Is Moscow Breeding a More Radical Brand of Islam?

Stories from Roads & Kingdoms
Aug. 2 2013 5:28 AM

Underground Islam

Moscow’s intolerance is forcing Russian Muslims to take shelter. Is the city breeding a more radical brand of Islam?

(Continued from Page 2)
A Muslim man prays before celebrations to mark the first day of the Muslim holiday of Kurban Bairam (Eid al-Adha) in Moscow.
Marking the first day of the Muslim holiday of Kurban Bairam (Eid al-Adha) in Moscow in 2012.

Photo by Maxim Shemetov/Reuters

The Council of Muftis does not, however, represent the Salafis. The council adheres to a brand of Islam called Sufism, whose strict hierarchy makes them convenient partners for the state, but not for other sects of Islam. The council's chairman, Sheikh Ravil Gaynutdin, regularly meets President Vladimir Putin to discuss the interests of Russian Muslims and, like all Sufi leaders, emphasizes the importance of clerics and imams in guiding the religion, purporting to serve as its embodiment on earth.

Although the analogy is far from perfect, Sufis are closer to Catholics in this respect, at least in that they have a clergy that claims to represent the faith. By contrast, the Salafis are somewhat like Protestants: They renounce this sort of mediation and call for a direct relationship between the faithful and their God, untainted by the views of clerics. (Especially abhorrent to Salafis is the Sufi practice of praying at the graves of Sufi holy men and mystics, a ritual Salafis find idolatrous.) Whatever the theological implications, in modern-day Russia, it means that Sufis are, in a way, more easily controlled by the state through their leadership.

In order to ensure that the raid on his mosque would not be repeated, Gasanov needed the Council of Muftis to vouch for him. "We needed to guarantee the safety of our congregants," he told me. This was a delicate game. In exchange for protection, the Council of Muftis tends to demand loyalty, and if a mosque like Darul Arkam does not want to integrate into the official structure, it is left in a legal grey zone at the mercy of Russian police and security services.

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"These unofficial prayer rooms are already in violation of the canons of Islam," says the chief of staff for the Council of Muftis, Rushan Abbyasov. "They do not have the right to read sermons without the approval of the Muftis. They are already violators, not only of the Russian law but of Islam. If they want to represent the faith, they need to come to us and we need to study them, to understand their views, their teachings, and so on. We have to send them an imam. They need to register their organization officially. They need to settle their relations with the local authorities, with the police. If they follow these principles, they would not have [raids]. Everything would be above board."

But that would be like asking a group of evangelicals to pledge allegiance to the pope, register with the Vatican, and accept a Catholic priest as leader of their congregation. Needless to say, this is unacceptable to the Salafis, as are some of the sermons that can be heard at Moscow's few official mosques, all of which are Sufi.

On a recent Friday, the biggest of these Sufi sermons issued its message through speakers that carried over to the Avenue of Peace. "The blessed path in this world requires unwavering obedience before the law and humility in all affairs," intoned the disembodied voice of the Sufi cleric. The congregants, mostly men from Central Asia, not the Caucasus, listened to this impassively, crouched on the sidewalks and in the surrounding alleys. In an adjunct building of the mosque, Abbyasov's spacious office with the Council of Muftis looks out over the construction cranes being used for its refurbishment. When the raid on Darul Arkam occurred, he told me, its leadership had no choice but to turn to the Council of Muftis for help. "They are not under our jurisdiction," he said. "So they ran to us and asked for our spiritual protection. Right now it is in the negotiating phase."

But regardless of how the negotiations end, this form of religious arm-twisting can have only one consequence for Russia's Salafis. They will go deeper underground. If their mosque bends to the demands of the Council of Muftis, many of its congregants will find another place to worship, most likely someplace smaller, further out of sight of the authorities and closer to the reach of radical clerics who preach in the city's hidden prayer rooms. If Darul Arkam refuses to yield, the police harassment will likely continue until the mosque is forced to close. "We are in a very precarious position," says Gasanov, its imam.

After the raid, he expected his congregants to get scared and go elsewhere. But they didn't. "It is a joy to see," he told me, looking over at the pile of shoes in the entryway. "Our numbers are back to what they were before the incident… two to three thousand for the Friday prayers." Outside, the young men were busy meditating after the service had ended, or standing in line for a plastic bowl of plov.

One of them, a Russian convert to Islam who gave his name as Muhammad, sat on a stool in the shadow of the prayer tent, his reddish-blond beard standing out among his co-religionists. As we got to talking, he repeated what I had heard so many times from other Salafis: “The rights written in the constitution do not extend to Muslims. So we rely on the laws of Islam and the protection of Allah.” I pointed out that this may not help when the police come back for another raid or to shut the prayer room down. Muhammad shrugged. “Faith resides in here,” he said, pointing at his chest. “You can't chase that away.” 

Simon Shuster is Time magazine's Moscow correspondent. Follow him on Twitter at @shustry.

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