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Caucasus is approaching

14.01.2009 14:26

On the 5th of November, 2005 Nizhny Novgorod hosted one of the most important events in the life of Russian Muslim community for the past years — a forum Russian Muslims on the Verge of a New Millennium. This event initiated by the Religious Board of Muslims for the Nizhny Novgorod Region (DUMNO) attracted public attention and was covered by many mass¬media. This particular interview with Damir-khazrat Mukhetdinov was published in local newspaper Vremya Novostey (News Time).

— Damir-khazrat, are there any particular reasons that made you hold this forum specifically in Nizhny Novgorod and at this particular moment?

— Exactly one hundred years ago, in 1905, Russian Muslims gathered at the Nizhny Novgorod Trade fair to consolidate their efforts and to introduce collective solutions for the most burning issues of that time. We absolutely had to mark this significant historic day. There was an attempt to hold a similar event in Kazan in the context of celebrations of the 1000th anniversary of the capital of Tatarstan. But unfortunately it failed.

— They say that resolution of this forum very much resembles the one passed one hundred years ago…

— It does, indeed. The thing is the issues raised back then are very similar to the problems Russian Muslims face today. For example, just like a century ago Russian ummah (community) is split, there is no unification in the system of religious education. To be exact, today there is a great confusion in the very status of educational institutions. Some madrasahs providing higher religious education call themselves maktabs (elementary level of religious education), and vice versa, and then there are numerous universities that hardly provide education of the average level. Another important problem raised at the Congress in 1905 concerned issuing study supplies. Just like back then today we have no unified study books on Muslim law and Islamic fundamentals to say nothing of specific subjects.

— So does it mean that during the forum only religious education problems were discussed?

— No, not at all. The participants also raised theological and political issues including the lack of intellectual elite among Russian Muslims and their weak representation in the governmental structures, unlike that of Russian Orthodox Church. Our president and some high¬ranking officials openly demonstrate their adherence to Orthodoxy while president of Tatarstan Mintimer Shaimiyev is very careful not to express his confessional devotion. He never prays in the first row while Russian President and many officials don’t feel ashamed to keep night offices of vigils. Of course it’s a mere symbol but still it means a lot.

— Why do you think those politicians practicing Islam don’t follow their example?

— President of Bashkortostan Murtaza Rakhimov and president of Tatarstan Mintimer Shaimiyev are simply being politically correct since they don’t want to hurt religious feelings either of Christians or of Muslims. And this is the very sense of Islam upon the whole. I don’t mean to say that by visiting an Orthodox Cathedral our president offends someone. I just think that public men and political leaders should be equally remote from every confession practicing the secularity of the state. Otherwise it makes it hard for adherents of religions other than Russian Orthodox to stand up for their rights especially given the fact that there are no lobbyists in the government to promote their religious and cultural interests. As a matter of fact, during the festive events of the 1000th anniversary of Kazan not a single official mentioned the 15th anniversary of Tatarstan’s sovereignty. People used to spare no efforts, used to be ready to even give their lives for it and now it’s all forgotten. It means that Tatarstan doesn’t cherish its independency any longer.

— Don’t you think that this is pure politics rather than a theological and political issue?

— You see, politics, economy, private and public life are integral parts of Islam. It’s only in Christian morals that divine is given to God and Caesar’s to Caesar. Islam has prophets, Islam has righteous caliphs, Islam has imams who are clergymen, heads of religious organizations, businessmen, foremen and editors — all in one.

— We seem to have a contradiction right there. You say that government should be equally remote from all confessions yet that Islam goes together with politics.

— I think that religious leaders should take a more active part in public life. They are very politically correct. I am sure that even if a Muslim leader comes to power to remain an adherent of Islam he would remain tolerant to all other confessions and would avoid demonstrating his religious devotion.

— Do you mean to say that today Muslims enjoy the very same status that they did a century ago?

— We actually do and that’s exactly why we raise the very same problems on our forums today. The Congress of 1905 improved Muslim representation in the government: 20 Congress delegates became deputies in the State Duma set up by the Emperor and thus introduced Muslim fractions in the governmental body. Today Russian ummah is growing. Nizhny Novgorod Cathedral mosque can’t house all the Muslims who come for Friday sermon. People are forced to perform their prayers outside the mosque or standing at the front staircase.

— How come?

— Islam is a dynamically developing and active religion which has every chance to make the future of the country. Demography statistics claim that by 2080 Russian Orthodox adherents will make only 42% of Russian population. We have every reason to suppose that in 10 or 15 years every fifth resident of Nizhny Novgorod will be a Muslim — not necessarily a Tatar or a Bashkir or an Azerbaijani by nationality. If we take a closer look at statistics we’ll find that from 1989 till 2002 the population of the Nizhny Novgorod region reduced by 250 thousand people and totalled to 3.5 million people. In 1989 we had 58–60 thousand Muslims against over 150 thousand today meaning that Muslim population is growing rapidly while Orthodox one is diminishing. Regional Migration service claims that every 6 months Nizhny Novgorod hosts about 27 thousand migrants, 70% of them are ethnical Muslims. And these are only official statistics; the real figures may be four or even five times as large since migrants tend to bring their families over illegally.

— You speak about ethnical Muslims. But are there Russian Muslims?

— Of course there are. But to be honest I’m not very happy about Russian people converting to Islam. Many young girls perceive Islam as a means of getting married in Turkey, Algeria or Morocco. For some reason they think that living there is all about beaches and the sea and when they get to know tough reality they escape from their husbands disappointed. That’s why we are not eager to have Russian people converted to Islam unless we make sure that they are deliberately motivated by knowledge rather than by affection for a Turk or an Arab.

— But are there Russian people who are more seriously motivated?

— There certainly are. Half of the 150 pupils of our maktab Ihsan are Russian and those apparently are the people who want to accept Islam soundly.

— The figures you mentioned might be quite shocking for Russian non¬Muslim readers. Are there serious reasons for them to be worried?

— I would say, yes and I want to make it clear that it worries Tatars just as well. Tatars perceive Russians as brothers because we have been neighbours for centuries. When I say that I’m a Tatar globally I mean that I am Russian for Tatars are the bearers of Russian culture and mentality. I find it quite normal that they call Marat Ismailov and Diniyar Bilyaletdinov Russian footballers or when they say that Marat Safin is a Russian tennis player. For Americans, for example, they are Russian indeed. That’s why when I say that there is a reason for worry I mean not only Russian people but Tatars just as well. Nizhny Novgorod Tatars are losing their positions. For a very long time Tatars remained the second largest nation in the region. By the year 2020 we are bound to be replaced by Azerbaijanis and they are sure to have their economical, political and other demands. The problem here is that Azerbaijanis from Caucasus are not the best Muslims that come. They are people who failed to find themselves on their motherland. Caucasians come down here after just another terrorist act and shooting and the worse the living gets there the more people come here. And who, I wonder, is going to help them integrate in our community and to reclaim them? I don’t mean to say that Tatars are more cultivated than Azerbaijanis are. It’s just that our ancestors have lived here ever since the 13th century and it’s long enough to penetrate with local traditions and worldview. But newcomers from that region are complete aliens here and they really need to be shown what tolerance is. I judge by how they treat our mothers, Russian and Tatar women, young girls, how their children behave in schools, how their adults behave in mosques — how disrespectful they are to old men who built this very mosque and contributed to its up¬keeping. And I am forced to set them aback and say that since they came here they are expected to follow the rules developed during centuries of cooperation between Russian and Tatar peoples. I have to remind them that we are the native nations here and they are a Diaspora. It’s going to take at least five generations living here for them to acquire local mentality. But I must admit that there are truly worthy people among them.

— You said you studied in Saudi Arabia. In Russia people are prejudiced towards everybody with such a record. Have you ever experienced it?

— Thank God, in Nizhny Novgorod I don’t experience it that much — either on the part of the authorities or on the part of security agencies. But I see how prejudiced our government is against this state. They are about to introduce a specific law concerning wahhabism and that’s the silliest thing I ever heard of. Practically this would mean that once Saudi Crown prince comes to Russia to pay a visit to Vladimir Putin they should have him arrested right there, in the airport — since he is in the head of a wahhabi country and therefore is the chief wahhabist.

— Is it actually correct to call those radically inclined Muslims wahhabists?

— Not really. Those Muslims that stand for this or that Islamic idea rather call themselves salafits — Arabic “salaf” for “forefathers”, preceding generations of Muslims. And to my mind the problem with radical disposition among Islam adherents originates in poor work on the part of imams. Our clergymen for some reason don’t care to be more active in communicating with mosque¬goers. They think that every Tatar or Azerbaijani should voluntarily come over to a mosque all willing to be taught what tolerant Islam is. I say it’s not the way to go. We should come to every Muslim house — just like Protestants do.

— But I have a feeling that such active Protestant method is exactly what those radically inclined Muslims are practicing...

— The thing is salafits are mostly representatives of marginal social groups — former butchers and shop¬keepers, hardly educated. Such people don’t really care for such delicate aspects as interconfessional cooperation or the dialogue of nationalities and their cultural traditions. They want to have it all right here and right now. In Saudi Arabia I’ve seen a lot of such people and I swear they are no salafits, the only name for them is revolutionaries.

— Do you think we have them here in Nizhny Novgorod?

— I believe we do but they do underground work.

— What measures should be taken to prevent them from developing their activity in the city?

— To spare no efforts and time on education. These revolutionaries are helpless against well¬educated people, they can’t really cope with them and therefore work on lower classes that are easy to influence. Here in Nizhny Novgorod there has recently been a lawsuit against local Hisb¬ut¬Tahrir organization. 15 members were arrested — and all of them are either half¬educated students of Islamic schools or Daghestanis that had to give up studying in schools because of the war. They make a perfect reinforcement for radical movements. When I get to talk to such people I realise that they have a very perverted idea of Islam in their minds. They say that they perceive Islam as an expression of military spirit. The life of Prophet Muhammad for them is a story of aggressive way of spreading Islam by means of bloody conquest. They couldn’t even imagine that the amount of those died during Prophet Muhammad’s jihad wars totals to no more than one thousand people.

— However they say that Russian traditional Hanafi Islam with tolerance being its peculiarity is now giving way to a more aggressive Hanbali Islam. Is it really so?

— I wouldn’t say that local Islam is changing its trend. More than that I doubt that Russian Muslims come to know such particulars as religious and legal trends in Sunni Islam — mazhabs. For example, traditional mazhab in Northern Caucasus is Shafi. Yet Azerbaijanis that come here and face local Hanafi traditions come to think that back at home they performed prayers in the wrong way, they don’t see any ideological ground in this difference. Besides in the 1990s there was a large outburst of Saudi religious literature in our country, in particular of books by Jamil Zeno, advocate of traditional Saudi Hanbali trend of Islam. And there are thousands of Russian Muslims who acquired their knowledge of Islam from those books regarding them as a plot of guiding principles. Yet since they don’t understand the ideological difference they are quite flexible and convert to our tolerant Hanafi mazhab quite easily.

— You say that newcomers from the Caucasus get to know here that Islam isn’t all about aggression. Nevertheless in Russia Islam is associated predominantly with these military people. How come?

— I think that such association is a long¬running tradition that came to this world together with Prophet Muhammad. From the very first years of his mission Christian world perceived him as a pseudo prophet and Antichrist. So Muslims feel being a grudge for several centuries now. And I think it takes much more than simply saying that Islam is a religion of peace and that Islam doesn’t approve of terrorism. No matter how many conferences we hold and what fatwas (decisions upon contemporary issues made by the supreme religious body) we issue it’s not going to work.

— And what is going to work then?

— Education. It takes getting people think our way to prevent proliferation of terrorism. May be reestablishing a Tatar national neighbourhood with a religious center and national schools, kindergartens and halal stores might help. But anyway we are most likely to remain with what we have now unless our government assists religious education.

— When you spoke of national Tatar neighbourhood did you mean that other national minorities should have their national structures?

— Certainly. But I think that Tatars enjoy a privileged status in Russia determined by Russian history. Tatars and Russians, Muslims and Orthodox are the two peoples who founded towns and cities in this country, the two nationalities who founded the country itself.

— Are you satisfied with the results of the forum?

— The forum was held on the National Unity Day and this added a specific note to the mood of the event. For Muslim entity national unity requires unity among Muslims in the first place. Not all of Russian muftis came to participate in the work of the forum proving that unity is the very thing we don’t have. And this rises still more questions to be solved. We stand for a unified Religious Board of Muslims in Russia but do all the muftis that now are in power need it? Would authorities find it convenient? Is Russian Orthodox Church that enjoys some rights unavailable to other faiths ready to cooperate with it?

— So are you an advocate of the unified Religious Board of Muslims?

— I am. And I’ll tell you more: if we don’t have such a body soon to replace the 50 existing Religious Boards we’ll have a hundred in a couple of years. The problem here is that old officials don’t really know how to cope with contemporary conditions. And as a result we get a prerevolutionary situation: the heads can’t rule in a new fashion and the lower classes can’t live in the old fashion. But revolution isn’t the best solution. I truly believe that every generation can develop its intellectual elite to change life for the better. But unfortunately today we have none. Unfortunately today the Caucasus is approaching.

Interview by Ivan Sukhov published in Vremya Novostey newspaper November, 2005

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