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V. Emelianow: Russian Islam - A Contemporary Interreligious Phenomenon

An estimated six to ten percent of the people in Russia are Muslims. There are several meanings of the term “Russian Islam”:

1. Traditional or “ethnic” Muslims who are living in Russia, such as Tatars, people from the Caucasus, and followers of Islam from one of the former Soviet republics.

2. The sensational “Russian Islam” project initiated in 2002 by the adviser to the presidential envoy in the Volga Federal District, Sergei Gradirovsky. His stated goal was for the Russian language and cultural identity to digest Islam. "Russian Islam should not refer to Russians converted to Islam,” he said, “but Islam adapted to the Russian form.” His project most likely failed because he had read inconsistent texts that presented no clear course for Islam being absorbed by Russian culture.

3. The phenomenon of ethnic Russians becoming Muslims. While in the past, some Russians had become Catholics, Protestant, or Jews, the appeal of Islam was very minimal until the 1990s, when some intellectuals became Muslims. These included Valerie Porohowa, the author of the poetic translation of the Qur’an; Ali Vyacheslav Polosin, a philosopher, former Orthodox priest, and member of the last parliament of the USSR; and many other people, including clerics. In addition, some creative celebrities converted to Islam, including the singer and musician Julian Vasin, the “Accident” group and Maxim Trefolev.

Russian fascination with Islam peaked between 1999 and 2004, when some leaders and deputies positioned themselves as Muslim community leaders, especially former State Duma Deputy Abdul-Wahed Niyazov and his Eurasian Party. In 2003, a well-structured appeal was organized using the Russian television series "A Thousand and One Days," with the support of the Eurasian Party. Initially, it was a religious program, but it was later replaced by the current 15-minute ethnic and cultural program called "Muslims." This is most likely when interest in Islam peaked among non-Muslim Russians.

It is said that Islam is easy to adopt but difficult to fully practice. People attracted to Islam tend fall into one of two groups. The first (among them this author) were attracted to Islam because of its strict monotheism coupled with the mystical and religious universalist elements of the tariqah (Sufi order), mostly of Indian and Iranian origins. The second were political radicals, either left wing or right wing. The "political Islamists" of Russian origin sought to fully perform the rites of Islam, emphasizing external behavioral religiosity.

It should be noted that many Russian Muslim groups consisted of only one or two people, or they existed only in the minds of researchers. For example, a group of "Muslim Zionists" was identified, and for some unknown reason included myself.

Two significant efforts were made to unify Russian Muslims or, more accurately, non-traditional Muslims. The first of them, the community of the "direct route," was led by the former Member of Parliament and former Orthodox priest, Ali Vyacheslav Polosin. He attempted to combine the more spiritual and esoteric "seekers of the East" with the political realm. This did not work, and by 2004 the community ceased activity.

That same year, several groups of "non-traditional" Muslims formed the "National Organization for Russian Muslims” (NORMS). Perhaps their most significant event was a press conference on June 22, 2004 at the newspaper Izvestia, which was organized with the support of Heydar Jemal, a well-known radical leftist and Shia Muslim, a close friend of Imam Khomeini’s son Ahmad. For some time after this event, NORMS became a center of attraction for all "non-traditional" Muslims. However, the organization went through an upheaval when Harun Vadim Sidorov tried to establish an authoritarian style and link it with ethnocentric views from outside of Russia. The organization experienced several splits. The first was a quarrel with Jemal, who insisted on the fact that Islam is still an international religion. Then the Sunni-Shiite symbiosis broke down, and the Shiites, led by the Western-oriented intellectual Abdul-Karim Chernienko, were expelled. Another "group of comrades" was influenced by Sidorov, and many of them left the organization with a public renunciation of faith. While NORMS has evolved from the Sunni Salafi (a purist teaching dominant in Saudi Arabia) to Sufism, the ideological constants of this organization have always been ethnic and nationalistic, with an undisguised sympathy for fascism. There is a recent focus on Turkey as a model modern Muslim nation and a critique of everything that happens in the Russian ummah (community of faith) and the Muslim world in general. Today, the real significance of this organization is negligible, since fewer and fewer groups are affiliated with it. While it continues to exist, the interaction is mostly virtual.

What lessons can be learned from Russian Islam’s short history? It no longer is as controversial as it was several years ago. Some of the better-known people have moved on: the musician Maxim Trefolev, according to some sources, is following one of the heterodox Sufi sheikhs, and the singer Julian has become interested in the teachings of Osho Rajneesh and no longer thinks about the "Muslim" phase of his spiritual quest. Only fragmentary information exists about the two former Orthodox priests who followed Polosin to Islam: Vladislav Sokhin from Kursk left Russia for Portugal, and Sergey Timuhin, who had become a Lutheran before adopting Islam, later converted to a Samaritan religion during a trip to Israel.

To answer the question why Russian Islam never became a significant phenomenon, I offer both personal and socio-historical observations, based to some extent on spiritual experiences. Many Russians who seek in Islam a strict monotheism and a spiritual universalism unencumbered by man-made doctrines of the Church suddenly found themselves faced with regimented rituals and systems of behavior associated with a specific ethnic tradition and mentality. Furthermore, many Russians look down on not only Islam but religion in general. Becoming a Muslim dramatically disrupts one’s social ties and family relations in particular. When “Ivan” has become “Abdullah” and no longer joins his relatives in eating pork and drinking, the reactions can range from lack of understanding to outright hostility. Furthermore, new converts tend to be more enthusiastic about religious practice than traditional adherents of the religion, and religious practices are of particular importance in Sunni Islam. It becomes difficult for such believers to live and work in non-Islamic environments, so some new Muslim converts move to Muslim regions of Russia or other countries.

People who have turned to Islam because of a purely spiritual motivation face cultural and social challenges in adapting to the new religious environment. They are not necessarily welcomed with open arms by their new co-religionists, who may feel that they are being invaded by “the other.” I have observed this attitude on the part of Tatar Muslims and Arabs, while people from the Caucasus and Iran generally have a more welcoming attitude. Those who turned to Islam from a non-religious or atheistic background may not have as much difficulty adjusting to a new religious environment, but those who had believed in and practiced another faith often experience more painful social and psychological difficulties. They are often regarded as apostates by those of their previous faith and by their relatives, especially people who are hostile to Islam. Furthermore, some Christian leaders teach that the God of Christianity is not the same as the God of Islam, and some Muslim leaders say that the Islamic command to respect the “people of the Book” does not apply to Jews and Christians because they have strayed from the original revelation. This can cause much confusion.

In some sense, Russian Islam is a product of the coexistence and interpenetration of religions. Does Russian Islam promote interreligious tolerance and tolerance in general? Yes, especially among Russian Sufis, who are mostly spiritual universalists; but mainstream Russian Muslims have a fundamentalist orientation. It is interesting to note that Muslim clergy in Tatarstan, traditionally a Muslim-majority region, have become models of religious tolerance. The Mufti of Tatarstan, Gusman-hazrat Itshakov, encourages people to learn about the beliefs and traditions of one another, states that it is better to stay in one’s traditional religion. He stresses that both Christians and Muslims believe in the same One God.

Muslims have been in this land and will continue to be here. Islam is a distinctive movement of the souls and minds of contemporary Russians, and though relatively few in number, they are a bright and interesting cultural phenomenon.

Valeriy (Ismail) Emelianow is a lawyer, historian, and author of articles and essays on Islam, the Middle East, and interreligious issues. He is executive director of the World & Time Association of International Cooperation. He earned a Ph.D. in international law.