Muslims in Russia
Mosque and state
Jul 13th 2006
From The Economist print edition
Tsarist Russia used Muslim notables to shore up the state. Despite the Chechen war, a similar entente is not inconceivable, even now
"WHEN the ruler of a multinational empire bases his authority on one great religion, how many other religions can the empire—and indeed, the emperor—accommodate, and then turn into an instrument of power? The Ottoman sultans, when faced with this question, found a ready-made answer in Islamic theology. As “people of the book” with common roots in the holy texts of the Abrahamic tradition, Christians and Jews were to be treated with respect—though not on a par with followers of the predominant Muslim faith—so long as they remained loyal to the empire.
The Russian tsars, who derived a big part of their mystique and authority from being anointed Christian monarchs—indeed, the only Orthodox Christian emperors in the world after the fall of Byzantium—faced a similar dilemma: how to present themselves, and legitimise their realm, in the eyes of their Muslim subjects.
To the discomfiture of the Russian Orthodox clergy, the Tsarist regime's response was pragmatic; it had no qualms about demanding loyalty from Muslims in the name of Allah and his Prophet. In the 1860s, when Russian commanders swept through Central Asia, they skilfully played the Muslim card.
The Russian authorities knew they had to compete for the loyalty of their Muslim subjects against rival powers which were part of Dar al-Islam, the area where Islam prevailed. In this task repression alone would not suffice. The Russian state felt it must co-operate actively with at least some Muslim leaders in support of commonly agreed goals, such as social peace and respect for family obligations.
The attractions of a concordat between Russian nationalists and Muslims are still a factor in the Kremlin's calculations, even in a Russia which this week was rejoicing over the assassination of a Muslim Chechen warlord, Shamil Basayev. To this day there are some Muslim leaders in Russia, such as Talgat Tajuddin, the mufti pictured above with President Vladimir Putin, who are ready to line up with conservative Russian nationalists against things they all dislike—such as American policy or gay rights.
In tsarist times, as a new book by an American historian, Robert Crews, demonstrates, the Russians were even more single-minded in wooing Muslim notables. Soon after capturing Tashkent, General Mikhail Chernyayev entered an elaborate compact with local religious scholars, guaranteeing to uphold their authority, and that of other Muslim institutions, such as mosques and charities. In return, the greybeards had to deliver the loyalty of local people.
The repeated clashes between the Russian and Ottoman empires are sometimes portrayed as a classic “civilisational” war which pitted Christianity against Islam—with the result that every territorial adjustment prompted mass migrations by Christians and Muslims left on the “wrong” side of a new border. But that is not the whole story of Russia's southward expansion, says Mr Crews. Imam Shamil, the legendary leader of Chechen resistance to the tsars, had local Muslim enemies as well as Russian ones; and some Muslims fought on the Russian side.
As Mr Crews argues in his original and insightful book, the compact between tsarist and Islamist authority was deep and elaborate. As in most forms of theocracy, the Russian regime not merely tolerated the clerical elite; it shored up the elite by helping it to fight heresy and uphold sharia law. Given that Sunni (unlike Shia) Islam lacks a formal clerical structure, the Russians sometimes had to coax one into existence by boosting the authority of their favourites. But enforcement of the law, as the book shows, could not always be left to Islamic judges. Representatives of the Russian state often found themselves adjudicating (in strictly Islamic terms) the grievances of their Muslim subjects.
Mr Crews's research, much of it conducted in the newly accessible archives of provincial Russian places such as Ufa and Kazan, is of huge relevance to the present day. Although modern Russia has a secular constitution, not a theocratic one, some elements of the old relationship between the state and Russian Orthodoxy are being rebuilt. But from the state's point of view, there is a dilemma: how far can the compact with Orthodoxy go without precluding a similar one with the Russian Federation's 15m or so Muslim subjects?
The idea of some entente between modern Russian nationalism and Russian Muslims is not as absurd as it seems. Among the ideologues of neo-nationalism in Russia, there have been several figures of Muslim-Tatar background who subscribe to the ideal of a Eurasian or “Slavic-Turkic” union—roughly coinciding with the Soviet Union—whose common enemy is global, or Anglo-Saxon, capitalism.
But in other moods, contemporary Russian nationalism is stridently anti-Muslim. At least some of the time, the Russian Orthodox hierarchy portrays the war in Chechnya as a crusade against resurgent Islam—and similar rhetoric can be heard from the Russian state. But is it in Russia's interest to call the Chechen war a “civilisational” one, when that could alienate so many Muslims who live deep in the Slavic heartland? Russians, including Russian Muslims, are already arguing on this very point, and will continue to do so."