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Uniting Instead of Dividing

14.01.2009 12:37

Nizhny Novgorod region, which has a large indigenous Muslim population and a growing number of Muslim migrant workers. He has a reputation for being part of the «tolerant face» of Russian Islam. He spoke to Russia Profile’s Shaun Walker about the changing face of the Muslim community in Nizhny Novgorod and how Islam can be made compatible with the Russian state.

— Could you give a brief description of the situation in Nizhny Novgorod. How many Muslims live there and what kind of relations does the Muslim community have with the rest of the population?

— Muslims have lived in this area since the 14th century. It is the land of our parents, our grandparents, and our distant ancestors. Today there are around 60,000 Muslims of Tatar origin living in the Nizhny Novgorod Region. However, over the past two or three years, a huge migration has occurred, and we have seen large populations of Azerbaijanis, Dagestanis, Uzbeks, and most recently Kyrgyz and Tajiks moving into our region. Not all of these migrants are legal, so nobody knows the real figures, but it’s quite likely that there are more than 200,000 Muslims in our community now. There could be as many as 150,000 Azerbaijanis alone. In 2005, 52000 migrants arrived in the Nizhny Novgorod Region, and for better or worse, many of these people stay — they receive permits, or get married. So, the Muslim community is growing all the time, and most importantly, it is changing character.

— And is that a positive or negative development?

— Well, you only have to look at what’s happening in Europe now. These kinds of migration trends are bound to occur in every civilized country, and we have to accept that. There has always been migration, and there always will be. The most important thing is how we deal with it. If we are realistic, then we know that we need these people’s labour, and we also have to remember that they are our former compatriots from the Soviet Union.

Our population of Muslims is growing, and, from one point of view, that’s a good thing. On the other hand, it’s not the best Muslims that are coming to us. The best people have found their place in their own countries; the people who come to us are those who were unable to do well for themselves. They often have a very low educational and cultural level. Although they have grown up in former Soviet republics, some of them can hardly speak any Russian, and many don’t know [Alexander] Pushkin, [Fyodor] Dostoyevsky, [Mikhail] Lermontov or any of our great Russian writers. They don’t understand Russian culture and they don’t understand the new legal framework that we live in today. This makes it more likely that they will end up breaking the law. So it’s a double¬edged sword. But, as the representatives of the religious authority and the local Tatar Muslim population, we do the best we can to help these newcomers adapt to our way of life, to make sure that they become peaceful, tolerant and cultured, and to make sure that they adapt to Russian society in a way that is painless both for them and for us.

— So you think that for a Russian Muslim, Pushkin and Dostoyevsky should be as important as the Koran?

— Of course! Without any doubt. The cultural work of great poets through the years — whether it be Omar Khayyam, or Pushkin; Ferdosi or Lermontov — is important not just for Muslims but for the whole of humanity. Sometimes people’s religious beliefs divide them, but culture always unites people. The better we understand the culture and literature of our neighbours, the more tolerance, goodwill and love there will be between peoples.

— Of the 200,000 Muslims in Nizhny Novgorod, how many adhere to strict Islamic rules? Do the men avoid drinking alcohol; do the women wear the hijab? How many people attend the mosque regularly?

— In Nizhny Novgorod we have three mosques today; in the region there are 57. Every Friday, all these mosques are overflowing with people. We certainly know that the space we have in our mosques is not enough for the number of people that want to come.

I’m not in a position to count how many of these people are “genuine” Muslims, who don’t drink or smoke. We can leave that for Allah. Anyone who has not said “I do not believe in Allah” is a Muslim for us, and it doesn’t matter whether they drink, smoke or come to the mosque. We still count them as our Muslim brothers, although we certainly try to do our best to help them stop smoking and drinking, and to make them pray, and become true Muslims. For us, to be a “Muslim” is to be the best of the best, and we hope that sooner or later the word “Muslim” will come to be seen by everyone as signifying the most dignified, cultured, beautiful, good¬willed people.

As for the hijab — those women who want to wear hijab wear it, those who don’t want to do not. We only ask that when women visit the mosque they cover themselves. But we certainly will not insist that women always wear hijab — that depends on the convictions of each individual. And in today’s Russia, when Islamophobia is such an issue, we can’t insist that people always walk around wearing the hijab — think about the awful racist murder of a young Tajik girl recently. Then there are attacks on synagogues, there is the fact that many foreign students are afraid to walk on the streets for fear of being attacked. First of all, we need to teach people to be more tolerant, to understand each other. Then we can start telling women that they must wear the hijab.

— Are there conflicts within Russian Islam between the official authorities, which you represent, and informal centres of authority?

— Well, I can only really speak for my region. We don’t feel any conflict between the religious authorities that I represent, and local Muslims. What I would say is that Muslims are becoming disturbed by the increasing encroachment of the Russian Orthodox Church into all aspects of life, which is supported by the authorities, and relations have got worse since the death of Archbishop Nikolai [of Nizhny Novgorod], whom we all greatly respected. We are seeing icons placed all over the town; everywhere they are building new churches. We are not against this at all — we would prefer there to be more churches and fewer casinos. But once they’ve built ten churches, maybe they could let us build one mosque.

— Do you encounter radicalism or extremism at your mosques?

— No, we don’t see any radical tendencies. Having said that, our glorious Federal Security Service last year arrested a group of Muslims and sentenced three of them to between three and five years in jail, for being part of Hizb¬ut¬Tahrir, a movement that is banned in Russia. All the rest were released. But I should point out that among all the people that were arrested, there wasn’t a single Tatar, a single Bashkir, a single ethnic Russian Muslim. They were all either Palestinians or from the Caucasus. And I’m proud that Tatar Muslims are not part of this, that we are more peaceful and show more respect to people of other faiths.

— Do you, as a Tatar Muslim, feel that you have more in common with non¬Muslim Russians than with Muslims from the Northern and Southern Caucasus?

— I’m proud to be a citizen of Russia, proud to be a Tatar, and proud to be a Muslim. And we are ready to help create a new Russia that is more tolerant.

— You keep talking about a tolerant Russia, but some of the statements you have made about sexual minorities don’t seem to fit with this idea of tolerance. Are Muslims the only minority to which this tolerance should be extended?

— (laughs) Well, we do have particular views about gays, yes. Islam, like most other religions, does not look kindly on gays. Homosexuality is a great sin. If everyone decided to behave in that way, the end of the world would not be too far off. We all know what happened to Sodom and Gomorrah.

— So do you think that these people have no right to be part of Russia?

— Not at all. Of course they have a right to be part of our country. I just think if you want to behave in that way, you should hide it from other people. Most Russians don’t want to see that — whether they are Muslims, Christians or Jews. If you really want to conduct yourself in a way that for most cultured people is abnormal and shameful, then please do it in a dark room or a dark alley — there’s no need to show it off.

— In the United States there is occasional talk about when and whether there will be a president of African origin. Do you think it is possible that some time in the future Russia will have a Muslim president?

— Maybe I won’t live to see such a wonderful thing, but I hope that sooner or later it will happen. Russia was borne of the union of two great civilizations — the Turkic and the Slavic; the Islamic and the Christian. The first state religion on the Russian territory was Islam. Why shouldn’t Russia have a Muslim president?

— And what about the constant talk today about a clash of civilizations; about the fact that Islam is not compatible with modernity or democracy?

— Who told you that?

— A lot of people are suggesting it, or at least debating the issue.

— Well, it’s an absurd idea. The principles of Islam are an exact representation of democracy. Democracy is the fundamental basis of Islam. It is about good and tolerant relations between people. I am absolutely certain that if more people studied Islam and tried to understand it, then they would realise this.


Interview by Shaun Walker published in Russian Profile magazine May, 2006

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