Reconstructing Islam in Russia

Reconstructing Islam in Russia
Analysis: The opening of Moscow's Cathedral Mosque is a landmark decision for Russia, which has been battling with a bad PR image in the Muslim world.
6 min read
24 September, 2015
Russia takes a carrot and stick approach towards Islam in its country [AFP]

On Wednesday, one of Europe's largest mosques opened its doors in the Russian capital, Moscow, with space for 10,000 worshippers.

The Moscow Cathedral Mosque was desperately needed in the city, which has Europe's largest Muslim population - in excess of two million.

Previously there were just five houses of worship for Muslims in the capital. Congregations during Friday prayers regularly spilled out onto the bitterly cold Moscow streets.

Very broadly speaking, Russia has three groups of Muslims - the largely pro-state Tartars, more rebellious and sometimes extremist-linked Muslims in the Caucuses, and more recent immigrants from Central Asia.

This Eid al-Adha, also known as Kurban Buiram, marks a new era for Russia where the state is appearing to try to reclaim Islam, after years of troubled relations with Muslims inside and outside its borders.

New age

Putin's rule has also coincided with a much greater centralisation of the Muslim religious experience.

"There is a tradition that goes back to Catherine the Great of having formal representation of Muslims through councils," says Roland Dannreuther, an academic on Russian affairs at the University of Westminster.

"After the collapse of the Soviet Union this disintegrated. It became a much more competitive environment with an increase in religiosity and observance among Russian Muslims. There was obvious the very serious insurgency in Chechnya, while Tartarstan was much more stable. These two groups went in very different directions."

Wednesday's opening ceremony was attended by Turkey's president, Raccip Tayyip Erdogan - who has been a leading opponent of Russia's ally in the region, Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.

Altogether, the stunning gold and mint-green domed mosque has been great PR scoop for the Russian government.

It is an opportune moment for Putin, who is painting himself as a Muslim-friendly statesman with a hard-line approach to extremism.

Saudi-inspired Salafism has been creeping into the country, particularly in Chechnya where many foreign jihadi fighters flocked during the two insurgencies.

The North Caucus territory has returned to relative stability under the Islamist Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, but unrest has spilled over into neighbouring republics.

There are also concerns about the hundreds of Russian Muslims who are fighting as part of extremist outfits in Syria's war.

Repression and rapproachment 

Dannreuther says Putin adopted a three-pronged approach to dealing with the insurgencies in the Caucuses, and this in some ways reflects Assad's approach to the conflict.

One was a military campaign to repress the opposition, the second was to isolate foreign Muslim (and usually Saudi-backed) groups, and the third was to enhance a state-approved version of Islam which is loyal to Moscow.

"There is a very strong effort to establish state control of religious identity in Russia and to defeat radical Islam and Muslims linked to terrorist groups," Dannreuther says.

"In part, Russia is like Syria which is similarly a multi-ethnic and multi-religious country. Russia sees support for Assad as part of a process that is not dissimilar to its own experiences of establishing state authority over religious extremism."

Read more about Russia's military build-up in Syria in our two part series on foreign support for Bashar al-Assad

Moscow is on the verge of deciding whether its army and air force engage with the Islamic State group, and possibly against Assad's other Islamist and nationalist opponents on the battlefield.

"Muslim leaders of Russia are courageously using their authority to resist the extremist propaganda," Putin said at the opening of the mosque.

"I'd like to express huge respect to these people who are carrying out really heroic work."

For decades, Russia was perceived negatively by many Muslims due to the Soviet Union's state-promoted atheism, the invasion of Afghanistan, and the brutal suppression of a nationalist-Islamist-tinged Chechen uprising.

Putin's United Russia is an amalgamation of many Russian nationalist movements, while far-right paramilitary groups have murdered hundreds of Muslim immigrants from Central Asia and the Caucuses.

Russian identity is often split between two concepts - one on an "ethnic Russia" and the other based on citizenship. Putin is keen on promoting the latter.

"Unfortunately he relies on a lot of support from some of the more Russian nationalist groups, so there is always a tension with that," said Dannreuther.

Putin has been stalwart in his support of Assad throughout the war, both with words and weapons. However, Assad is accused of being responsible for the lion's share of the 250,000 war dead and, for this, Putin is a reviled figure among the Syrian opposition.

The Islamic State group has also committed atrocities on a biblical scale. Russia insists that stability and dialogue is the only way to combat Islamic extremism and end Syria's conflict.

Secretly, there is no doubt that Moscow wants Assad to win the war first and then dictate peace on victor's terms.

Peace broker

Russia has hosted numerous meetings between leading figures in the Syrian regime and the opposition, and is taking the lead in the crisis after the US began to take a more backseat role.

Dannreuther said that, after Russian intervention in Ukraine, Putin was trying to repair frosty relations between the West and Moscow by being a key player in bringing peace to Syria.

     The image that Putin tries to put across is of a secular, anti-Muslim and anti-religious Europe.
- Roland Dannreuther

Putin's vision faces huge resistance from Syrian opposition - Islamist and secular alike - along with the Gulf states, who are keen to project their own power over Syria.

Russia's relationship with the Middle East has been rocky, despite early support for democratic movements in the Arab Spring. 

It took a more critical approach when the West extended its mandate in Libya, from a Russian-backed no-fly-zone to launching airstrikes on regime targets. It then backed and encouraged groups looking to overthrow the leader, Muammar Gaddafi.

This led many in the Arab world to view Russia as an enemy of democratic change - particularly among supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood movement.

However, after protests were repressed and rebels took up arms, Putin is keen for a reappraisal of Russia's image in the Muslim world and prove he was right all along on his emphasis on reform and retaining the status quo.

"The image that Putin tries to put across is of a secular, anti-Muslim and anti-religious Europe, while Russia is more of a multi-ethnic society where Islam and Christianity works together," said Dannreuther.

"You see this in Kazan [the capital of Tartarstan] where you have the mosque and Orthodox Church right next to each other."

Russian perceptions

Luiza Khabibullina is a Russian-Tartar Muslim and said she is overjoyed with the symbolism of the Moscow Cathedral Mosque.

"I believe it sets a good example that all religions can exist together in one country and respect one another," she said.

"There have been many conflicts between Muslims and Orthodox in Russia over hundreds of years. Putin supports a project for the construction of mosques, as well as churches in Russia, and it sets a great example of how the two religions can live peacefully side-by-side."

However, it will be will be a more difficult task to convince Muslims in the Arab world that his hard-line approach to "Islamic extremism" is the right one - particularly after centuries of European-US intervention have led to yet further bloodshed and colonisation.