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?

Muslims pray to celebrate Eid al-Fitr, marking the end of Ramadan, in Moscow August 19, 2012.
Muslims pray to celebrate Eid al-Fitr, marking the end of Ramadan, in Moscow Aug. 19, 2012.

Photo by Mikhail Voskresenskiy/Reuters

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MOSCOW—Because the Islamic calendar is about 10 days shorter than the Western one, the sacrificial slaughter of rams during the Muslim holiday of Kurban Bayram often catches the residents of Moscow by surprise. Last year it happened in October. The year before that it was in November. In 2006, nobody paid much attention to the ritual because it coincided with New Year's Eve. But on most years, Muscovites only realize that it's Kurban Bayram when state TV plays footage of horned beasts being sold out of trucks and sliced open in the streets. Or, on rare but highly publicized occasions, when unsuspecting residents find pools of ram blood in their parking lot or in the sandbox of their local playground after Kurban Bayram.

The city then spends the next few days in fits of xenophobia and existential woe. Inevitably they move on, forget about their Muslim neighbors for a while, and worry about something else. But for those days they hate them, openly and with foul words.

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The local government does not do much to ease that enmity, and in some ways official policy exacerbates it. Moscow has 2 million Muslim residents and up to 2 million more Muslim migrant workers. Because of what amounts to state discrimination, the city has permitted the existence of only four mosques, none of which can fit more than 10,000 people. (The Russian Orthodox Church, which has 650 places of worship in Moscow alone, is meanwhile pushing ahead with a government plan to build 200 more churches across the city in what is known as the “Church a Step Away” program.) Nowhere in Moscow is the Muslim call to prayer allowed to disturb the non-Muslim population, so there is no chance that the city will provide public facilities for the Islamic faithful to perform animal sacrifice. The Muslims of Moscow are forced to practice their religion in the open air, which makes for awkward times.

In the past week, the latent tensions started to erupt once again, sparked this time by a man from the predominantly Muslim region of Dagestan who cracked open the skull of a police officer at a Moscow bazaar on July 27. (Footage of the attack has gotten close to a million views on YouTube.) Police have responded with raids to "decriminalize" outdoor markets across the city, arresting around 3,000 migrant workers, many of them Muslims. A makeshift internment camp of tents and port-o-potties was even set up in the north of the Russian capital to house all of the detainees. Neo-Nazi groups in St. Petersburg have meanwhile taken the police raids as an excuse to launch their own attacks, using baseball bats to smash the fruit stands of migrant workers. They promise to do the same in Moscow. 

Like most parts of the Russian heartland, Moscow has for years been particularly inhospitable for Salafism, a fundamentalist brand of Islam that wants to see the caliphates of the Middle Ages restored and sharia law adopted. It is the fastest-growing movement within the fastest-growing religion in the world. So Moscow’s problems are not entirely unique. Similar tensions were evident in Switzerland in 2009 when a national referendum banned minarets in circumvention of the Swiss constitution. Those tensions came to life in New York City in 2011 during the loud scrap over Park 51, the Islamic community center near Ground Zero. Civic clashes like these are going on in many places where Muslims and non-Muslims live side by side.

What's strange about the picture in Moscow is how the state has chosen to deal with it. On March 1, Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin reiterated in a live radio interview that there are no plans to build any more mosques in his city, because practicing Muslims are not really Muscovites anyway. "These are far from citizens and not even residents of Moscow," he told Echo Moskvy. "They are gastarbeiters," he said, using the German word for "guest worker" that carries a pejorative sting in Russian. "Among Moscow residents only 10 percent [are Muslim], and building mosques for anybody who wants them from all over the country would be going overboard." The biggest mosque in Moscow, on the Avenue of Peace, is being reconstructed he pointed out, but not expanded. "There are enough problems with that place as it is."

The problems mostly stem from the fact that the mosque is far too small, and on Kurban Bayram and other holidays, worshippers swarm the surrounding neighborhood by the hundreds of thousands.

A heavy rain had fallen on a recent Friday when I went there to hear the service, and because of the lack of space people were forced to lay down prayer rugs on the wet asphalt, many over puddles. (In the winter they do this in the snow, ice, and slush, shivering as they bow toward Mecca.) The police presence was heavy that Friday, with two full trucks of riot troops parked at the curb.

At the end of the service, a police officer noticed that one of the worshippers had a pistol tucked into his jeans. The man was questioned by a plainclothes officer, who was so embarrassed that a firearm had slipped through the police pat-downs and metal detectors that he simply gave the young man his gun back and began reprimanding the cops who had failed to spot it. Others gathered to watch this rare moment of leniency in the city's no-tolerance policy. On May 31, Sobyanin had again been asked to comment on the city's Muslims. He said: "People who don't speak Russian well, who have a totally different culture, are better off living in another country. That is why we don't welcome their adaptation in Moscow."

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