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Revival of Islam in Russia Fills Spiritual Gap, Creates Concerns - 2003-12-01

Russia has the largest Muslim population in Europe with more than fourteen million Muslims. But other than Russia's bloody war in Chechnya, little is known about the country's Islamic history. VOA's Jeff Lilley looks at Russia's Muslims and how they're faring these days.

Muslyomova by most accounts is a dying village. Its inhabitants are moving away because of pollution from a nearby nuclear plant and because there are few jobs. But one spring day last year this village in central Russia came alive. Hundreds of people streamed in from the surrounding countryside for a Muslim festival.

Young men used pitchforks to stir cauldrons of rice, garlic and lamb, while others carried plates of steaming food to families gathered around plastic tablecloths stretched along the ground. Muslim preachers from different parts of Russia led prayers from a podium.

"That was first time we had such a big festival. It came about because two guys from Muslyomova graduated from the Islamic seminary in Ufa, and now they are important people, and they brought all this to us," says Gosman Kabirov, who was born in Muslyomova. He is an ethnic Tatar, one of the largest groups of Muslims in Russia. He says Islam is becoming more popular in Russia.

"The ideology of communism has collapsed, and a new one hasn't yet been created," he says. "We used to have communist youth camps and communist youth organizations, and there are new political parties, but the people haven't grabbed onto them. Religion appeals to something in the soul. In Muslyomova, we already have three mosques."

The festival in Muslyomova is one sign of Islam's revival in Russia. Others are the four thousand new mosques built throughout Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Islam has deep roots in Russia. It arrived on the fringes of Russia in 642, more than 300 years before Russia became a Christian country. Russia's latest census shows there are fourteen-point-five million Muslims in the country, but analysts say the numbers may run as high as twenty million. Most Russian Muslims live in central Russia or on its southern border near the Caucasus Mountains.

Observers say Islam is still searching for its place in Russia after decades of state-sponsored atheism.

Gosman Kabirov grew up in the 1960's when the Soviet Union actively discouraged religious worship. He is not a practicing Muslim. Instead, he calls himself a Soviet man because he smokes cigarettes and drinks alcohol. He says the few Muslim practices he does carry out reflect his Tatar background more than his Muslim heritage.

Talib Saidbaev is advisor to the Head Mufti of the Spiritual Administration of Muslims of Russia. He says many Muslims in Russia are like Mr. Kabirov. They have been educated in Russian schools, often marry non-Muslims and only observe a few rituals.

Analysts say Muslims in Russia have not developed a separate political identity. Instead, they have chosen to get along with Russian political authorities as they have done for centuries. This coexistence has its roots in imperial Russia, says Robert Crews, professor of History at Stanford University in California: "Muslims formed pillars of the Russian Empire, all without abandoning their varied commitments to Islam. They worked as translators but also as officials. They worked in universities. The Russian regime also recruited them as diplomats. At the same time, Muslims had access to Russian education. Many became Russian speakers, and they pursued careers in the military and law in the late imperial period."

Analysts say a new ingredient has been injected into the mix of Russia and Islam in the 21st century. That is young Russian Muslim scholars who have been educated at schools in such places as Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Jordan. They are now returning to Russia and will eventually replace the older generation of Soviet-trained Muslim clerics.

"Some of our young people study in Islamic countries," says Talib Saidbaev of the Spiritual Administration of Muslims of Russia. "They haven't organized yet, but there are attempts. There are efforts to resist the existing muftis, and it's a very serious question: where do they intend to lead Islam in the future? The point is that maybe it's not today or maybe not tomorrow, but sooner or later the people trained in the Arab world are the ones who are going to take over the reigns of power."

Russia's biggest Muslim problem now is the conflict in Chechnya. There increasingly radicalized rebels are waging a holy war and using suicide bombers to inflict casualties. Their aim is to set up an Islamic state.

But it wasn't always that way. Some analysts believe Russia's heavy-handed response to Chechnya's declaration of independence in the early 1990's forced the Chechens, under their first president Dzhokar Dudayev, to look for allies in the Muslim world.

"Chechen separatism, or the Chechen movement against Russia, emerged as a typical secular nationalist movement," says Aleksei Malashenko, deputy director of the Carnegie Moscow Center. "I remember one of the first declarations of Dzhokar Dudayev when he said our task is the creation of the secular democratic republic of Ichkeria, but several months later he declared jihad and said that Russia pushed us into Islam. He was right because before the Chechen resistance achieved a form of jihad, there were no ties with Muslim radicalism from abroad, with Al Qaeda and with the Middle East."

President Vladimir Putin came into office promising to crush the Chechen revolt, but he hasn't made much progress. Little reconstruction has taken place in the war-torn republic, and Chechens are leaving in droves. In October, Moscow tried to push through change on its own terms. In the election for Chechnya's president, three top contenders were scratched from the ballot, allowing the Kremlin-backed candidate to win easily.

John Dunlop of the Hoover Institution says the longer the war lasts, the more desperate the Chechen people will become: "If the war continues for another two, three or four years, I wouldn't rule out an increase in the number of very dramatic suicide bombings, but at this point it doesn't reflect the mood of the overwhelming masses of the population. But it may increasingly do so if real change, real reform isn't brought to Chechnya."

A thousand miles away in central Russia, even secularized Muslims such as Gosman Kabirov are upset with what's happening in Russia and the world.

"I don't see a strong rise of Islam in Russia," says Mr. Kabirov. "In fact, now in the Russian army we have more influence of Russian Orthodox priests, and they are building churches on military grounds. I am a bit offended: why don't they invite mullahs? I see the connection of the government with Christianity is getting stronger, but they should be separate. The rise of Islam is more as a sign of protest. After the September 11 attacks in New York and the attacks in Turkey, we Muslims feel a bit suppressed. I myself don't readily admit I am a Muslim."

Observers say there's no quick solution to Russia's war in Chechnya, but Vladimir Putin may find his troubles with Islam increasing if he doesn't pay careful attention in the coming years to the needs of Russia's historically docile Muslim population.