Nov 26, 2015

Sultans and tsars: Russia has always had an ambivalent relationship with Islam | The Economist

VLADIMIR PUTIN will get a lot of attention in the Western world, some of it approving, by lashing out against Turkey's rulers for "Islamising" the country. A day after Turkey downed a Russian fighter, the Russian president declared that:
The problem is not in the tragedy we faced yesterday, the problem is much deeper...We see—and not only we, I assure you the entire world sees—that the current leadership of Turkey has been for a number of years pursuing a purposeful policy of...Islamisation of the country.
Not so many people will take notice of the second part of Mr Putin's statement, which stressed that Islam was a great world religion with a historic presence in Russia. "We ourselves support Islam and will continue doing so, but the point at issue is the support of a more radical branch," he insisted.
People in the West who see Mr Putin as a "civilisational warrior" against the forces of a globally resurgent Islam would be well advised to study the president's statement in its entirety. Both now and and in the past, Russia's rulers have always had mixed feelings about Muslims.
It's true that successive wars between the Russian and Ottoman empires were, among other things, conflicts between a Christian theocracy and a Muslim theocracy. But theocracies can encompass exceptions; just as the Ottoman empire had some loyal Christian subjects (whose position gradually became unbearable), the tsar always had loyal Muslim communities under his sway, not only on the empire's southern rim but in the heart of European Russia. Compacts between the tsar and Muslim spiritual leaders underpinned these relationships and they were generally respected.
Things are not so different now. Today's Russia has around 16.5m Muslim citizens plus 4m other Muslim residents, notes Alexey Malashenko, an authority on Russian Islam, in a recently published commentary for the Carnegie Moscow Center, a think-tank. In at least notional charge of these believers there is a Russo-Islamic establishment which cultivates cordial relations with officialdom, as well as with the Russian Orthodox church. One of Russia's certified Muslim leaders, Ravil Gainutdin, is pictured above, with Mr Putin at the opening of a mosque in Moscow, with Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, between them. But this tutelage of Russia's Muslims is not completely successful, says Mr Malashenko; he describes the Russian umma as "divided, despised and defiant" with possibly half a million nurturing some sympathy for Islamic State's ideas, though not necessarily for its terrorist methods.  
And there is one part of Russia, Chechnya, where Mr Putin's place-holder, Ramzan Kadyrov enforces a pretty tough version of Islamic law. Grozny, the Chechen capital, is now a much harder place for a woman to walk about bare-headed than the centre of Istanbul. In a rare public quarrel between two office-holders in Russia, Mr Kadyrov recentlydenounced and threatened a judge in the Russian Far East who had banned, on grounds of "extremism" a book of Koranic verses and commentary.
Mr Putin's personal feelings about Islam, as expressed in public, have been somewhat contradictory. When challenged by a French reporter about human rights in Chechnya, hereplied with a ribald offer to arrange for the questioner's Islamic circumcision. But he has also said that in the view of "certain thinkers", Orthodox Christianity, his own faith, was closer to Islam than to Roman Catholicism. In a speech in Malaysia in 2003, he stressed that Russia was historically "intertwined with the Islamic world", and gained observer status for his country at the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation.
The fact is that no leader who aspires to a sphere of influence over a broad, diverse swathe of the world would find it sensible to proclaim a generalised conflict against one widely dispersed religion. That applied to the medieval kings of France who made pacts with the Ottomans; to Victorian Britain which battled to stop the (Russian) Cross replacing the Crescent in Constantinople; and to George W. Bush, who even after 9/11 was keen to stress that America had no quarrel with Islam as such. In religious matters, a geopolitician always has to hedge his bets.   

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