A leading specialist on ethnic minorities in the Russian Federation says within the next several decades Russia will become a country with a Muslim majority. Paul Goble, a university professor and senior research associate currently based in Estonia, spoke Tuesday at the Washington headquarters of Radio Free Europe-Radio Liberty.
For 25 years Paul Goble worked for the U.S. government as an expert on minorities in the former Soviet Union.
He has been closely tracking what he describes as a huge demographic shift in Russia, a shift he says will have a major impact on the nation's relations with western countries.
"Within most of our lifetimes the Russian Federation, assuming it stays within current borders, will be a Muslim country," he said. "That is it will have a Muslim majority and even before that the growing number of people of Muslim background in Russia will have a profound impact on Russian foreign policy. The assumption in Western Europe or the United States that Moscow is part of the European concert of powers is no longer valid."
Goble, currently the Vice Dean of Social Sciences and Humanities at Concordia-Audentes University in Tallinn, Estonia, says when the Soviet Union collapsed, most western countries looked at influencing Russia from a European perspective.
He says, however, Muslim countries viewed the opportunity for migration and the spread of Islam from the Caucuses or the newly created states in Central Asia.
"The Muslim growth rate, since 1989, is between 40 and 50 percent, depending on ethnic groups," he said. "Most of that is in the Caucuses or from immigration from Central Asia or Azerbaijan."
Goble says in 1991 there were about 300 mosques in Russia. Today there are at least 8,000. He says about half of those were built with money donated from abroad, much of it from Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Goble says the number of Russians going on the Hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca each year, has jumped from 40 in 1991 to 13,500 last year.
He says there were no Islamic religious schools in Russia 15 years ago. Today, Goble says, there are between 50 and 60 teaching as many as 50,000 students.
He says the growing influence of Islam in Russia has led to mounting discrimination.
"At the popular level, prejudice against Muslims is way up," he said. "It is perceived that prejudice against Muslims is acceptable, it is something you won't get in big trouble for."
Goble says if the Russian government supports a hostile policy toward Islam and the continued suppression of Islamic militants in the troubled republic of Chechnya, the Muslims he predicts could come to power in Moscow will be, as he puts it, "anti-western, radical and dangerous."
Goble says, however, if there is an open dialog with moderate Muslims and an isolation of the small percentage of Islamic radicals, a non-threatening government could emerge.
In any case, Goble quotes one Russian commentator in Moscow as predicting that within the next several decades there will be a mosque on Red Square.