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."

A man takes pictures using his mobile phone of Russian muslims slaughtering a sheep to mark the Muslim feast of Eid al-Adha (Kurban-Bayram), outside the main Mosque in Moscow.
Moscow Muslims slaughtering a sheep to mark the feast of Eid al-Adha (Kurban-Bayram).

Photo by Dmitry Kosryukov/AFP/Getty Images

To the American ear, this may sound like the kind of bigotry that would force a politician to resign, or at least apologize for "misspeaking." But American ears are tuned to a different wavelength, one where the word tolerance (tolerantnost) does not make people cringe the way it does in Russia. Russia never had a civil rights movement. It had 200 years of sporadic warfare with the Muslims of the North Caucasus, a strip of highlands it conquered in the 19th century and still fights wars to control, most recently in Chechnya in the 1990s. These wars play out today through a full-scale insurgency in the North Caucasus as well as terrorist attacks across Russia; the most recent one in Moscow—a suicide bombing at Domodedovo Airport in 2011—killed at least 37 people and was traced back to Dagestan. Combine that with cultural irritants like the rams of Kurban Bayram and it should not be surprising that distrust, if not outright hatred, of Muslims tends to be the default position among Muscovites. (Russians sometimes call this bytovoy racism, meaning racism that is "commonplace" or "household," a qualifier that makes it seem almost quaint.)

So the mayor's public position on mosques is as much a product of populism as it is small-mindedness. The mayor has an election coming up in September, and his closest rival, the opposition leader Alexei Navalny, has also made strident remarks about the need to stem Moscow's Islamization. Both of them realize that the Moscow electorate does not want any more mosques in their city; many of them do not even want to live in the same city as practicing Muslims. My Russian friends often argue with me about this, and I have found that all of them—even feminists, yuppies, political activists, leftie journalists—tend to sound like Bible Belt conservatives when the topic turns to Islam. (One common complaint concerns the dancing of lezginka, the traditional dance of the Caucasus, on Red Square. Muslim kids like to do this sometimes, not just for fun but to express the fact that their culture is also part of this multiethnic city and its heritage. It drives the Russians absolutely mad.)

The problem, of course, is that Moscow’s Muslims have no safe enclave, nowhere to retreat. And as long as they have to come to their nation's capital to find work or to study, Muslims—and especially Salafis—will be forced to practice their religion at underground mosques. These are usually called "prayer rooms," and although no official count is possible there are estimated to be hundreds of them around the city. More radical interpretations of Islam are common there, and a lot of them lean toward Salafism, which is effectively banned in Russia. Down in the North Caucasus, a few Salafi mosques have been allowed, mostly to ease the surveillance efforts of the Russian security services, who find it convenient to have Salafis congregate in places where they can be easily watched. (Not that this surveillance always prevents terrorism: The biggest Salafi mosque in Russia is on Kotrova Street in Makhachkala, the capital of Dagestan. That is where Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the suspected bomber of the Boston Marathon, went for services last year, when he spent six months in Dagestan visiting family and meeting with local Islamists.)

On Fridays, thousands of Salafis descend on the underground mosques of Moscow, one of the biggest of which is called Darul Arkam. It is a single-story building, about the size of a one-bedroom house, that stands in the middle of a grimy industrial neighborhood surrounded by junkyards, auto-repair shops, and clusters of rusty sheet-metal garages. The mosque is blocked from the street with a bare concrete wall crowned with barbed wire, and the only way in or out is through a narrow metal door. There are no signs outside to distinguish it from the surrounding lots, no minarets or crescent moons. An outsider would have trouble finding it even with the address marked off on a map.

But on the Friday I went there it was made conspicuous by the clusters of Muslim men arriving to take in the sermon, trickling in from the bus stops and side streets in groups of a dozen or so. Eventually, a couple thousand of them assembled, mostly between the ages of 25 and 35. Many wore track pants and T-shirts—including one that read in English, "Islam Is the Way of Life," and another that read, also in English, "The Times They Are A-Changin'."

About half of the congregants wore the facial hair typical of Salafis, who like to trim their mustaches close but let their beards grow long, sort of like the Amish. They started to gather around noon, just as a group of volunteers began inflating the large white tent in the courtyard to accommodate the growing crowd. The tent’s scuffed white exterior was badly in need of a wash, and its wooden floor was lined with simple woven plastic prayer rugs. Just beside it a kind of field kitchen had been set up, where volunteers prepared a vat of steaming plov, the staple dish of rice and meat served in every Muslim part of the former Soviet Union.

The sermon that day was delivered by a visiting cleric named Sheikh Idris—full name Idris abu Abdurakhman ash-Shishani—who talked about the emptiness of knowing the Quran by heart without trying to act and live like the Prophet Mohammed. (This is a mainstay of Salafism, which puts particular emphasis on the need for Muslims to emulate the prophet in every way they can.) Hundreds of men were packed into the room all around him, their numbers spilling out into the courtyard and nearly filling the tent outside. The sermon concluded with a word of practical advice: "When coming to our mosque—I mean, to our prayer room,” Sheikh Idris said, quickly correcting himself, “please do not forget to bring your identity papers. We all know what can happen."

He was referring to an incident on April 26 when several busloads of Russian troops raided Darul Arkam. For hours, they kept a couple thousand worshippers inside the mosque and its courtyard as police checked everyone's documents. According to a statement released by the FSB (the agency formerly known as the KGB), 140 of the congregants were arrested on suspicion of involvement in radical Islamist groups.

Among the mosque's past congregants, the FSB said, were four men convicted of attempting to bomb a passenger train between Moscow and St. Petersburg in July 2011. (The FSB found and defused that bomb before it was detonated, and the alleged perpetrators are now serving sentences of between 15 and 18 years.) After the raid on Darul Arkam, state-run television channels and news agencies ran reports claiming that a group of "Islamic extremists" had been apprehended in Moscow. For the head of the mosque, a young imam named Mukhammad-Basyr Gasanov, the press coverage of the raid was the most painful part. "It was Islamophobia, which is a political trump card in Russia," he told me. "We have no way of fighting it." So the mosque closed down for a couple of weeks after the raid, while its leaders sought guarantees of protection. That meant reaching out to the Council of Muftis, the state sanctioned organization meant to represent all of Russia’s Muslims.

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.

"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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