Russia Chagrined by U.S. Attempts to Court Russian Muslim Clerics

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 9 Issue: 31

The U.S. Department of State has found itself in an awkward position. The invitation to visit the United States that it extended to Russia’s muftis under the auspices of “Islam in the USA” program was unanimously declined by all the invitees, who expressed views that were severely critical of the U.S. policies toward Muslim countries. Intriguingly, the official explanation offered by Russia’s Muslim religious leaders was that they did not wish to become embroiled in political issues. Yet their response itself was politicized to the point of making their claimed motives look nothing short of laughable (http://www.gazeta.ru/politics/2008/08/01_a_2799148.shtml).

The exact headcount of Russia’s mufti corps is difficult to estimate due to its ongoing divisions and changes of affiliation between the two rival Muslim leadership centers of the Russian Federation. The first of them, known as Russia’s Council of Muftis and headed by Ravil Gainutdin, reportedly comprises a number of religious offices located chiefly in the European part of Russia and the regions adjacent to the Volga River; the core member of this group is the Muftiyat of Tatarstan (http://religion.sova-center.ru/discussions/1BDDB2D/B1BE75A). The other one, known as the Central Department of Religious Affairs of the Russian Federation’s Muslims, operates under the leadership of Talgat Tadjautdin and includes approximately 26 clerics who serve several regions of Russia, the European part of the Commonwealth of Independent States and the Baltic Republics (http://www.religio.ru/dosje/22/66.html). A third organization, the Coordination Center of North Caucasus Muslims’ Religious Organizations headed by Ismail Berdiyev is not affiliated with either of the two and is one of the most powerful religious organizations in today’s Russia (http://www.interfax-religion.ru/?act=news&div=24577).

In truth, the programs run by the U.S. State Department are merely educational tours; similar ones exist for press secretaries of regional leaders, attorneys, journalists, etcetera. Under a typical itinerary, the visitors are shuttled across several states for three weeks of mostly pro forma meetings and program participants—fatigued by extensive travel—rarely have a good word to say about their hosts at the end of their stay. So why does the State Department continue with the program? And does it take into account the organizational affiliations of its visitors, and the predictable reaction of their rival groups, which always try to secure their own government’s support?

All of the Russian muftis, following time-honored rules from the era of Communist party rule, condemned U.S. policies and in protest declined the invitation to visit a country that remains a mystery to most of them. This indicates that the Russian government has started to tighten its grip over all matters involving Muslim clerics. The muftis would not gain any reputation points with their flocks because their actions, once again, revealed their utter subservience to the Kremlin. Moreover, that sort of behavior results in condemnation from the public, which views the mufti corps as yet another arm of the government established for the benefit of the government, not the people. This is why the muftis’ reputation with the public has always been and remains very low (http://www.gazeta.ru/politics/2008/08/01_a_2799148.shtml).

The public’s utter lack of regard for the muftis is becoming a problem for the clerics, who have lately been targeted by armed attackers. For instance, the former chairman of the Coordination Center of North Caucasus’ Religious Organizations, Magomed Albogachiyev, (who concurrently served as the mufti of Ingushetia) was forced to step down before the end of his term under pressure from armed opposition due to attacks and threats (see the newspaper Angusht, no. 59, July 2004, for Albogachiyev’s published statement attributing his early retirement to the social and political situation in the republic).

Several weeks ago Deputy Mufti of Ingushetia Kambulat Zyazikov was wounded and taken to the hospital in serious condition after an assassination attempt. Although one should not discount another plausible explanation for the attack—namely, the close family ties between the victim and Ingush President Murat Zyazikov (http://www.lenta.ru/news/2008/07/24/shoot/).

Another North Caucasus mufti, Anas Pshikhachev of Kabardino-Balkaria, has been roundly criticized for ignoring the interests of the public. Pshikhachev also happens to be one of the three former participants of the State Department program that visited the United States last year under the program’s auspices (http://www.regnum.ru/news/fd-south/chechnya/991435.html).

In Chechnya, the Muslim clerics have traditionally limited their activities to providing guidance to the public in the realm of procedural issues. Today, however, this is no longer enough for the pro-Moscow Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, who has called upon the muftis to step up their efforts to combat Salafist ideology, the growing drug abuse problem, and the increasing disintegration of the essential Chechen traditions under pressure from both Salafism and Europe’s unbridled influence. The Mufti of Chechnya, Sultan Mirzoyev, also has to deal with the challenge of ensuring the return of the former rebel fighters—yet another task assigned to religious leaders delivering sermons in mosques across Chechnya.

In Dagestan, the efforts of Mufti Ahmad-Hajji Abdullayev are focused on defusing internal tensions within the Muslim populace fueled by the dislike of Sheikh Said of Chirkey, who is viewed as a government puppet (http://kavkaz-uzel.ru/newstext/news/id/1219377.html). In some villages, residents began to shun Friday prayers. The same sentiment is driving shifting public loyalties toward religious figures that are closer to the public interests rather than those sheikhs and muftis who chose to align themselves with the government and became government officials.

In Adygeya and Krasnodar Krai, Mufti Nurbi Emizh has reason to be calm, not least because his region has no armed opposition. However, Emizh has to cope with problems of a different kind. His troubles come from those repatriating ethnic Adygs who, upon returning to their homeland, have found their mufti to be nothing but a government official and have consequently become critical of him. In response, the mufti of Adygeya opined that ethnic Adygs returning from Middle Eastern countries should not be allowed to meddle in the matters of religion. According to Emizh, the returnees have a different mentality, while all Adygs would do well to remember that they live in a country where laws must be respected above all. The mufti gets rid of his newly repatriated opponents by arranging their deportation for “violation of passport regulations,” as was the case with Ramadan Tsei, a religiously degreed man who became an enemy of Mufti Emizh (http://www.adygi.ru/index.php?link=news&action=show&id=4). Emizh is not happy about the influx of returning Adygs, who are creating a number of issues, including the challenges of providing them with religious guidance.

Therefore, all of the muftis invited by the U.S. State Department with the goal of promoting the operations of America’s Islamic organizations have intimately close ties to the Kremlin’s ideologues and would never dare make any independent moves without permission from the policymakers in the Kremlin and the Russian Foreign Ministry. The State Department might as well send the invitations to the muftis straight to the Kremlin and the Foreign Ministry and await a response from the government, not from the invited clerics.