhere in the Middle East, while official propaganda still promoted atheism and secular Soviet ceremonies instead of Islamic ones. Over 30 Muslim dissidents were reported to be held in custody on religion charges in 1988, while armed force was used in 1991 against fundamentalist Muslim demonstrators in Daghestan.[75] The most violent use of force during the entire Gorbachev regime occurred in ’Black January’ 1990, when Soviet troops crushed a popular rebellion along the Azerbaijan border with Iran. This was a pointedly different response than that which he gave to rebellions within the Eastern European orbit. The head of the Muslim clergy of the Caucasus accordingly condemned Gorbachev for using fear of Islam as an excuse for authorizing brute force there.[76]

Kremlin demographers were also becoming uneasy about rapid population growth in Central Asia, especially given increasing nationalistic rumblings in the region. When Gorbachev’s administration ordered ’surplus labor’ from Central Asia to migrate to parts of the USSR where there was a shortage of workers, the Kremlin’s rationale may have embraced their assimilation and not economic productivity alone.[77] Moreover, Kremlin recognition that nearly 90 percent of the country’s energy and mineral resources were located in the Transcaucasus, Kazakhstan and the trans-Ural territories may have inspired Gorbachev’s geopolitical campaign to promote Russia as belonging to the ’Common European Home’ which would simultaneously serve as a kind of ’bridge’ to the Asia-Pacific region, Russia’s supposed ’natural sphere of influence.’[78]

It was not until 1989, on the 1,100th anniversary of the adoption of Islam in the Volga and Urals, that the Gorbachev regime began to see the expediency of permitting new editions of the Koran and prayer books to be published, along with the ceremonial laying of cornerstones for new mosques and the reopening of those long closed; the latter was sometimes in reaction to Muslim threats to seize and reopen them by force.[79] Religious groups were sometimes permitted to import Qurans -- even while individuals might find them confiscated at the border -- so long as the organizations agreed to register under the 1990 legislation on religion (described in part II.B., above).[80]

C.  Contemporary Socio-demographic Status

In the Russian Federation today, an estimated 12 to 20 million Muslims constitute approximately 8 to 12 percent of the overall population of 160 million.[81] That ranks Russia on a par with Saudi Arabia, Syria, Malaysia and Iraq as among the largest Muslim states in the world. (Before the demise of the USSR, its 55 million Muslims put the Soviet Union even ahead of Iran, behind only the most populous Arab state, Egypt, and Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim nation.) Expressed another way, the number of Muslims in the Russian Federation today is approximately equal to the number of Russians in the six former republics of Central Asia. This standing tends to come as a surprise to most non-Muslim Russians, let alone the rest of the world.

In contrast to Russian Orthodox Christians, who tend not to self-identify as such unless they are firmly committed believers, or to Soviet Jews, who until recent decades were a predominantly assimilated population, a Muslim in Russia will usually profess to being Muslim, regardless of how loosely he or she adheres to Islamic precepts and practices.[82] Although subject to some dispute over the degree of intensity, Muslim religious identification and practice in Russia appear to be growing rapidly, especially in comparison to Russian Orthodox practice. This surge is evidenced in statistics such as the geometric increase in registered Muslim associations from 382 to 2,600 between 1990 and 1993, the establishment of 40 spiritual directorates of Muslims since 1990, and the tripling of Muslim congregations, from 870 to 2,349, between 1991 and early 1996, during which time Russian Orthodox congregations merely doubled in number.[83] ’Muslims go to mosques twice as often as Orthodox believers go to church, they pray more, and they are more diligent about observing religious rituals and prescriptions,’ according to a recent Moscow-based study, even though as many as 90 percent of Russian Muslims may not know the Quran and break basic Islamic norms such as refraining from alcohol.[84] As with other religious groups in Russia, Muslim youth tend to be more observant than their parents’ generation. Enough of them desired to fill the acute need for Muslim clergy so that new training institutions could open in the early 1990’s in Moscow and Khazan.

While the Muslim population of Russia is quite large, it has no single corporate identity but is in fact composed of three linguistic families, the Turkic, Iranian and Caucasian (the latter of which also has a distinct Nakh-Daghestanian branch), whose speakers reside in as many as 63 of the Russian Federation’s 89 regions and republics.[85] Soviet policy had deliberately discouraged the formation of independent all-Union movements, while Soviet Muslims’ traditionally low incidence of bilingualism in Russian served as a practical barrier to a unified identity.[86]

The Muslims living in the Russian Federation today are made up of more than twenty different ethnic groups, composed of Turkic or Caucasian and, to a lesser extent, Iranian peoples, listed in the table at the end of this chapter, in addition to ethnic Russians and Ukrainians who converted to Islam. The largest groups are the Tatars, Bashkirs and Kazakhs (all Turkic), and the Chechens, Avars and Kabardinians (all Caucasian). Not more than 30 percent of the Ossetians (an Iranian people) identify today as Muslims, although as much as half were Muslims before 1914.[87] For most of Soviet history, through the present, these groups have tended to have higher rates of natural increase, and generally larger families, than other Soviet nationalities.[88] A rapid process of urbanization is underway in the oil-rich Tatarstan-Bashkiria enclave, which has traditionally been more heavily influenced by Russian culture and more heavily settled by ethnic Russians, than has the North Caucasus. The latter region is in fact more rural now than it was in earlier decades.[89]

Although Soviet Muslim policy emphasized nationality as a substitute for religion, and the cultural differences between the various ethnicities are material, Russia’s Muslims are not divided contentiously among themselves along their multitudinous ethnic lines. As Soviet Muslim specialist Alexandre Bennigsen described the relationship between Muslim and ethnic identity in 1980:

The supra-national awareness of belonging to the Muslim Umma - ’Community of the believers’ - is stronger today than it was thirty or forty years ago. It does not suppress the awareness of belonging to a more limited nation, Uzbek or Tatar, Checken or Kirghiz but gives it another dimension, that of religious/cultural brotherhood. It also stresses and reinforces the existing sense of alienation from the non-Muslims, especially from the Russians.[90]

This common cultural/religious identity carries economic implications as well. The former Soviet Union was composed of over 100 identifiable ethnic groups. Yet a recent study undertaken by the United States Institute of Peace of ’minorities at risk’ according to economic and political criteria, reveals that of twenty economically disadvantaged minority groups in the former Soviet Union, as many as ten are indigenous Muslim peoples inhabiting traditional homelands in the Caucasus and Central Asia. The study linked economic factors to the outbreak of ethnopolitical conflict in the North Caucasus in 1991, the first such eruption within post-Soviet Russia. Although the USIP project identifies ’a major sectarian division’ between Christianity and Islam within Eastern Europe, it does not stress religious factors as precipitators of conflict.[91] Yet it is hard to overlook the fact that until the early 1990’s, Checheno-Ingushetia was the only Muslim republic where not a single mosque was registered, while churches existed for the minority Christian population.[92]

D.  Federation-Wide Movements

Perhaps the most striking and potentially most significant development within Muslim Russia today is the recent establishment of a number of independent, country-wide political organizations, the first since the Russian Muslims’ Union had a faction in all four pre-revolutionary Dumas before it was banned by the Bolsheviks. During the Soviet era, official organizations of Muslim clergy were infiltrated by the Secret Services, which monitored and steered them, as it did associations of other religions;[93] until Glasnost, independent organizations were prohibited.

Before the USSR’s dissolution, the Islamic Revival (or Renaissance) Party claimed to have between 10,000 and 30,000 members in Central Asia, in the Caucasus, along the Volga and in the Urals. Created in 1990, its activities were banned in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, even though its leadership claimed it was not a secessionist group and rejected terrorist and extremist methods. ’We are not thinking about creating a state of our own,’ its leadership stated. ’We want only to protect the interests of the Soviet Union’s Moslem minority, which the state-appointed official imams and mullahs are unable to protect.’[94] More particularly as to the question of proselytizing, Valiakhmed Sadur, a member of the Party’s council of theologians, stated in an interview in Izvestia:

We want Islam to undergo a revival in areas from which it has been driven out and to spread to regions where it is unknown altogether or where people have a distorted notion of it. From this aim, another goal of ours follows - to protect true believers from persecution, from deliberate lies with respect to our faith, and from distortions arising from a poor knowledge of Islam.[95]

More recently, in 1995, the Union of Russia’s Muslims, taking its name from the pre-revolutionary Duma party, held its first Congress in Moscow with over 100 delegates from 63 member-states of the Russian Federation. Although it claims that it is a social movement and not a political party, its objective is to have a full list of candidates for seats in every parliamentary constitutency. Currently, the 26 Muslim Deputies, most of whom belong to the ’Russia is Our Home’ Party, constitute only three percent of the Duma, out of a nation-wide Muslim population of four or more times that percentage.[96] Like the Islamic Revival Party, the Union must also fight the oft-repeated but unproven rumor that it is ’backed by petrodollars’ from Middle Eastern states.[97]

It also insists that it is a purely secular organization. The Union’s mission statement declares:

We want to emphasize the secular character of our organization. We consider the Muslim community in its historically shaped form of civilization as multi-ethnic but at the same time a single confessional, historical and cultural community on the territory of Russia....Muslims are looking with hope to the future of Russia, and are expecting that a reborn strong Russia will reliably protect the interests of all its citizens and peoples.[98]

Yet given the inherent consolidation of the political and the spiritual in Islam, it is not so apparent how such an organization can be considered ’secular’. Indeed, the leading Muslim clergy of Moscow and Kazan have distanced themselves from the Union, on the basis that the Federation’s law on freedom of religion prohibits religious organizations from taking part in elections.[99] The same interpretation was made by the Central Electoral Committee, which twice refused to register the Union as a political party, even after the latter had won a court ruling.[100]

Perhaps more signficant was the objection of the Russian Orthodox hierarchy. Despite the prior participation of Christian Democratic parties in post-Soviet Russian electoral politics, some of which allegedly have the Church’s support,[101] Patriarch Aleksii II formally called upon the Muslim clergy to refrain from participating in the Union. ’For the first time in Russia,’ his statement inaccurately noted:

where the overwhelming majority of the population professes Orthodoxy or is linked to that faith by historical and cultural roots, a large organization making Islam its symbol has entered the political struggle. This inclusion of the religious factor in the political struggle could inevitably prompt the Orthodox community to take steps in response, which could inject confrontation into Orthodox-Muslim relations and lead to a new schism in society.[102]

The Union subsequently met with the Patriarch to convince him that it is a purely secular organization and ’there is no need to worry that the religious factor will be used for political purposes or to fear potential "confrontations in Orthodox-Muslim relations".’[103] (See more on the Church’s relationship with Muslims, below.)

The Union has called for greater government investment in the Muslim regions of Russia, Arab language studies in all Russian high schools, scholarships for young Muslims to study abroad, and public funds to assist pilgrims traveling to Mecca for the Haj.104 It also advocates a peaceful solution to the Chechen conflict, one that promotes the continuation of a strong federal state of Russia. According to its co-chairman, Abdul-Vakhed Niyazov: ’This is our Motherland. Our organization stands for constructive cooperation with the government. We strongly object to the allegedly destructive role of which the Islamic community is often accused.’[105] He also expressed hope that Russia would recognize itself as ’a state where Christianity and Islam have co-existed for centuries,’ and thereby, in its foreign policy, direct more attention to the international Muslim community and take a more balanced approach to mediating crises such as Bosnia, where Russia has clearly backed the Serbs. Niyazov believes that the Chechen conflict has at least had the positive effect of shaking up the Muslim community of Russia and making it more politically aware.[106]

Perhaps the clearest indication of the current vibrancy of Russia’s Muslim population is the formation of yet a third political organization, the similarly named Muslims of Russia. It too takes a statist stance. According to its chairman, Mukaddas Bibarsov, Imam of the Volga region:

Without question, we advocate a united Russia. The breakup of the Soviet Union was an enormous tragedy for Russian Muslims....A great many foreign Muslim leaders are now asking us not to do anything to promote the [further] breakup of Russia. Russia must remain a cultural counterweight to the West. If Chechnya secedes from Russia, a chain reaction could begin.[107]

Other new organizations include the Union of Muftis of the Russian Federation and regional groups such as Muslims of Tatarstan. According to Duma Deputy Ramazan Abdulatipov, the purpose of these groups - and the inevitable umbrella organizations needed to coordinate all of them - is not to oppose any other religious communities but ’to conduct an inter-confessional dialogue,’ to counter the perception that Islam poses an extremist threat to Russian stability, and to educate the Russian public about ’the tremendous moral, spiritual and legal potential of Islam’ and Muslim culture.[108] Proselytizing among non-Muslims is not an apparent objective of these groups.

E.  Muslims in the Capital City

Known since the time of Ivan IV as ’the Third Rome,’ Moscow has also been called ’the Golden City’ because of its gold-domed ecclesiastical architecture. Lately, the ’golden’ label has taken on a new meaning, as Moscow has become the mecca of Russia’s post-Socialist nouveau rich, where the role played by money (mostly dollars, rarely rubles) has grown exponentially.

Since 1989, the number of Muslims in Moscow has also grown, from a quarter million to about one million, including 800,000 in Moscow proper and the rest in Moscow Province. Most of them are Tatars, the second largest nationality in the city after ethnic Russians. Tatars began settling in Moscow as early as the fifteenth century, at the invitation of Catherine the Great.[109] Despite this relatively long history, anti-Muslim feeling runs high among Muscovites. In the fall of 1993, for instance, the All-Russia Center for the Study of Public Opinion recorded a 60 percent rate of ’anti-black’ sentiment, the same percentage that in a 1995 poll ’completely approved’ of official city policies designed to evict non-Russians from the capital. Other studies give rates of 30 to 34 percent who ’distrust blacks’. Russians consistently rate peoples of the Caucasus as those they dislike the most. Approximately one-fourth of all advertisements for Moscow rental apartments stipulate that Caucasians should not apply.[110]

The designation ’anti-black’ is no misprint. Although peoples from the Caucasus and other parts of southern Russia - very often, Muslims - are just that, Caucasians, they are perceived by ethnic Russians as ’different’ on racial grounds. The prejudice is not limited to members of the public. Human Rights Watch has reported that the most frequent victims of ethnically motivated attacks committed by police, Interior Ministry special forces (known and feared as "OMON"), and road patrol officers, are people from the Caucasus Mountains (including Christian Georgians and Armenians as well as Muslim Chechens, Azerbaijanis and Kurds), the Middle East and Central Asia, the Far East and Africa. ’There also appears to be a rough correlation between skin color and abuse: the darker the skins or less Slavic the features a person has, the worse the treatment is by law enforcement officials.’[111]

Dark-skinned residents, whether legal or illegal, whether citizens of the Russian Federation or citizens of other CIS countries, are subjected to multiple identification checks every day, not only on the streets but inside private homes, dormitories and hotels; searches and extortion or illegal seizing of property, including automobiles; detention without charge for as much as several weeks; and inordinate fines and beatings - particularly of the kidneys - while in custody. A 1993 internal regulation of the road patrol authority specifically authorizes the impounding of cars driven by ’persons of Caucasian nationality.’ A 1995 decision authorizes ’temporary migration control’ within the Kostroma region of ’Citizens of the Caucasian Republics Which are Part of the Russian Federation, and the Caucasian States.’ The officially articulated reason for singling out Caucasians is considered ’obvious’ by a spokesman for the Moscow city militia: ’[T]his is a category of people that is more prone to crimes than anyone else.’[112]

Chechens are especially prone to round-up under a series of 1993 city and federal ordinances on ’regulating’ - that is, deporting - ’the residences of refugees’, fighting crime, and implementing the propiska (residence requirement) system, the latter of which was ruled a violation of the international and constitutional rights to freedom of movement by the USSR Constitutional Supervision Committee two years prior to 1993.[113] Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, a close ally of Boris Yeltsin, stated that he would consider repealing his decrees requiring the registration of Chechens as ’foreigners’ and recognize them as ’Russians’ only when Chechen officials signed a peace accord with Russia to end the war there. In July of 1996, after the third bomb in a month exploded in Moscow, but before any perpetrators or suspects were identified, Luzhkov declared that ’the entire Chechen diaspora must be evicted from Moscow!’[114]

The Chechen war is not the only justification cited for these policies. During the state of emergency declared by Yeltsin during the hard-liners’ parliamentary rebellion in early October 1993, Moscow authorities stepped up the purge of Chechens and other dark-skinned peoples, deporting a reported 4,000 to 9,000, detaining 67,000 others and inspiring 10,000 more to flee the city.[115] Since there was no obvious connection between the coup attempt and the Chechen war or the alleged ’Chechen crime wave’, the former was used to rationalize the need to campaign against the latter. Similar ’clean-ups’ of predominantly Muslim persons displaced from CIS countries occurred in anticipation of Moscow’s 850th birthday festivities in September 1997.[116]

Two particular series of events illustrate that animosity is directed at Islam itself, not merely dark-skinned people. In the summer and fall of 1994, the laying of a stone to mark the construction of an Islamic Cultural Center, to include a mosque, a theological school, a business center and a hospital in a park in the Troparevo residential area of Moscow, led to an outbreak of tension. Within a few days, the stone had been moved and painted red, while the graffiti ’Blacks Out!’ was painted nearby. Residents of the area went to the St. Danil Monastery, reportedly to ’find Cossacks’ and get them to ’take care of things.’[117] In October 1996, a group of 40 anti-riot police stormed Moscow’s main mosque (a blue and white building resembling a Russian Orthodox cathedral, but with minarets) and arrested 18 to 20 men who were praying, including Chechens, Ingush, Tatars, Tajiks and Uzbeks, only four of whom were in Moscow illegally, according to Moscow Echo radio. One detainee claimed the police beat some detainees and said ’filthy things about Islam and Allah.’ Police claimed to be searching for weapons, criminals and people without propiskas, though the timing coincided with Chechen rebel leader Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev’s arrival in Moscow for peace talks, as well as with growing Russian nervousness over the Taliban take-over of Afghanistan.[118]

In August 1997, in anticipation of impending new federation legislation on religion, Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov signed into law a city-wide regulation concerning religious and ’pseudo-religious’ organizations. Among other provisions, it establishes ’an interconfessional council consisting of representatives of the most authoritative religious organizations of Moscow under the aegis of the Moscow government’.[119] Depending on how the phrase ’most authoritative’ is interpreted, the regulation could result in the exclusion of some of the smaller or more radical Muslim sects. Moreover, the ’Moscow Registration Chamber’ will determine which representatives of foreign religious organizations can open and conduct activities in the city.[120] This could result in discrimination against Muslims affiliated with communities outside the RSFSR. As of this writing, it is too early to predict how else this new Moscow regulation will effect Muslims living in the capital. Whatever transpires, the Russian authorities’ policy toward Islam will undoubtedly continue to be gleaned from official and unofficial practices and opinions in the country’s capital.


A.  The Russian Political Leadership on Islam

The relationship of Boris Yeltsin’s administration to the Islam question is both more sophisticated and more complex than was Gorbachev’s, given the former’s decision to wage all-out war in Chechnya. In a televised speech in December 1994, while Russian troops were deployed in Grozny, Yeltsin attempted to portray the Chechen rebellion, with its ethno-religious trappings, as camouflage for organized drug and weapons traffickers, counterfeiting, and other illegal activity. ’Through deception, through playing on patriotic [nationalistic] and religious feelings, and through money and threats,’ he explained, ’these [Chechen] forces have been able to get part of the local population involved in the armed struggle.’[121] Yet coupled with the popular equation made by many ethnic Russians that ’mafiosi - Caucasian - Muslim’ are ’all links in a single chain,’[122] the television audience could have heard their President justifying the war as a crusade - or Crusade with a capital C - to reclaim Russian territory from corrupt Islam.

Appealing to the North Caucasus mountain peoples, Yeltsin tried to insist that ’Russia is not the enemy of the Muslims.’ He continued, ’Any people living on Russia’s territory has the right to preserve its natural distinctiveness and its own traditions.’[123] This sentiment, that ’Russia does not oppose Islam as a religion,’ would be echoed by Foreign Affairs Minister Yevgeny Primakov, himself a scholar of the Middle East, in September 1996, though he distinguished between Islamic fundamentalism, a ’natural response to historical developments, such as the former persecution of Islam,’ a phenomenon which ’we must learn to respect and reckon with,’ and Islamic extremism, which he associated with ethnic discord and civil strife, from which Russia can rightfully erect a barrier.[124]

It is noteworthy, however, that Yeltsin, who like Gorbachev has not a single Muslim in his administration, characterized the Chechens as ’a people living on Russia’s territory,’ not as members of the Russian Federation or even as citizens. Though not as overtly exclusionist as Alexander Lebed’s outrageous remarks about ’foul foreign sects’ during the June 1996 Russian Presidential campaign,[125] Yeltsin’s more subtle comments, coupled with the Russian military’s documented targeting of Chechen civilians,[126]and Sarah Brown, ’Modern Tales of the Russian Army,’ World Policy Journal, Spring 1997, p. 61. are not likely to elude the grasp of the rest of Russia’s Muslim communities and the neighboring states of Central Asia.

Vasily Likhachev, the deputy speaker of the upper house of the Russian Parliament and chair of Tatarstan’s State Council, denounced ’attempts by certain political forces to play "the Islamic card" and drive a wedge between members of the Orthodox and Muslim religions’ during recent Duma hearings on Chechnya.[127] At least one Western analyst has warned that if Yeltsin continues to foster the impression that the war is a Russian struggle against Islam, ’he will find the leaders in Kazan, Ufa and other Muslim centers within the Russian Federation less interested in talking with him and more willing to listen to those who argue that these autonomous republics need real independence.’[128]<http://www.rferl.org/nca/features/1996>.;

Despite Yeltsin’s Chechnya policy and his ambivalent attitude toward Russia’s Muslim population, both the Islamic Cultural Center, which was founded in 1991, and the Union of Muslims of Russia, founded in 1995, backed him, rather than the self-styled ’Muslim Communist,’ Aman Tuleyev, in the 1996 Presidential election. (Another Muslim group, Nur, supported the reformer Yavlinsky.) The two groups sent Yeltsin a joint message, stating in part:

...at a time when power is being energetically sought by forces of revanche that are not concealing their threats to reverse reforms at any price and establish a hard-line Communist dictatorship, Russia’s Muslims are becoming more and more convinced that you are the one, in alliance with the democratic forces, who can protect the country from impending totalitarianism.[129]

It is not clear to what extent these organizations reflect Muslim popular opinion, or whether their attitude toward Yeltsin remains firm now that he has signed the 1997 law on ’religious freedom.’

B.  The Russian Orthodox Church and Islam

Although the 1993 Russian Constitution provides that ’[t]he Russian Federation shall be a secular state; no religion may be instituted as state-sponsored or mandatory religion,’[130] much evidence exists that the Russian Orthodox Church is replacing the Communist Party as a monopolistic force within Russian society and state. How and why this is being accomplished - because of the imperious purposes of the Church, in reaction against non-Orthodox evangelism,[131] due to the state’s appropriation of the Church’s wide influence for its own ambitions, or a combination of factors - are questions beyond the scope of this study. To the extent that Orthodoxy is seen as inextricable from Russian national identity,[132] this development is even more complex.

Yet the phenomenon of Orthodox resurgence is surely noticed by the country’s Muslims, influencing relations between the two faiths. For instance, Sheikh Ravil Gainutdin of the Islamic Cultural Center of Moscow has criticized the country’s policy of treating the Orthodox faith alone as a ’privileged religion, that is, the state religion,’ which he labels a persistent ’ideology of the tsarist empire.’[133] He noted that the press will report on a meeting, for example, between the Patriarch of All Rus and US President Bush, but not on meetings between Islamic spiritual leaders and the King of Saudi Arabia or Libyan President Qaddafi. ’Isn’t this proof that the Christian religion is privileged?’[134] Russia’s Muslims also complain that the country’s armed forces now provide religious services for Christian, but not for Muslim soldiers, that naval ships are now being officially christened, and that government support for the restoration of cathedrals and the observance of Christmas as a national holiday has turned Orthodoxy into the state religion, with no comparable sponsorship of Muslim commemorations.[135]

Keeping in mind that the Church does not itself speak as a single voice, recent Russian Orthodox attitudes and statements regarding Islam can be said to fall into three broad categories: those that ignore the role of Islam within Russian history and culture, those that posit an inherent antagonism between Islam and Orthodoxy, and those that reach out to the Muslim communities as allies in the struggle against infiltrating Western influences. While the latter type seems to be on the ascent, it is still, according to observers, ’extremely hard for the Orthodox Church to come to terms with the fact that Russia is now a pluralistic society,’ or indeed, that it always was. Given ’the prerevolutionary role of the Orthodox Church, there was not even a dormant tradition of sensitivity to other denominations to resurrect’ after the fall of Communism.[136]

Commonplace are remarks by ROC spokespersons that ’Russia has always been a Russian Orthodox country,’ that the Church has made ’the greatest contribution over time to the formation of Russian culture and statehood,’ and that ’nothing could remove the Christian core from Russian culture,’ the latter uttered by Metropolitan Kirill to the World Council of Churches’ international conference in late 1996.[137] While these comments can cloy at the country’s 12 to 20 million Muslims, whose history within Eurasia, as noted above, predates Orthodoxy, they undoubtedly sting when made in the particular context of Orthodox-Islam relations. For instance, during a recent controversy over construction of an Islamic cultural center in Moscow, Father Georgy, the priest at the nearly Church of the Archangel Michael, explained his opposition to the center:

Moscow has always been and will continue to be a holy city for the Orthodox. It has always been known as the oldest capital, as a golden-domed city built of white stag. But they want to make us into ’nobodies with no heritage.’ We pray to God that everything turns out all right. But all the same, Moscow is the third Rome, not the second Mecca.[138]

While Church officials have not been lumping Muslims into the same threatening class of foreign proselytizers who are allegedly using techniques of ’poisonous seduction’ to snatch believers away from Orthodoxy,[139] others have broadcast ominous warnings about the coming global religious conflagration in which Islam and Orthodoxy (the former sometimes reputed to be ’aligned with the Vatican,’ as evidenced, ostensibly, by the confederation of Croats and Muslims within Bosnia-Hercegovina) ’will either distance themselves from each other or blend in a turmoil of mutual destruction.’[140] That the Russian Orthodox Patriarch himself has seen fit to condemn Bosnian Muslims and Catholic Croats, but pointedly not Orthodox Serbs, for escalating armed combat in the demilitarized zones of the former Yugoslavia, may indicate that this apocalyptic vision has more than just grass-roots appeal.[141] Other ominous sentiments include the observation that recent conflicts between the ROC and the Vatican will ’play into the hands of the Islamic fundamentalists, building up their influence in the Muslim world.’[142] As already noted, Patriarch Aleksii has also warned against the participation of Muslim leaders in Russian election campaigns.

Yet consciousness about common linkages between the two faiths currently seems to prevail over antagonistic views. Because Russia’s Muslims are for the most part ethnically distinct from the Slavic population, Islam does not present a competitive threat to the Church. Thus, it is willing to treat Islam as ’second among two equals,’ as evidenced in the summer 1997 draft of the Freedom of Religion law, at the expense of Buddhism and Judaism, which also have long histories in the country.[143] Perhaps this endorsement caused no risk to the Church’s view that an Orthodox believer is anyone who was baptized as an infant,[144] because a Russian Muslim too is a Muslim from birth; hence, there is no real overlap. Patriarch Aleksii and Sheik-ul Islam Talgat Taju Din could therefore jointly state their concern about seven Russians forcibly held in Afganistan by the paramilitary Taliban movement, which was reportedly trying to convert them to Islam. ’We call on the leaders of Taliban not to interfere with our compatriots’ freedom of conscience and their choice of world-view.’[145]

The ROC is also reaching out to the wider Muslim world. In one of a series of contacts between the Moscow Patriarchate and the head of Iran’s Islamic Council, it was mutually noted that Orthodoxy and Islam are each ’the basis of morality, patriotism and the revival of the spiritual bases in the peoples of the two countries...[both of whose young people] need protection from the propaganda of cruelty, violence and immorality, which is rampant in modern society.’[146] Both Orthodoxy and Islam view themselves as guardians against the onslaught of negative Western influences, secular as well as spiritual. And while the theological similarities between the two religions are beyond the scope of this study, the Islamic attitude toward apostasy, traditionally a capital offense, seems to be captured in the reaction to the delivery of bibles and humanitarian aid by an American Protestant ministry: ’Changing your faith is treachery,’ according to Father Vladimir, a priest in the village of Semkhoz, 80 kilometers (50 miles) north of Moscow.[147]

Perhaps it was his successful trip to Central Asia in late 1996 which convinced Patriarch Aleksii of the compatibility of the two religions. ’All of us, both Orthodox Christians and Moslems, have come out from 70 years of spiritual captivity, [with] one fate in common and the same problems relating to the revival of spiritual principles.’[148] While the nascent ’Eurasian Orthodox-Muslim’ movement, which was endorsed by the Moscow Patriarchate in 1993, may never achieve its true aim of resurrecting the Soviet Union,[149] its anti-Western message may serve a subsidiary but more transcendent objective of launching a lasting alliance between these two major faiths on the continent.

C.  Russia, Eurasia and Transnational Islam

Russia's policy toward its domestic Muslim population and its geopolitical strategies within Southern Europe and the Middle East have been interdependent for centuries, long before, as well as during and after, the Soviet era.[150] This was inevitable given that most of the country’s Muslim communities have historically been located along its ’southern flank’, thereby serving as a bulwark against what had been the Ottoman and Persian Empires. Control of the Transcaucasus, in particular, the region contiguous to Chechnya and Daghestan, would ’give Moscow a foothold in the Middle East with which to exert influence and pressure on Turkey, Iran and points south.’[151]Pipes notes that the border of Armenia is a mere 300 miles (485 kilometers) from Syria and Iraq. Ibid. While Russia’s comprehensive foreign policy toward Islamic and majority-Muslim countries is beyond the scope of this study,[152] a few observations relevant to the concepts of proselytizing and jihad are in order. These concern both the region that Moscow refers to as ’the near abroad,’ meaning the former constituent republics of the Soviet Union that are now independent states, and ’the far abroad,’ that is, the rest of the world.

With the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the ’near abroad’ has suddenly become part of the geopolitical framework of the greater Islamic world. Boris Yeltsin and his advisors -- particularly Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov, the Middle East specialist -- cannot help but take note of the efforts made by Pakistan, Iran and the newly neo-Islamic government in Turkey to provide economic assistance, trade and investment in the Transcaucasus, particularly in Shiite Azerbaijan, and the Central Asian states. Iran in particular has actively assisted in opening new mosques in the region.[153] As previously noted, Azerbaijan was the scene of the first outbreak of ethno-national tension in the Gorbachev era. While downplaying the intention to secede, the spokesman for the Azeri People's Front commented at that time:

’Yes, our struggle contains elements of a jihad: gathering as an entire community and swearing that we will stand until the end...[W]e, in accordance with our religion, are relying only on ourselves. Although we know that the entire Moslem world, Iran and Turkey stand behind us.’[154]

The Middle East may be creeping even closer than ’the near abroad,’ as evidenced by the support - or at least alleged support - for the Chechen rebels coming from Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and even the United Arab Emirates. Moscow has complained about weapons smuggled in from the first two sources, while hundreds of Qurans and prayer books were discovered in stacks at the airport in Daghestan, awaiting delivery to Grozny.[155] At the height of the bloodshed, the Saudi Arabian Council of Ministers expressed ’regret in connection with the Russian armed intervention in the Chechen Republic and urges the states of the Islamic world and all friendly, peace-loving states to help bring about an end to Russian armed actions against Chechnya.’[156] While this statement does not in itself accuse Russia of conducting an anti-Islamic crusade, its issuance caused much consternation in Moscow, coming as it did from the guardian of the Muslim holy places of Mecca and Medina.

By aligning itself with the Orthodox Serbs within the on-going conflict in the former Yugoslavia, Russia has continued the tradition established by Catherine the Great, who in 1768 had forced the Turkish Sultan to recognize Russia as the protector of all Orthodox Christians in the Ottoman Empire. Her act has been said to have initiated ’an ongoing anti-Muslim role [for Russia] of natural ally and protector of the oppressed (that is, Orthodox Christian) peoples in the Balkans in their search for the right to self-determination.’[157] The continuation of this policy does not sit well with Muslims, who have criticized Moscow for not reining in the genocidal exploits of the Bosnian Serbs.[158] Russia continues to maintain that it has an obligation to protect the interests of its former nationals living in the newly independent Transcaucas and Central Asian states. Better that they should be so identified as ethnic Russians, perhaps, than as Orthodox Christians.

The Chechen and Bosnian conflicts are not the only Russian-associated enterprises to look suspiciously anti-Muslim in Islamic eyes. Beyond Chechnya, Moscow’s major military commitment is in Tajikistan, where 100,000 troops have since 1992 been bolstering the Communist government in a civil war against radical Islamic opposition forces, whose threat to create a Shariah state has taken on a new vigor with the rise of the Taliban in next-door Afghanistan.[159] Add to that Russia’s support for Christian Armenia against Shiite Muslim Azerbaijan and, after provoking the tension, ultimately siding with Christian Georgia against its separatist Muslim enclave of Abkhazia, as well as Moscow’s renewal of diplomatic ties with Israel (whose population has been swelled in recent years by the emigration of Russian Jews), and it becomes understandable why ’Russia is being seen more and more negatively in Islamic eyes.’ In the view of Russian political analyst Andrei Piontkowsky. ’If it continues, it is not impossible to imagine Russia taking over from America as enemy number one’ to Muslims worldwide.[160]

But Russia and the United States share a common perspective on the Islamic world: both have an inordinate fear of ’Islamic fundamentalism,’ or more accurately, militant Islamic revivalism. In the Russian media, these terms, particularly the former, are used with the same phobic connotations as in the Western press.[161] Moreover, Moscow is still suffering the post-traumatic stress of ’Afghanistan syndrome,’ in which mujahadin backed by Pakistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Egypt liberated the country from Soviet occupation, leaving the message that ’the new jihad need not stop at the [former Soviet Union’s] border’....Reports from the field warned the Kremlin that some [Afghan] rebel leaders intended to carry the struggle’ into Soviet Central Asia.[162] Even though the U.S. backed the Islamic militants in that conflict, the West can be seen to have implicitly delegated to Russia the role of ’container’ of the ’Islamic threat’ on behalf of ’Euro-Atlantic civilization.’ After all, Russia’s closer proximity heightens its fear of being ’encircled’ by the Islamic world.[163]

Ultimately, Russia shares a more significant strategic interest with Turkey, Iran, Tajikistan and the other Central Asian and Middle Eastern states than it does with the West: the prevention of domestic and regional conflicts that could threaten their joint or several territorial integrity, political stability and control over oil resources. Whether it ultimately defines itself as European, Asia or Eurasian, Russia must be careful to promote ’transcivilizational cooperation’ even as it condemns religious and national extremism.[164]

D.  Islam Under the New Russian Religion Law

As described at the beginning of this study, the new Russian Federation law on ’Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations,’ in effect the first of October, 1997, places Islam in a ’second tier’ classification along with Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and Judaism, below the especially venerated Orthodoxy but above other religions and creeds which are not considered ’an inseparable part of the historical heritage of Russia’s peoples.’[165] If the law can be said to represent a fear of penetration from ’outside,’ non-indigenous faiths, particularly those that are more modern and/or more zealous in their expansionist activities, Islam has an ambiguous status. It represents both an inside and an outside faith, and while it is not more modern than Orthodoxy, it is certainly more zealous.

The new law’s lengthy provisions establish a complex series of registration requirements and statuses, contingent on a religious association’s geographic distribution, length of proven existence in Russia, and type of activities. It also contains vague provisions which might be interpreted to ’restrict the freedom of a religious association to disseminate its faith to non-members, especially minors, or to set up new congregations where it is not already registered,’ making them ’vulnerable to the caprice and graft of central and local Russian bureaucrats.’[166] Its most notorious provision is article 9.1, which discriminates between religious organizations which have confirmation from the organs of govenment that they have existed on the territory of Russia for at least fifteen years, and those that do not. The latter will not be able to publish newspapers or distribute religious literature; invite foreign preachers; hold worship services in hospitals, senior citizens’ homes, schools, orphanages or prisons; form educational establishments; or obtain tax relief. Nor will their clergy be exempt from military service.[167]

The fifteen year period was not selected arbitrarily. The year 1982 pre-dates Gorbachev’s perestroika; before then, most religions operated underground, to avoid harassment and arrest by Communist authorities. Although Islam’s roots in Russia are much more ancient, many of its newer manifestations developed after 1982. For instance, of the more than 1500 mosques functioning in Russia today, approximately 1300 were opened after 1983.[168] Not all of these fall under the jurisdiction of the Central Council of the Ecclesiastical Board of Muslims of Russia, which means they may not be ’grandfathered’ in under its pre-existing registration. Other independent Muslim organizations may also be affected; it was not until 1989, for example, that Muslim groups first became involved in charitable work.[169]

Although the official leadership of Russian Muslims is reported to have approved of the 1997 law (though reportedly also withdrawing approval when fraudulent maneuvers by negotiators were revealed),[170] it is far from popular among the majority of Muslims and the more independent voices in the umma. Calling the new law ’a great evil,’ the president of the Supreme Coordination Center of the Ecclesiastical Board of Muslims of Russia, Nafigulla Ashirov, has vehemently protested that it ’tramples on the rights of religious organizations of long standing...[and] does not conform with the democratic principles [both] of Russia and the Islamic religion.’ According to Ashirov, the law is a ’direct insult to the principles of the Muslim religion’ because, unlike Orthodoxy, Islam is not hierarchical. ’When a Muslim society simply receives the blessing of Almighty Allah, it has the right to exist and it does not need the blessing of any Islamic patriarchs,’ let alone the bureaucrats of an ostensibly secular, democratic state.[171]

This insight illustrates how the legislation attempts to cram other religions such as Islam into an Orthodox-centric frame. For instance, article 8 divides religious organizations into local and centralized forms, allowing centralized ones (those with three or more local organizations) which have been registered in Russia for 50 or more years to use the words ’Russia’ or ’Russian’ in their titles. Even though the country’s Muslims have been so organized since Stalin created the centralized ’Spiritual Directorates’ in the early 1940s, this structure has never been organic to Islam, which is inherently decentralized.

Among the law’s particular proscriptions which might be invoked against Muslim congregations are: ’actions entailing coercion of an individual,’ in particular, ’forcing members and followers of the religious association or other persons to alienate property which belongs to them for the use of the religious association’.[172] One of the five ’pillars’ of Islam is to give zakat or alms for the support of the faith and the poor, while ’submission to the One God in all things is the central theme of Islam’.[173] The law also provides for liquidation of religious organizations, banning of their activities, or refusal of re-registration for, inter alia, ’propaganda of war, the igniting of social, racial, national or religious dissension or hatred between people,’ or for ’hindering a citizen from leaving a religious association by threatening harm to life, health, or property if there is a danger of this threat’s actually being carried out, or by using force or other illegal actions.’[174] Islam’s traditional prohibition on apostasy, defined to include conversion to another religion, and its more extreme expressions of jihad, could very easily run afoul of these provisions of the new law.[175]

One need look no futher than the recent past to realize that these potentially restrictive applications of the law - at least its underlying message if not its technical provisions - are not far-fetched. In the city of Balashikh, near Moscow, the local administrator has refused since late 1996 to allocate land for construction of a mosque, on the grounds that ’Islam is not traditional for this region of Russia.’[176] Similar interpretations could be applied in any region other than those where Muslims form a majority. Other religious groups - ’traditional’ to Russia generally, if not a particular locale - have already experienced this kind of official obstruction after the adoption of the religion law.[177] Given the harassment that Chechens and other Muslim Caucasians have previously experienced at the hands of private thugs as well as the official militia in Moscow, the new law can be expected to incite further ethnic tension, both in the capital and without.


Only in 1990, on the verge of the collapse of the Soviet empire, would a Russian academic at a conference on Muslim societies be able to summarize the Soviet Union’s situation this way: ’Twenty years ago we considered religious beliefs to be dying. Now we are reaping the harvest of this neglect.’[178] Surely Leonid Brezhnev would have been awakened from his customary torpor had he been aware in the 1970s of the imminent renaissance in the cultural, political and religious identity of Russia’s Muslims.

Islam has the potential of being linked with political and ideological resistance, and has been so linked in Russian history, particularly during periods of intensive Russification campaigns against cultural minorities. Therefore, as sections of this study have hinted, while Muslim-Christian ideological conflict is not currently a flashpoint, in pointed contrast to the struggle of Orthodoxy vis a vis the rest of Christianity, the former risks being kindled in a backlash against excessive Russian governmental coercion, in Chechnya and other parts of the Caucasus, for instance, or even in Moscow. But such a development is not predetermined, unless the majority persists in refusing to recognize that one can be ’Russian’ without being either a Slav or an Orthodox believer, just as one can be ’English’ without being a white Anglo-Saxon Anglican.

This is not a prescription for the adoption of an Anglo-American or Western model. Islam and Russian Orthodoxy, in fact, have more in common with each other than either does with the individualistic, Western forms of Christianity. Russia is a Eurasian state, situated between East and West, with Islam an integral, indigenous part of its social fabric. Or as explained by Sheikh Nafibulla Ashirov, chair of the executive committee of the Supreme Information Center of the Muslim Directorates of Russia:

Allah created us as different tribes and has bestowed on us different cultures, different faces, different shaped eyes, different clothes. This forms the beauty of the world. If forests consisted only of birch trees or spruce trees, it would not be so interesting to walk in such forests.... Nature created by Allah cannot be made uniform. It will resist such attempts. The same is true of people....Our history proves it. An attempt was made to turn it all into Russians with a family name, first name and given name. But this attempt failed. Because this is unnatural.[179]