New Challenges to and From the Muslim Communities of the Baltic Countries

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 12 Issue: 204

(Source: The Economist)

The three small Muslim communities in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have had good relations both with the rest of the populations and the governments of these three Baltic countries. But the influx of refugees from Syria and the wider Middle East to Europe is now calling those relations into question. Some portions of the Baltic States’ majority populations are frightened about the possibility that a sudden expansion of Muslim communities inside their countries may threaten their national cultures. At the same time, some of the Baltic Muslims are upset that they are being lumped together with the refugees. These changes have sparked new and occasionally tense political conflicts locally, and this could soon invite outside interference from Moscow, which is perpetually interested in destabilizing the region (Delfi, August 12; The Baltic Times, November 4).

Of the three Baltic States, Estonia has the smallest Muslim community: 1,508 Estonians declared themselves followers of Islam in the 2011 census. While there were two Muslim groups in Estonia prior to 1940, most of the Muslims living there now trace their roots to arrivals during the Soviet occupation. Traditionally moderate, the Muslims of Estonia are distinguished by the fact that Sunnis and Shias worship together, something almost unheard of elsewhere.

Latvia’s Muslim population is slightly larger, an estimated 2,000, but is older: the first Muslims appeared in Latvian lands after the 1877 Russo-Turkish war, and additional “ethnic Muslims” arrived during Soviet times. Almost all are Sunnis, and the center of their public life is the Islamic Cultural Center in Riga. As in Estonia, the community has had good relations both with the government and the surrounding society.

Lithuania’s Muslim community consists of two basic groups, the Lithuanian Tatars, who arrived in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania half a millennium ago and today number about 3,200, and a smaller group of Muslims who immigrated during Soviet times. As a result of Soviet depredations, there is no mosque in Vilnius, although there are two in villages nearby; there is a third Lithuanian Tatar mosque in Raizai, and a larger cathedral mosque in the pre-war capital of Kaunas. The Lithuanian Tatars have enjoyed the support of the post-1991 Lithuanian government and have good relations with Lithuanian officials and people.

The good relations these three small Muslim communities have had with their surrounding community would almost certainly have continued well into the future were it not for the European Union’s requirement that Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania absorb some of the Muslim refugees currently streaming in from Syria and the wider Middle East. This has provoked fears among these countries’ titular nations that they are about to be overrun by Muslims and has even sparked parliamentary debates about banning burqas, even though officials say that they have not yet seen any being worn on the streets of Baltic cities (Delfi, August 12; The Baltic Times, November 4; The Economist, September 14).

Unfortunately, in these discussions, there has been a widespread failure to distinguish between the refugees and the indigenous Muslim communities, a trend that has led to fears among the latter that the surrounding population now is hostile to them. Consequently, some Baltic Muslim groups were prompted to take a more aggressive stance and demand even better treatment than they have enjoyed up to now because the size of the Islamic communities is growing.

Ahmed Robert Klimovics, an official of the Islamic Cultural Center in Riga, has predicted that the number of Muslims in Latvia is set to increase so rapidly that, by 2050, his country will be “an Islamic state” and part of the Caliphate. “Islam is the best way to conquer the world,” he suggested (, October 13). Most Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians remain tolerant of the small Muslim communities and committed to the idea that the three of them should take in Muslim migrants not only because of their duties to the EU but also because of the way European countries took them in during the period of the Soviet occupation. However, a vocal minority in each country is frightened, as many Europeans are about these trends—especially when they are put so bluntly as Klimovics has.

A danger exists that the radicalization of opinion among the titular nations of the Baltic countries and a corresponding radicalization of opinion among some of the Muslims there will become a vicious circle, with each side provoking the other. Most responsible leaders of these three countries and the Muslim communities there want to prevent this type of outcome; but others may try to exploit such a situation, either domestically or internationally.

That danger is compounded by the fact that some Russian activists see Baltic-Muslim tensions as a potential wedge issue. On the one hand, they believe that they can play up anti-Muslim attitudes to boost anti-EU feelings in the Baltic countries by playing up Russia’s supposed support for “traditional national values.” And on the other, they are convinced that “the Muslim problem” in the Baltic countries is something that can be exploited both to boost the claims of the ethnic-Russian communities there and to blacken the reputation of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania internationally.

At present, this is a problem more in prospect than in reality; but it is one that should be watched, especially as Muslim migrants begin to arrive in the Baltic countries and as Moscow continues to look for ways to exploit what Russian activists are already calling “challenges” those countries supposedly cannot meet (, November 7).