Year after year, Muslims living within the Russian Federation are confronted with the host of issues surrounding the hajj, the Muslim pilgrimage to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia. Of those participating in the hajj, a significant number are Muslims from the North Caucasus, with Dagestanis and Chechens making up the largest number of participants (Dagestan News Agency, December 12, 2006). In light of this, one would think that this purely religious activity, divorced as it is from politics, would not evoke such a negative response from within Russian society. But year after year, the hajj forces Russian society to face the uncomfortable reality that an Islamic renaissance is occurring within the country’s borders.
Using very general figures (since the Russian census never contains any questions about religion) and following well-established traditions, most analysts and Muslim activists list all members of historically Muslim ethnic groups (such as the Tatars, Bashkirs, Chechens, Dagestanis and Circassians) as being adherents of Islam, giving a figure of 14-20 million Muslims in the Russian Federation. This is not really a valid approach, since there are Christian Tatars and Bashkirs, and many people simply consider themselves atheists. This means that the question of numbers will never be fully answered until the government starts including questions regarding religious affiliation on its census, just as it was done in the Russian Empire. In fact, it is notable that even the leaders of the country are unable to come to a consensus, with President Putin quoting the number of Muslims to be “around 20 million,” while Minister Vladimir Zorin has cited a figure of 14.5 million. The leader of the Russian Center for Eastern Politics, Ralif Safin, suggests a total of “over 10 million,” while the Chairman of the “Muslim Committee,” Geidar Jemal insists that the numbers are deliberately underestimated and in fact, reach 30 million (Tatarskii Mir #19).
Using the largest possible number – that of 20 million Muslims – the government of Saudi Arabia issues an annual quota of 20,000 pilgrims to the Russian Federation. It has become traditional for almost two-thirds of these pilgrims to be Dagestani (this past year, 13,200 slots were allocated to the republic, with an additional five thousand more being refused “extra” slots and visas), with Chechens generally coming in second (with a scant 1,500 or so pilgrims in 2006) (Dagestan News Agency, December 12, 2006). In 2006, the number of people from Tatarstan undertaking the hajj doubled to 1,113, leaving the remaining 2,000 or so pilgrimage slots to be distributed among the rest of the Muslim population of the Russian Federation – 15-16 million people (Nezavisimaia gazeta, December 28, 2006). In the last 15-17 years, 130,000 Dagestanis have made the pilgrimage, a number that consists of 70-80% of all Russian citizens who have undertaken the hajj during that time .
Yet many of those who undertake the hajj from Dagestan appear to be doing so for primarily commercial reasons. In 1999, during a visit to Moscow, the author met with a Saudi diplomat who told him that nearly 90% of the Dagestanis who at the time were undertaking the pilgrimage were doing so for purely commercial reasons. Thousands of cars laden with goods head toward Mecca each year, with their drivers thinking only of earning money. Indeed, in the highland regions of Dagestan, roughly a third of the inhabitants have already been to Mecca, and it is often the same men who keep going year after year . In order to deal with this situation, the Russian Federation has limited the quantity of duty-free goods that pilgrims are permitted to bring back into the country. According to the Russian news agency, Interfax, this in turn has caused disputes to erupt along the Russo-Azeri border, as Dagestanis unwilling to pay the customs dues have organized mass disturbances in an attempt to break through .
This has prompted the Russian government to create “regional quotas” based on the estimated Muslim population of each province of the Russian Federation (ITAR-Tass, January 12). Such an official development has been accompanied by many unofficial ones. For example, the number of female pilgrims has grown from year to year, and in 2006, those from Central Russia have even overtaken the number of men making the pilgrimage (Nezavisimaia Gazeta – Religiia, November 28, 2006). There is also a noticeable decrease in the average age of the pilgrims, with only the aged undertaking the hajj in the 1980s and many young people doing so today.
Questions regarding Islam tend to elicit a strong reaction within Russian society, but it should be noted that such issues affect 12-14% of the country’s population and ignoring the views of such a large group can negatively affect the realization of the goals set by Russia’s government and president. As Muslim practice becomes a greater part of society, adjustments have to be made. After the scandalous draft of Chechens into the Russian army in 2002, the new recruits rebelled and demanded for the observance of Islamic dietary restrictions and the right to make the necessary five daily prayers. Though Chechens have subsequently been limited to military service only within their own republic, certain military districts have taken the necessary measures to accommodate other Muslim recruits. In Karelia, for instance, Dagestani soldiers were given the chance to eat appropriate foods and also to visit a mosque (kavkaz.memo.ru, November 21, 2006).
The Russian leadership is also concerned about the fact that it is not only the Northern Caucasus, but also the Volga and Siberian regions that are undergoing a religious renaissance. Thus, according to the Russian Minister of Internal Affairs, “there are over 80 international extremist organizations, some of which are united under 60 large dzhamaats and have 16,000 active members” (Argumenty i Fakty, November 15, 2006). The influence of the Uzbek “Khizb ut-Takhrir al-Islami” group in these regions also reportedly remains quite strong. All of this means that the issue of the hajj will become an increasingly political one in Russia and will affect the role of Islam in the North Caucasus. Russian authorities will probably attempt to control the flow of pilgrims participating in the hajj, but are unlikely to succeed. In the near future, the importance of Islam in Russian society is bound to increase and so will its impact on the role of Muslims in the highly unstable North Caucasus.
1. See: http://www.i-r-p.ru/page/stream-trends/index-638.html.
2. See for example: http://iwpr.net/?apc_state=henicrs2003&l=ru&s=f&o=161383 or
3. See: http://www.interfax-religion.ru/islam/?act=news&div=15891 and http://kavkaz-uzel.ru/newstext/news/id/1172701.html.