Islam in Russia or Russia under Islam?

What is 'political Islam'? Is it a normal democratic reality or a semantic turncoat, a bad definition placing faith in the service of politics? Is it an asset of the Russian state or is it, if at all, someone else's asset? Is it a new stronghold of a true society of citizens in our country or a clear and immediate danger to everything we call Russia? These questions and very different, even polar, answers to them became the essence of one event, to which central TV channels paid no attention at all, a roundtable meeting titled Islamic Movements and Their Role in the Political Life of Russia that took place in the city of Nizhny Novgorod on April 16. The city of Nizhny Novgorod, Moscow's rival as the possible capital of Russia a long time back, lies impressively where the Oka River joins Volga, about equidistant from Moscow and Kazan. It is the centre of the Privolzhsky Federal District or, at least, the place where the administration of that district is located. The strip along the Volga River is where Russia's eastward policies have been historically focused, the frontier where the Russian state met with Islam, as Sergei Kiriyenko, the President's Plenipotentiary, once put it.

The roundtable in Nizhny Novgorod was organised by the Eastern Policies press club, the administration of the President's Plenipotentiary, and the Rosbalt News Agency. No one had objected to the choice of the place. Yet this was where all unity stopped, which became clear right away. There was no consensus as to the objectives of the meeting and the ways they could be achieved. This despite the fact that all the participants, whatever their views, were convinced they upheld the interests of Russia.

What is the key issue for Mr. Kiriyenko who represents the President in the Federal District is quite clear. In his greeting speech, he said it was necessary to make sure the word - Moslem - was not solely associated with a mojahed with a submachine gun. This is indeed very important, especially in Russia where, if you begin dividing, division lines usually do not go through just places but rather straight through hearts, throwing people into butchery, setting fathers against sons and brothers against brothers.

For Rosbalt participation in such a discussion meant the continuation of the Globalisation: Possible Ways for Russia project. The outcome of the Islam and Christianity roundtable in St. Petersburg had demanded that the discussion be continued. Especially because, as interaction of Rosbalt with St. Petersburg's researchers had revealed, tension lines did not exactly follow borderlines between religious denominations.

As to the Eastern Policies press club, while the roundtable in Nizhny Novgorod was being set up, its objectives seemed in no way at odds with the purposes of the other organisers. Yet preliminary proclamations do not always reveal what people really have in mind. Cooperation with Eastern Policies left a lingering bad aftertaste. The impression was the club ran a show of its own, the President's Plenipotentiary and Rosbalt used as either accompanying corps de ballet or mere decorations.

A conflict of viewpoints, one of the many to be revealed in the course of the discussion, became evident from the outset. In his greeting, the deputy head of the Islamic Spiritual Board of the city of Nizhny Novgorod, Gayas Khazrat sounded the opinions of Umar Khazrat, his boss, saying, for once, 'The term 'political Islam' makes no more sense than 'illegal bandit groups' as if there can be legal bandits'. In essence, Nizhny Novgorod's spiritual leaders insisted there was either Islam or politics. 'Religion can not serve politics, or else terrible days are at hand. Of course, sometimes, when unwatched, servants try on their masters cloths'. Some readily identified with this opinion; others rejected it, aggressively or ironically. Geidar Jemal, the Chairman of the Islamic Committee, rejected this clerical position in his usual straightforward manner. Maxim Shevchenko, the Chairman of the Eastern Policies press club, said since there were Islamic states, there had to be political Islam.

Actually, Mr. Shevchenko missed his own point. Following his logical chain, if political Islam means the politics of the Islamic states, then it is indeed something very foreign, at best, to our country, no one having ever counted Russia among those states. Mr. Shevchenko failed or maybe simply did not want to hear what had been said concerning the immorality of using people's belief in God Almighty to political ends, which was the bottom line of the statement the deputy head of the Nizhny Novgorod's Moslem Spiritual Board had made.

However, the true highlight of the roundtable was the showing of an episode from the Islam in Russia - Russians in Islam movie picture, which caused the most serious conflict. When it was being shown, Sergei Kiriyenko wasn't there. The showing was preceded by an introductory word containing good and easy to understand postulations about the necessity of tolerance toward the followers of Islam with a direct reference to Mr. Kiriyenko having said, as previously quoted, 'the word - Moslem - must not be solely associated with a mojahed with a submachine gun'.

No man in his right mind would argue with that. One of the participants, Sergei Kurginian, the President of The Experimental Creative Centre international foundation whom Mr. Shevchenko called 'a Russian nationalist', said, 'In Russia, only a madman would try to suppress Islam because such attempts could only contribute to the possible disintegration of the country'.

No one, at least none of those who had known nothing about this TV movie save for its title, had expected what was shown under the motto of tolerance. The movie, its main characters the members of the local Moslem community, was shot in the city of Petrozavodsk. These young people who had had Russian, Finnish, or German names now became Mahmuds, Leilas and such. For 26 minutes these people with inspired faces told from the screen how they had found everything, 'beauty freedom, and love' in Islam. The central message was that a meaning in life and purity could be found nowhere but in Islam.

The participants of this project, which had been financed through the Islam in Russia public foundation, did nothing other than promoting proselytism under the guise of tolerance. And, just think of it, all was done under the protection of the name of the Plenipotentiary of the President of Russia! Did you not hear Mr. Kiriyenko speak of 'Islam with a human face'? And, to be sure, there was a rather subtle provocation. Even while the movie continued, a split occurred among the participants of the roundtable. As they watched the proselytes, the Moslems' faces shone. The others, orthodox or not, were indignant. To put it in a simple way, a girl with oriental eyes called Leila is natural and beautiful while a Russian girl with an oriental name makes one think of her rejection of her own people. And that is not inspiring and teaches no tolerance at all.

The movie continuing, an imam moved from the periphery right into focus, the centre of irritation. As Mr. Klochyonok, the project director, explained and what was never mentioned in the movie, the man had fled from Palestine. The imam made the praying Moslems of the city of Petrozavodsk line up very neatly. Looked like an army line-up.

It is unlikely that the semantic content of the movie resulted from the insufficiency of professionalism on the part of its makers. One could not help noticing, not just from the episode itself but also from what was said at the roundtable by the members of the Eastern Policies press club, that the islamisation of Russia was what this was all about. Whoever may try and achieve it, must believe this to be the only way for the country, which, as geopolitical jargon goes, 'is out of the project'.

Geydar Jemal, known to have publicly discussed the islamisation of Russia, though calling it 'a misunderstanding', was suddenly inarticulate answering a direct question I asked what was his position. However, he concluded by saying, 'After all, I have the right to have an opinion of my own'. He was far more articulate when he said, 'Prophets always came with sword and fire'.

Undoubtedly, Mr. Jemal has the right to his opinion. Even the fervent opponents admit the honesty and ideological consistency of the Shakhid as he calls himself. Yet others also have the same right. What is Mr. Jemal going to do about their opinions? Counter them with sword and fire? He could not have expressed himself clearer and what he said was, at the very least, sincere. Swords are usually used by enemies whom one can respect yet still will have to fight against.

When those who have the right to their opinions concerning the islamisation of Russia use not swords but movies, 'the most important of all arts' as Lenin once said, or other informational weapons, we obviously deal with information warfare. It is rather hard to respect one's opponents in such a war, because they usually avoid open fighting. And that makes them ever more dangerous.

For a conclusion I would like to say that discussions like this one are necessary. If nothing else, they reveal who is who. In this way, Sergei Gradirovsky, Mr. Kiriyenko's advisor, is absolutely correct when saying one should not be scared of bringing so different people together for a talk. Indeed, this helps to find out who wants what.

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Author`s name Editorial Team