Russian Muslim Organizations Split over Local Court’s Banning of Koran Translation

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 10 Issue: 176

Ravil Gainutdin, head of the Union of Muslims of Russia (Source: RIA Novosti)

Something completely unexpected recently took place in Russia: a provincial court in Novorossiysk designated a Russian translation of the Koran as extremist material (http://echo.msk.ru/blog/echomsk/1161702-echo/). The court’s decision stipulated that all copies of the publication should be confiscated and eliminated. The court based its decision on the fact that the Koran “negatively evaluates a person or a group of people according to their belonging to a certain religion (in particular, to non-Muslims).” The court said the holy book also “contains statements that point to advantages of one person or group of people over other people, based on their relationship with religion—in particular, Muslims over non-Muslims,” and so on.

The translation of the Koran in question was done by Elmir Kuliev, an Azerbaijani scholar, philosopher, linguist and orientalist. It is the most widely used translation in Russia because it is considered the best Russian-language translation. Kuliev authored 50 monographs, articles and translations on the history and philosophy of Islam, comparative religious studies and social philosophy (www.livelib.ru/author/321863).

Unexpectedly, an organization that aspires to be a national Muslim organization, the Russian Association of Islamic Accord (also called the All-Russian Muftiate), supported the court’s decision (www.interfax-religion.ru/?act=news&div=52719). The head of the organization, Salman Farid (a.k.a. Farid Khaidarov), noted that the translation did not correspond to the type of Islam followed by Russian Muslims. According to Farid, Kuliev’s work corresponds theologically to the Salafi school (http://newsru.com/religy/21sep2013/koransud.html). It is hard to understand how the Koran can be divided into Salafi and non-Salafi versions. Based on such views, all translations of the Koran over the past two centuries could be attributed to “Salafists.” At the very least, it is clear that there is no Sufi interpretation of the Koran—and there cannot be, by definition.

The Russian Association of Islamic Accord is the youngest Islamic structure in the Russian Federation, created to balance the three other major Muslim organizations: the Union of Muslims of Russia (headed by Ravil Gainutdin), the Coordination Center of Muslims of the North Caucasus (headed by Ismail Berdiev) and the Central Spiritual Board of Muslims (headed by Talgat Tajiuddin). Unlike these three established Muslim organizations, the Russian Association of Islamic Accord has only a scattered presence in various parts of Russia and so far has shown little resilience or ability to carve out parishes from the existing Muslim organizations (www.ura.ru/content/perm/26-08-2013/news/1052164086.html). Essentially, a fight is going on between Tatar clerics within these organizations. With the exception of the North Caucasus, all the muftis and imams of mosques across Russia are ethnic Tatars. The title of the Russian Association of Islamic Accord as the All-Russian Muftiate is misleading because it by no means represents all 20 million Muslims of Russia. In fact, this organization barely represents 1 percent of all Muslims of Russia.

The largest Muslim organization and the one closest to the Kremlin, the Council of Russian Muftis, which is led by Ravil Gainutdin, addressed an open letter to President Vladimir Putin, asking him to overturn the court’s decision on the Koran and to order that the case be reinvestigated. “We demand the case be returned for further consideration in accordance with all legal procedures and, especially, with the involvement of expert assessment by specialists-professionals in Islam” (www.muslim.ru/articles/109/4682/). Speaking of the court ban, one of the most influential Muslim clerics in Russia, the chairman of the Spiritual Board of Muslims of the Asian part of Russia, Nafigulla Ashirov, noted that “no denomination can be considered a religion if it does not proclaim its superiority over other religions. The Koran cannot say that it is permissible to be a pagan or a Christian. Otherwise what kind of a religion would it be?” (http://www.bfm.ru/news/230043?doctype=article).

The position of the oldest Muslim organization in Russia, the Central Spiritual Board of Muslims led by Talgat Tajiuddin, is unknown. The North Caucasian muftis have also kept quiet. Apparently, these organizations are awaiting the Kremlin’s reaction, as they always do.

Meanwhile, the author of the banned translation of the Koran, Elmir Kuliev, was astonished to learn out about the court’s decision. The court did not invite him to the hearing to answer the accusations. Kuliev asked a well-known Chechen lawyer, Murad Musaev, to represent his interests. The lawyer already stated that he would appeal against the court’s decision, as the court had not even conducted a forensic analysis of the forbidden text (http://golosislama.ru/news.php?id=19432). Apart from the translation of the Koran, three other works by Kuliev may be outlawed. Thus the author himself may end up declared an extremist and barred from entering Russia.

This is not the first attempt to ban Russian translations of the Koran: such attempts were made in Bashkortostan in the past (http://www.islamnews.ru/news-139662.html). The tendency of the Russian courts to outlaw publications sometimes goes to absurd lengths. For example, a newspaper was put on the federal list of extremist publications for publishing a speech delivered by then-president Dmitry Medvedev at a meeting with security forces. The list was made public on the website of the Russian justice ministry (http://top.rbc.ru/politics/27/02/2013/847224.shtml).

The court’s decision outlawing the Koran is a ploy to test the reaction of the Russian Muslim community. A complete ban on the Koran, as during the Soviet period, would be ideal for the authorities. But the situation today is quite different, so completely banning the Koran would spark conflicts between Muslims in Russia and members of other denominations. This dangerous move is a sign of the chaotic thinking inside the Russian bureaucracy, which does not have a clear set of policies for addressing the rising activism among Russian Muslims.