Russia’s Muslim community has been unsettled by the recent destruction of a mosque in the northern Russian town of Novy Urengoy. Local Muslims began worshiping at the mosque in 1996, after repairing the decaying building. Maksim Shevchenko, a well-known pro-Kremlin journalist who specializes in minority issues in Russia, wrote with indignation: “If the authorities in the country destroy mosques instead of performing routine operative work battling terrorism, this means only one thing—the security services wish for the expansion of the support base of extremism and terrorism. The security services consciously work for such expansion, so that they can be in business, enjoy budgetary funds, ranks and careers” (Kavkazskaya Politika, May 3).
Another well-known figure, Chechen lawyer Murad Musaev said that by demolishing the mosque, the town’s authorities had antagonized all Muslims regardless of their status (Islamnews.ru, May 5). Even an outspoken ethnic-Tatar supporter of the Kremlin, Rais Suleimanov, was critical of the mosque’s demolition. Instead of destroying the building, he said, the authorities should have replaced the people in charge of the mosque and prevented extremists from attending the place of worship. The fact that the authorities plan to build an entertainment center on the site of the former mosque is likely to provoke additional resentment among Muslims, according to the expert. At the same time, another Russian expert on radical Islam, Roman Silantyev, endorsed the move, saying that “this mosque was a hotbed of terrorists and extremists. Its imam, Isomitdin Akbarov, who was killed by someone [sic], was on the international wanted list for participation in a terrorist organization” (Islamnews.ru, May 6).
Novy Urengoy is a northern Russian city located in Yamal-Nenets Autonomous Oblast, with a population of about 115,000. The city, along with the region itself, is known for its significance in the production and transportation of natural gas. About 15 percent of the population of the city is made up of ethnic Muslims, including Tatars, Nogais, Kumyks, Chechens, Azerbaijanis and others, according to 2010 Russian census. Despite this, the government disregarded the feelings of a significant proportion of the city’s population and demolished the mosque, which had an estimated 1,500 parishioners (Alfurkan.ru, May 5).
The city authorities planned to demolish the mosque back in 2009, saying that the building was old and unsuitable for religious gatherings. Instead, they promised to build a new mosque. However, the parishioners said the new mosque was built for a competing Muslim organization and was too small to accommodate all interested Muslims. The city also refused to provide the Muslims with an alternative plot of land to build a new mosque (Ura.ru, June 25, 2009).
The demolition of the mosque is not the only problem the Muslims of Novy Urengoy have faced. In April, local police brutally beat up dozens of North Caucasians. According to the leaders of the local Chechen diaspora, the authorities have targeted Chechens in particular (Kavkazskaya Politika, April 30).
Chechen lawyer Murad Musaev said that some actions against Muslims, such as attacks on the Koran, on female Muslims and on places of worship, invariably produce a backlash in the Muslim community. According to Musaev, in the ongoing struggle between moderate and radical Muslims, the latter can now say to the moderates: “Look at your infidel friends, this is how they respect you, how they love Islam and Muslims—they forbid the Koran and hadith, undress your sisters, imprison imams, destroy mosques!” (Islamnews.ru, May 5).
Russian media largely ignored the demolition of the mosque in Novy Urengoy along with the uproar among Muslims, indicating once again how widely Islamophobia is spread in the country. It is hard to see, however, how this policy can be sustainable in the long run. The Russian Federation’s Muslim population was estimated at 16 million in 2009 (Pew Research Center), a figure that has likely further increased since then. Muslim birthrates in Russia are higher and life expectancy is longer on average than the birthrates and life expectancy of ethnic Russians, which means the proportion of Muslims to Russians is set to increase over time. Given these trends, the Russian government needs to find common ground with its growing Muslim minority population.
Moscow’s policies toward Muslims, especially those not under direct government control, are becoming harsher and also quite divergent geographically. The authorities in regions with strong Muslim traditions like Chechnya, Ingushetia and Dagestan try to make use of Islam to broaden their support base. In areas where Muslims are relatively new, such as ethnic Russian majority regions and northern Russia, the authorities tend to put pressure on Islamic organizations and Muslim groups that do not assimilate with the surrounding Russian population (and therefore stop being Muslim in any meaningful way). Disparate policies vis-à-vis Muslims create essentially different legal regimes in different Russian regions, even though Moscow always insists on common legal practices across the country. Apart from radicalizing some Muslims, government pressure also solidifies boundaries within the country, as some territories appear to be tolerant toward Islam while others are virtual no-go zones for Muslims.