Russia and Islam, without the hysterics

Muslims celebrating Uraza Bairam, a holiday that marks the end of Ramadan, in front of a Moscow mosque. (RIA Novosti / Anton Denisov)
As much of the western world engages in heated polemics against Islam in general and Muslims in particular, Russia’s relations with its large Muslim community seem to be maturing.

On Thursday, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev congratulated the 20 million Muslims who call Russia home as they celebrate Uraza Bairam, which marks the end of the holy month of Ramadan. It is doubtful that Western leaders, given the strained atmosphere that now exists between the various faiths, will have the opportunity to make such a “politically incorrect” statement. This is unfortunate.

Presently, many Western governments find themselves struggling with a tricky dilemma: On the one hand they want to preserve their reputations for religious and social tolerance, thus advocating loose immigration policies for those individuals professing a different religious faith, including millions of Muslims.

On the other hand, the rapidly changing demographic landscape that these policies create – which includes headscarves, mosques and the call for morning prayers – is triggering a backlash in varying degrees of severity from Copenhagen, Denmark to Gainesville, Florida. This is prompting politicians to tread very lightly over this dangerous terrain, as US President Barack Obama recently discovered when he defended the Muslim community’s right to build a community center down the street from Ground Zero, the site of the terrorist attacks on 9/11 in New York.

Although Russia has certainly had its share of religious strife over the centuries, much of the tensions with its Muslim community arose during the Soviet period, when the all-consuming communist ideology strictly forbade devotion to all religions. And as for the ongoing problems in the North Caucasus, those tensions were sparked much more by internal dissent than any overt religious differences.

If there is any difference between the way Russia and the West are approaching the “problem” of their respective Muslim communities, the West seems to be deliberately aggravating the situation, poking their finger into the hornet’s nest, so to speak. Meanwhile, Russia continues down the path of religious toleration – without any the of the unnecessary provocations that are escalating tensions in other parts of the world.

Poking the nest

The latest slap in the face to the idea of religious tolerance comes at the hands of Terry Jones, the pastor of the Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Florida who is calling for an international “Koran burning event” on the anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States.

Despite an outpouring of international criticism, which even included a rebuke from the Vatican, Pastor Jones remained defiant, saying he would go ahead with the controversial event as planned. And of course the media continues to give this Bible-thumping fear-monger all the publicity his misguided heart desires.

How a tiny and insignificant church with no more than 50 members can attract international attention overnight is a totally different question, but it is a testimony to the haphazard power of modern media and the Internet.

In the past, such a veritable nut case would have been rightly confined to the last page of the local newspapers, and probably in the crime or cartoon section. Today, Pastor Jones’ publicity stunt has electronically snowballed into a virtual tsunami of a story, which could possibly have dangerous consequences for US troops abroad, as General David Petraeus, the leading commander in Afghanistan warned this week.

This bonfire of the insanities comes as Uncle Sam is handwringing over what to do about a Muslim community center slated for construction down the street from Ground Zero. The debate pits those who want to uphold America’s fundamental cornerstones of religious and social tolerance, against those who say that by allowing Muslims to have a community center so close to Ground Zero dishonors the memories of the 3,000 people who were killed in those attacks.

So it may have been with that fierce debate in mind that Prime Minister Vladimir Putin offered his best wishes to Muslims across Russia as they celebrate the end of the holy month of Ramadan, while also mentioning the Muslim peoples’ freedom to construct religious centers in Russia.

"New Islamic educational centers are being built and their interaction with secular educational establishments is improving,” Putin said in a letter addressed to the chairmen of Russia's Muslim boards.

Interestingly, however, it is not just mosques and community centers that are popping up across Russia, but Islamic banking ventures, which are getting a second look in the country especially after the collapse of the global financial markets at the hands of Western banking practices.

"Sharia banking stands a good chance in Russia, since Islamic business is slowly but surely developing here," Linar Yakupov, who heads Russia's Islamic Business and Finance Development Fund, said in a recent interview with the Moscow News.

"Recently a center for halal food producers opened in Kazan. There are more investment companies working according to Sharia rules, and foreign Muslim investors are seeking opportunities here."

“Tolerant Europe” goes on guard

But it is not just the United States that seems to be approaching their Muslim communities with myopic vision. Across Europe, governments and independent groups have imposed a rash of arguably unfair measures against Muslims.

In a November 2009 referendum, a constitutional amendment banning the construction of new minarets was approved by 57.5 percent of the participating voters. Can you guess the name of the European country that enforced this rule? Yes, Switzerland, which had been traditionally associated with its friendly atmosphere of high tolerance, and not just for beer.

Meanwhile, lawmakers in France placed a restriction on Islamic headscarves (as well as all other religious symbols, including the Jewish skullcap and Christian cross) from French state schools, while imposing a ban on the burqa.

In addition to these political moves, more independent institutions have also helped to create a fissure with the Muslim community, while proclaiming they were doing the very opposite.

For example, in September 2005, the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, in what it described as an attempt to contribute to the debate over Islam and self-censorship, published a series of 12 cartoons that showed the Prophet Muhammad in various unflattering poses. The publication led to riots in the Muslim world, where it was estimated that over 100 people were killed.

On Wednesday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel praised the bravery of the Danish cartoonist, Kurt Westergaard, 75, who caricatured the Prophet Muhammad at an award ceremony on Wednesday honouring his achievements for freedom of speech.

Merkel praised the illustrator's bravery by standing up for freedom of expression and freedom of the press.

"It does not matter if we think his cartoons are tasteful or not," Merkel said. "Is he allowed to do this? Yes, he is."

Merkel said the publication of the cartoons demonstrated that freedom of the press was integral to the makeup of Europe.

"Europe is a place where an illustrator is allowed to illustrate something like this," she told the audience at the ceremony in Potsdam.

Islamic law strictly forbids any portrayals of the Prophet Muhammad.

It must be asked if these sort of public attitudes on the part of Islam's many critics are only harming the hope for peace in inter-religious relations? Will Muslims back down from their religious beliefs, which have been handed down for centuries, because political leaders demand they should? Would Christians alter their written word to accommodate the Islamic countries' standards? Would the Jews rewrite the Talmud to appease the Muslim public? It seems very unlikely.

So how does the overall situation fare for Russia, which has the largest Muslim community outside of an Islamic state in the world? So far this sprawling country of 150 million people, with thousands more entering the country everyday from the former Soviet countries of Central Asia, has been largely successful in assimilating its Muslim community into the colorful quilt of the sprawling nation.

And despite the occasional flare ups of violence in the northern Caucasus, not to mention in the very capital of Russia, Russians and Muslims continue to live side-by-side in relative harmony.

But Russia is not out of the forest yet when it comes to religious tolerance. Despite some very positive gains on the religious front, there are some elements in Russian society that have no desire to see Russians and Muslims live together peacefully. One of these groups is the skinheads, who are increasingly focusing their misguided rage on this group, as well as others.

In general, Russia continues to enjoy a relatively high degree of religious tolerance in a world that is becoming increasingly fractured by religious dissent.

Robert Bridge, RT