Russian Islam or Islam in Russia?

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 13 Issue: 12

Relations between Russian authorities and the country’s Muslim subjects have been a sensitive issue since Islam appeared within the limits of the Russian Empire. Islam today remains one of the most problematic issues in Russian politics and is the main destabilizing force that could trigger the final demise of a once mighty empire. The country, which has incorporated millions of Muslims since Ivan the Terrible in the 16th century, cannot decide what to do with those today who adhere to Islam.

Having failed to evangelize the peoples under its rule (, Russia attempted to control the Muslim population with government decrees. On September 22, 1788, Catherine the Great officially established the Orenburg Mohammedan Spiritual Assembly (OMSA), the forerunner of today’s spiritual boards of Muslims, in Ufa (

Since then, the spiritual boards of Muslims in Russia have been used as tools for the authorities against Russian Muslims, not as instruments for the advancement of Muslims’ interests. The primary concern of the spiritual boards has been not about religious instruction among the Muslims, but about transmitting the state’s policies to the Muslim population. The government used the members of the spiritual boards, who were appointed and controlled by the authorities and were essentially part of the state, to oversee the Muslim population. The very same policy that outlived the Russian Empire and the Soviet dictatorship is currently implemented in the contemporary Russian Federation, using the same methods that were used in the 18th century. Spiritual boards of Muslims in Russia have never represented Muslim interests; they have represented the interests of the Russian state in Russia’s Muslim community.

At the end of May, the North Caucasus Federal University was established in Stavropol ( The new university is to become the main supplier of cadres for the federal authorities in the region. Credit for this idea goes to Moscow’s envoy to the North Caucasus Federal District, Aleksandr Khloponin. Having been a successful businessman and the governor of the rich Siberian region of Krasnoyarsk in the recent past, Khloponin’s two-year-long leadership in the North Caucasus has changed little in the region. His statement about the need for yet another institution, a “secular Islamic university” in the North Caucasus (, can produce only smiles. It is the same as establishing a university in the Vatican and declaring it a secular institution. How Moscow’s envoy is going to turn Islam into a secular religion is unclear, but more explanations will likely follow.

It is certain that the authorities rely heavily on the idea of a “secular Islamic university.” Nearly 40,000 people will study in its branches across the North Caucasus ( As then President Dmitry Medvedev said last year, the government would “spare no money” on such universities ( Essentially, Moscow is proposing training political workers on Islam, but this approach will hardly improve the situation amid the ongoing armed conflict in the region. The head of the new university, Alina Levitskaya, stated that the university will help “decrease inter-ethnic and inter-religious tension, prevent the outflow of the Russian-speaking population from the region and create real educational opportunities for youth” ( The statement was very daring against the backdrop of the government’s irrevocable loss of control over the region.

The muftis will be obliged to cooperate with the newly established Islamic university. Moreover, the muftis close to the government even want the future Muslim scholars to receive instruction only inside Russia. The authors of this idea think that this approach somehow will insulate future Russian Muslim scholars from what they regard as the pernicious influence of foreign Muslim radicals ( Officials in the Russian presidential administration likely forgot about the fact that there are young people who have already received Islamic education at various universities abroad. There are no statistical sources on the number of Islamic students abroad, but even if we consider just youth from the North Caucasus, the figure comes to several thousand. Not all of the students return to Russia, but both those who returned and those who did not will pose a challenge for the people who will receive their Islamic education at government educational institutions in Russia. Since foreign-educated people will have received higher quality educations at recognized Islamic educational centers abroad, such as in Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Syria and other countries of the Middle East, they will be regarded more highly by ordinary Muslims than those trained in Russia. In the Russian state-sponsored Islamic university, such sensitive questions as jihad, relations with Christians and others, will certainly be avoided. So only those who receive an Islamic education abroad will be considered free of the Russian state’s influence and, therefore, independent.

Today, authorities are capitalizing on the influence of certain Muslim clerics to maximize the number of ordinary Muslims in the North Caucasus who are not opponents of the state, even though they are not allies of the state either. For example, Sheikh Efendi Chirkeisky has become a kind of new guide for yesterday’s communists of Dagestan, instead of Lenin. In Chechnya, the illusion of wide support for the Kremlin’s puppets in the republic was created on the basis of Kadiry tarikat. Yet, in fact, competition between the murids (initiates into the mystic philosophy of Sufism) on the one side and the government on the other side about who will be better at tricking their opponent is now taking place. If the government strengthens, it will brush aside these games and revert to the language of ultimatums. Murids, in their turn, contemplating the present weakness of the government, are trying to carve out as many concessions as possible from those who were killing them for the past two centuries. The murids are building up their strength, which will allow them to put up armed resistance once they sense that the government is sufficiently weak. At the same time, having allied with the authorities for the time being, the murids are losing support from young people, who are increasingly joining the Salafis because of their collaboration with Kremlin backed figures, like Kadyrov.

Thus, the authorities’ attempts to assert total control over the Muslim community might spark protests. The Muslims of the North Caucasus will perceive this policy as an encroachment on their personal life and deeply intimate parts of their belief system. This will likely result in massive support in the region for those who openly challenge Moscow its local collaborators. In a nutshell, this policy will generate popular indignation and the rise of separatism, which will help the current armed resistance movement in the North Caucasus.