"People who contrast Christianity with Islam seek to divide Russia"

About 14.5 per cent of the people in Russia are Muslim. As the country's Muslim community celebrates Kurban Bairam, St. Petersburg researcher Aleksandr Sotnichenko describes what the foundations were upon which Russia’s peculiar culture grew up on.

­Being a Christian, he explains why it's unthinkable without Islam and Christianity, shows where the Western model of inter-faith interaction may take Russia and what will result from calls for ethnic and religious purity.

Aleksandr Sotnichenko is a historian, a political analyst and an expert on religion. He is an analyst at the St. Petersburg Center for Middle East Studies and professor at the International Affairs Department of St. Petersburg University.

­RT: What would you say is the foundation of Russia’s culture and national identity?

Aleksandr Sotnichenko: Russia is a unique civilization which emerged at the intersection of different cultures. The two main cultures are Orthodox Christianity and Islam. This should be obvious to any person who has at least very superficial understanding of Russia’s history and current developments. Christianity and Islam are the most popular religions in modern Russia, and it is exactly these two religions that played the leading role throughout history. This fact is undeniable. Those who question this historical axiom question the very existence of the Russian state, Russian civilization and Russian history.

RT: Nevertheless, various people are actively promoting such a revision of Russian history on Internet forums — some anonymously, some under their real names. Blogs are full of discussions and rumors…

AS: When people in modern Russia start talking about limiting or dividing Orthodox Christianity and Islam, these two components of our national identity, when they suddenly start contrasting them, either they are foolish people who are not familiar with Russia’s history and current situation, or they intentionally seek to destabilize the foundations of our state. This may sound tough, but those who contrast Orthodox Christianity with Islam want our state to disintegrate. This is how we should view all those discussions.

RT: Could you give us a brief overview of the interaction between Islam and Christianity in Russia?

AS: Islam and Orthodox Christianity appeared in Russia at about the same time. Volga Bulgaria embraced Islam 1100 years ago. At the same time, Christianity came to Rus from Byzantium. These two states lived in peace. Several centuries later, Rus became part of the Golden Horde. 

Later, the Golden Horde embraced Islam, which practically became its official religion. It is noteworthy that the Horde did not discriminate against the Orthodox faith and the Orthodox Church; on the contrary, the Church had a privileged status. Priests and the Church did not pay taxes. Horde khans respected the Orthodox Church.

When Rus became independent from the Horde, Muslims began to serve the Russian state. They occupied high positions and enjoyed various privileges.

Let me give you an example. The Qasim Khanate (in the territory of modern Ryazan Region, not far from Moscow — RT) remained practically autonomous until the end of the 17th Century. Formally, the Russian state even paid tribute to this khanate, and Qasim khans and noblemen served the Russian state.

This synergy continued throughout the 17th and 18th Centuries. St. Petersburg, the city which was the capital of the Russian Empire for two centuries and where I was born, had both Christians and Muslims living in it from the very beginning. We know that Tartars supplied St. Petersburg with various goods from 1703. Also, they were among the first construction workers who built our city. In the 19th Century, Christians and Muslims fought shoulder-to-shoulder to defend our country when a multinational European army led by Napoleon invaded it. Our history is full of such examples of cooperation between communities and individuals.

RT: How do you explain speculation claiming that the situation in the Caucasus paves the way for a war between Orthodox Christianity and Islam?

AS: The reason such speculation exists is because we don’t provide adequate political and ideological arguments in favor our unity. We live in a large country, and yet since 1991 we haven’t offered a fundamental explanation of our unity. This is equally important to the Caucasus, to Moscow, to the Chukchi Peninsula and to Kaliningrad. We need to work out an understanding of our unity, and then there will be no reason for such speculation. The Caucasus has never had crusades, or mutual extermination for religious reasons, the way it was in Europe. The Caucasus had both Christian and Islamic communities and states. Even during the great Caucasian war in the 19th Century, Shamil failed to turn that war into a religious one. Yet today various forces use religion to incite ethnic strife.

RT: If such a thing is possible, is there a way to prevent strife between Christians and Muslims in Russia?

AS: Wahhabi preachers in Chechnya and Dagestan emphasize that Christianity and Western civilization are synonymous. On their websites, they regularly point out that what the United States and Europe are doing in Afghanistan and Iraq is typical of Christians. In this way, they urge Muslims to unite against Christianity.

On the other hand, we see nationalist propaganda in Russia. It, too, is distributed mostly through the Internet. It is based on the concept that Christianity must oppose “savage,” “barbaric” Islam. And some people listen to such propaganda.

These are two sides of one information war, and they strengthen each other. Without this, propaganda cannot do much.

Please note that common people, both Muslims and Christians, have been living in the Caucasus next to each other for centuries. So far, this experience is essentially the only effective and real foundation for countering those who seek our country’s disintegration.

Realizing how important this issue is, the current Chechen leadership pursues the policy of religious tolerance. In my view, the state should pay more attention to this not only in Chechnya and not only in the Caucasus. It is important that all categories of people throughout Russia have a clear realization of how crucial it is for Islam and Christianity to co-operate. It is important that Christians and Muslims learn more about each other’s beliefs — not only at the level of scholars and conferences but also in school. Knowledge dispels fears, whereas ignorance is good soil for inciting hatred.

RT: We often hear various leaders encouraging Russia to join the civilized world and learn from it. Is Europe’s experience applicable in Russia?

AS: By no means. Since the Middle Ages, Europe has considered itself the only proper civilization and viewed everybody else as barbarians. We all know about cruel crusades, the conquest of America and European colonialism in Asia. Europeans today can’t get away their past. They still put their civilization above all others. There is practically no place in Europe where Islam is regarded as a traditional religion. Most Muslims living in Europe today moved there in the past few decades. In Russia, however, Islam has been a traditional religion for a thousand years, just like Christianity. So, Europe’s experience is mostly inapplicable in Russia.

Furthermore, opinion polls indicate that most of the people in Russia don’t approve of Europe’s liberal values. In Europe, inter-faith relations are regulated by rather peculiar secular laws. Neither those values nor those laws are good for Russia. We need to work out our own standards, which meet our people’s expectations.

RT: What are the values which Russia does not share? And what can Russia offer instead of them?

AS: Liberal values imply the primacy of individualism and private property. Despite all efforts to instill these values in Russia, they don’t take root, as is evidenced not only by opinion polls, but even by the entire course of history. Those values divide people and cause huge social problems, such as a growing crime rate, separatism, alcoholism and drug abuse. All these problems emerged in just one generation’s lifetime. Russian traditional values are faith, family, collectivity and society. They are embraced by both the Orthodox and Islamic communities of our country. What Russia needs is consolidation, not division, and we have the historical and cultural foundation for consolidation. Now it is important to provide a legal foundation for it.

RT: How could Islamophobia appear among the Russian people if Islam has been present in Russia for 1100 years?

AS: There are several reasons for Islamophobia. First, there is propaganda which comes from the West — from Europe and from the United States. It works through art: films, TV shows, books, etc. Those works paint Islam as an enemy, as a barbaric religion which opposes Europe and America, which, for their part, are painted as the unique source of wealth and well-being.

Second, sometimes Islam is criticized by nationalists. We are witnessing a surge of a very peculiar kind of nationalistic ideology in Russia. Ironically, “new nationalists” promote separatism. They say that Russia should alienate this or that “non-Russian” territory. They argue that Islam is a foreign religion to Russian people. This variety of nationalism is new to Russia. It doesn’t agree with Russia’s historical roots, its past and its memory.

Third, there is a small but rather energetic and noisy group of Russian Orthodox activists who zealously repeat the basics of the West’s aggressive propaganda against Islam. They proclaim that Orthodox Christianity should seek closer ties with the West and that they should put up a common front against Islam. In other words, they want Russia to embrace an ideology which it has never shared and which does not serve its interest. Islam is part of Russian civilization, and Russia is part of both the Islamic and the Christian world.

I believe that, unless the Church, science and the society come up with a well-reasoned response, their arguments may have a very negative effect — not only on the unity of the Orthodox Church, but also on the unity of the Russian Federation, because they question the existence of a multiethnic and multi-faith Russia. Essentially, they seek to revise the entire history of Russia.

Of course, Russia does have problems, and it is quite natural that people are looking for a scapegoat. That’s what people always do in their daily life: they like to blame others for their problems. But the problems we face today are our internal problems, and we should resolve them in a systematic way. We shouldn’t rely on other countries’ recommendations. We shouldn’t pick up phobias which will destroy our country.

RT: So how do we get out of this intricate web of fears?

AS: Russia may gain something positive from the West’s negative experience with Islam. The way the West treats the Islamic world opens great opportunities for Russia. But first Russia should reject the Islamophobia that the West is imposing on us and develop its own policy line with respect to the Islamic world.

Russia is a bridge between Europe and Asia, between the East and the West. It is a civilization that stands alone. It reconciles Christianity and Islam, the East and the West. It is only by preserving this unique identity that we can survive as a nation, develop as a civilization and preserve our state for descendants.

­Nadezhda Kevorkova, RT