Despite centuries of strong Russian influence and decades of communist rule under the former Soviet Union, Muslims in the region - now consisting of countries organized as the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) - never lost their Muslim identity. Much to the alarm of the ruling secular elites in those states and in the west, especially the US, there is a growing tide of Islamic revivalism among Muslim populations, with official reactions varying from open hostility towards all Islamic groups to attempts to co-opt the more ‘moderate’ and congenial ones.
But in order to understand the nature and extent of the tide of Islamic revival in each country, it is important to keep a proper perspective of events there. Certainly no CIS Muslim country is on the verge of bringing about an Islamic revolution, as Iran has done, or even of adopting officially a vague declaration of basic Islamic principles, as Pakistan has done. Not only are all current rulers former senior communists hostile to Islam, but they are also careful not to antagonise the influential Russian minorities in their countries, or the government in Moscow, which protects them.
Statistics show that the non-Muslim minorities in the Muslim Central Asian countries continue to be substantial, nine years after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. They form, for instance, 17 percent of the population in Kirghyzia, 6.5 percent in Uzbekistan, 8 percent in Turkmenistan, 4 percent in Tajikistan, and more than 34 percent in Kazakhstan. There are also substantial Muslim minorities in non-Muslim countries. But, unlike the Muslim countries of the CIS , these Muslim minorities are unable to influence their governments in terms of policy formulation. Russia, for example, which has between 20 and 22 million Muslims (out of a population of 150 million), does not attach to them the importance they deserve as a significant religious minority.
All the CIS elites, whether Muslim or not, are alarmed by the growing awareness among Muslims of their Islamic identity. This increasing awareness is shown by the growth of Islamic organisations and publications, the increasing number of imported Islamic works by such scholars as Sayyid Qutb and Maulana Maududi, and the increasing number of mosques and Islamic centres wherever, and whenever, the authorities allow them to be built. Even clinics are now being established in both Muslim and non-Muslim cities for the medical supervision of female circumcision according to Islamic rites.
A good example of the authorities’ unreasonable reaction to these ‘moderate’ Islamic developments was recently provided by Moscow’s refusal to allow the establishment of a centre for the two million Muslims there, which is designed to house a mosque, a hotel, a clinic and an orphanage. The centre was supposed to relieve the pressure on the city’s five mosques, strained by the many Muslim refugees arriving after being displaced by regional wars such as those in Karabakh and Chechenya. Church authorities and bogus environmental groups intervened to stop the project, with Church leaders saying that they did not want a mosque in the area.
But although Moscow totally ignores the large percentage of Muslims in the Russian federation, as betrayed by its destruction of Chechenya and support of for Milosevic’s ‘ethnic cleansing’ in Bosnia and Kosova, its reaction to the Islamic revival appears more measured than the wild responses of Muslim rulers, whether in Central Asia, the North Caucasus or the Russian Federation.
The savage crackdown on Uzbek ulama and Muslim organisations by president Islam Karimov, is hardly parallelled by what is happening in Russia itself. Muslim politicians and leaders of Islamic organisations that are not looked upon favourably by the Uzbek dictator are likely to find themselves arrested and sentenced to long prison-terms. Imam Hassan Mirkamalov of the Atollah Khan Mosque in Namangam, for example, was jailed for eight years in May 1998 for being the leader of a group called Tauba. Others were accused of membership of the Islamic Revival Party (for details of the savage crackdown on Uzbek Muslims, see Crescent International, June 1-15, 1998).
In the North Caucasus, Muslim leaders are exercised by what they call the ‘spread of Wahhabi fundamentalism’. The Ingush leader, Ruslan Oshier, was the latest to sound the alarm-bells against this new ‘threat’, when he held a press-conference in Moscow in May. ‘The threat of Wahhabism, which has taken root in the North Caucasus, is gaining strength every day, especially in Daghestan and Chechenya,’ he said.
In a sense the Russians see Islam as an ally against US hegemony, taking comfort, for instance, in Iran’s and the Sudan’s anti-US stances, but strenuously resisting the importation of influence of their Islamic policies or doctrines, and on occasion publicly alerting the west, Europe and the US to the threat of Islam in the CIS region.
But any cooperation between Washington and Moscow in evolving joint programmes directed at Islamic activism is limited by Russian suspicions of US military and business activities in the region, which was highly developed long before Washington’s war on Moscow’s Serbian ally. Not only is NATO nosing around in Belarius, but it is also constructing a security alliance between Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia.
Washington may have the last laugh because Moscow has burnt its bridges to Muslims by its support for Serbia’s high-profile genocide in Kosova. It is true that Muslim countries should have taken Moscow to task over its destruction of Chechenya, but this time it is doubtful whether Russia’s tactical wooing of Muslim countries as allies against the US can work.
Only one thing can bind the US and Russia to a joint alliance in the CIS, and that is the unmistakable spread of Islamic activism in the region.
Muslimedia: August 1-15, 1999