Muslims in Putin’s Russia: Discourse on Identity, Politics, and Security

Book Review

Reviewer: Renat Bekkin

Publisher: Springer Berlin Heidelberg, 2017 ISBN: 9783319535197
Author's page: Simona E. MERATI

Muslims in Putin’s Russia: Discourse on Identity, Politics, and Security

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The times when readers in the West learned about Islam in Russia from the books of Sovietologist Alexander Bennigsen, who for objective reasons could not have access to many important sources, have passed away. Over the last couple of decades, many studies giving an idea of the forms of existence of Islam and the life of Russian Muslims in 19-20 centuries have appeared. These are the works written by R. Geraci [Geraci 2001], E. Campbell [Campbell 2015], R. Crews [Crews 2009] and other authors. The position of Muslims in modern Russia has not remained without the attention of researchers either. This topic was discussed in detail in the fundamental works of Sh. Hunter [Hunter 2004], G. Yemelyanova [Yemelyanova 2002], and others.

A researcher from the Florida International University (USA) Simona E. Merati made an attempt to examine the history of Muslim communities in Putin’s Russia. Thus, the book covers the period from 1999, when Vladimir Putin became prime minister, until April 2017, as the sources cited by the author indicate.

The work consists of 8 chapters, including introduction and conclusion. The names of the chapters sound promising, however after looking closer at their structure one gets the impression of a certain dissonance. For example, Chapter 4 “Russia’s Islamic Religious Institutions and the State” includes the following paragraphs: “The Russian Orthodox Church”, “Islamic Organizations”, “Interfaith Dialogue: Institutional Relations”, “The Russian Secular State: Contemporary Interpretation of Catherine’s Model”,[1] “The Functional Interpretation of Religion and Its Application in Russia”, “The Necessity of a Governance of Religion in Russia”. Even before acquaintance with the content of the above paragraphs, it becomes clear that not all of them are relevant in the chapter on the relations between the state and Islamic religious institutions. The topics and their arrangement in paragraphs raise questions.

Much attention in the book is given to the problems of security and the fight against terrorism. At the same time, S. Merati sees as one of the tasks of her research overcoming the binary opposition of “ethnicity / security”, which, in her opinion, prevail in the studies of Islam in Russia (pp. 2-3).

  1. Merati claims to be the first to “show that, beyond local, albeit significant, realities, Russia’s Islam (re)confirms itself as a legitimate part of Russian civilization and, as such, can and should be studied within the general Russian context” (p. 3).

Needless to say, this task is important and ambitious, requiring profound knowledge in a vast number of disciplines: from Islamic studies to modern history of Russia.

The very formulation of the problem is certainly not new. The question of the close connection of the destinies of Muslim peoples with Russia was posed by a number of authors in the second half of 19 century. Suffice it to recall the names of the Russian philosopher Konstantin Leontiev (1831–1891) and the Crimean Tatar enlightener Ismail Gasprinskiy (1851–1914). The book “Muslims in Putin’s Russia” does not say a word about Leontiev, while Gasprinskiy is only mentioned in connection with other problems.

Basically, the ideas of Gasprinskiy appear in the presentation of other persons, first of all, Yu.A. Gavrilov and A.G. Shevchenko – authors of the compilation book “Islam and Orthodox-Muslim relations in Russia in the mirror of history and sociology”. A detailed analysis of this monograph occupies 4 pages of the book. At the same time, Gasprinskiy’s ideas about the rapprochement of the Muslims of Russia with the Russians Merati remained without attention.

The choice of sources for the book is a separate topic. S. Merati repeatedly cites the works of Roman Silantiev, whom she describes as a “Slavic Orthodox scholar” (p. 72), who writes “enormously popular books” (p. 62). Let us leave on the conscience of S. Merati the unconfirmed assertion about the “enormous popularity” of Silantiev’s books. It’s not that important. The Orthodox publicist Silantiev, who justifiably deserved in Russia the laurels of an Islamophobe, is the author of biased works in which he rudely (using slang phrases) and without referring to authoritative sources, deliberately vilifies certain Muslim religious leaders, as well as ethnic Russians who converted to Islam.[2] For Merati, Silantiev is the author of “well researched analysis” (p. 63). “His contribution to the debate, Merati writes, is especially relevant when it comes to discussion of the inter- and intra-organizational dynamics of Islamic institutions and their relations with Church and State”. (p. 63). This statement looks, at least, strange, if we recall that Silantiev accuses representatives of one of the largest federal muftiates – the Council of Muftis of Russia – of religious extremism (Silantiev 2015: 87, 416, etc.). 

The way Merati characterizes these and a number of other authors whom she cites in her book deserves special attention. For example, a secular scholar who works at the Institute of History of the Academy of Sciences of the Republic of Tatarstan Ildous Zagidullin is described by Merati as a “Muslim scholar” (p. 57). Journalist Maxim Shevchenko, who has never publicly announced his acceptance of Islam, was named by S. Merati “the popular Islamic journalist” (p. 60).

No less carelessly does the author treat the names of organizations. So, for example, in 1788 the Ufa Spiritual Mohammedan Law Assembly was established in Ufa, a board later known as the Orenburg Mohammedan Spiritual Assembly (OMDS). Merati refers to this muftiate either as the Islamic Council in Ufa (page 8), or the Spiritual Board (p. 10), or the Central Spiritual Directorate of Muslims (TsDUM) (p. 90). (The latter name was in fact given to the muftiate but only after 1917).

By the way, considering “Islamic religious institutions”, by which the author understands the spiritual departments of Muslims, S. Merati does not explain to the reader what the essence of this institution is and what functions it performs in Russia. At the same time, the author for some reason avoids using the terms “muftiate” and “spiritual administration”, preferring “Islamic religious institution” and “Islamic organization”.

Merati also did not take the trouble to delve into what is hidden behind titles and abbreviations. For example, on one page of her book she writes the abridged name of one of the federal muftiates, the Central Spiritual Directorate of Muslims (TsDUM) in two different ways: first as TSDUM, then as CSBM (p. 74).

Insufficient curiosity of the author of “Muslims in Putin’s Russia” leads to the fact that she calls the press secretary of the Spiritual Administration of Muslims of the Russian Federation (formerly the Spiritual Directorate of Muslims of the European part of Russia (DUMER)) “director of the Russian press agency DUMER” (p. 59). In other words, without understanding what lies behind the abbreviation DUMER, the author decided that this is the name of the agency.

But there are far more bloopers in the book. According to S. Merati, Jadidism is a “very influential Islamic modernist movement developed among Muslims (especially Tatars) of Russian Imperial Turkestan in the second half of the nineteenth century” (p. 47). Yes, indeed, Jadidism has gained popularity in Turkestan, but to reduce this socio-political and cultural movement exclusively to this region is not entirely correct. Only at the end of the book does it turn out that the author understands under Turkestan “the former Soviet Central Asia plus the Russian Volga region” (p. 202). Here, as they say, comments are superfluous.

Unfortunately, there are not only geographic “discoveries” in the book. From the text of the book it follows that the Muslims of Russia adhere to three main currents: the Hanafi madhhab, Sufism and Salafism (pp. 72, 106, 108, etc.). Such inaccuracies in the work devoted to Islam look completely out of place.

There are also “discoveries” in the field of Russian history. So, N.S. Khrushchev was named president (p. 187), although the first secretary of the CPSU Central Committee has never held a position that corresponded to the post of president (chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR). On page 12-13 Merati tells about the creation in Kazan by the decree of Peter I in the beginning of 18 century of a certain “Orientalist school”. Judging by the context, the author has in mind the chair of Oriental languages of Kazan University (p. 13). The problem, however, is that the Kazan University was founded only in 1804, and the above-mentioned chair in 1807, that is, more than three quarters of a century after the death of Peter I.

One can, of course, object to much of the above by saying that the book “Muslims in Putin's Russia” is devoted to modernity. But, unfortunately, the analysis of the present in the book is not much better. The author sets herself the task to show that Islam is an integral part of the Russian identity (p. 2). She does not, however, consider a single text written by those Muslims who are a clear example of such an identity.

Instead, the views of the non-system thinker Geydar Gemal are considered in detail. Indeed, some ideas and statements of Gemal are really of great interest to the researcher, but in the absence of an analysis of other sources important for the work, a detailed examination of Gemal’s philosophy does not seem entirely justified. Moreover, Gemal’s views have been already examined in detail by the French researcher Marlene Laruelle [Laruelle 2016].

It is also difficult to explain why Merati elaborates on the views of Harun (Vadim) Sidorov as the only representative of the movement of Russian Muslims. The National Organization of Russian Muslims (NORM), one of the leaders of which was Sidorov, was primarily an intra-Islamic phenomenon. The result of NORM activities was not the integration, but the marginalization of Russian Muslims.[3] At the same time, not a word is said about the project of G.P. Schedrovitskiy and S.N. Gradirovskiy “Russian Islam”, which was developed by these political technologists in the first half of the 2000s and was aimed at integrating Muslims of Russia into the Russian cultural space.

Speaking about the popularity of Eurasian ideas among Muslims of Russia, the author for some reason does not consider the work of Damir Mukhetdinov “Russian Islam: Call for Comprehension and Contextualization”[Mukhetdinov 2015] specially devoted to this issue, but discusses the concept of Euro-Islam developed by Raphael Khakimov. It is also not clear why the author characterizes Euro-Islamism (terminology of the author!) as “Muslim Eurasianism” (p. 33).

Unfortunately, the work written by Simona Merati sins in the same way that some Western researchers’ writings in the field of humanitarian and especially social sciences do. It does not matter that much whether Pushkin or Putin is concerned, the main thing is to dazzle a beautiful theory out of improvised material. Scrupulously but, unfortunately, not quite skilfully building her concept of the place of Islam in the history of Russia, S. Merati does not always pay attention to detail, giving inaccurate dates, wrong titles and names.

Any concept is a building, where the facts are bricks of which the building is built. If the bricks are defective, then the building itself will not come out good either. It will dissipate at the first serious test.

The book “Muslims in Putin’s Russia” is a vivid example of unqualified analysis, based on randomly selected, not seriously filtered sources. The result of this was not only a large number of errors and inaccuracies, but a distorted view of the author about the processes that are taking place in modern Russian Islam. It is difficult to analyze the role of the Islamic factor in the formation of modern Russian identity having very remote ideas about the Muslim religion itself. As a result, instead of an in-depth study of a complex and interesting problem, the book turned out to be a so-called spreading “majestic cranberry” with distorted images, as if in a distorted mirror.

Perhaps, Simona Merati fell into a certain trend without even understanding it. In modern Russia (especially clearly manifested in provincial universities), Islamic studies at universities have long been replaced by studying Islamic problems in close connection with security issues and the fight against terrorism. The result of this “academic” activity was monographs and conference proceedings that describe good (traditional, or moderate) and bad (radical) Islam.

Therefore Merati, dividing the Muslims of Russia into extremists and “moderate” (p. 88), clearly hurried to write at the beginning of her work that her work was the first of its kind. There have already been a lot of such works, but they were published in small print runs and therefore were inaccessible to the author.

Driven by a worthy desire to write an original work about “good Muslims”, Simona Merati wrote a book about people remotely resembling Russian followers of Islam and residing in the country, somewhat similar to Russia. In conclusion, it remains only to sympathize with the reader, who without preliminary preparation will take up reading “Muslims in Putin’s Russia”. 

List of references: 

  1. Bekkin, R.I. (2012), ‘Russian Muslims: A Misguided Sect, or the Vanguard of the Russian Umma?’, in Islamic authority and the Russian Language: Studies on Texts from European Russia, the North Caucasus and West Siberia / Ed. by Alfrid K. Bustanov and Michael Kemper. Pegasus Oost-Europese Studies 19, Amsterdam: Uitgeverig Pegasus, 361–401.
  2. Campbell, E.L. (2015), ‘The Muslim Question and Russian Imperial Governance’, Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.
  3. Crews, R.D. (2009), ‘For Prophet and Tsar: Islam and Empire in Russia and Central Asia’, Cambridge MA, London: Harvard University Press.
  4. Geraci R.P. (2001), ‘Window on the East: national and imperial identities in late tsarist Russia’, Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
  5. Hunter S.T. (2004), ‘Islam in Russia: the politics of identity and security’, Armonk, N.Y.: M.E. Sharpe.
  6. Laruelle M. (2016), ‘Digital Geopolitics Encapsulated. Geidar Dzhemal between Islamism, Occult Fascism and Eurasianism’, in Eurasia 2.0. Russian Geopolitics in the Age of New Media / Ed. M. Suslov, M. Bassin, Lanham: Lexington, 81-100.
  7. Mukhetdinov (2015), ‘Russian Muslim culture: the traditions of the Ummah within the sphere of Eurasian civilization’, Nizhny Novgorod: Medina.
  8. Silantiev R. (2015), ‘The Russian Council of Muftis: History of One Fitnah’, Moscow: RISI.
  9. Yemelianova G.M. (2002), ‘Russia and Islam. A Historical Survey’, Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave.

[1] The author means Russian empress Catherine II.

[2] See for instance the website Neofitam.net where the chapters from Silantiev’s book “100 most famous Russian Muslims” are posted. Many of the heroes in this book are presented by Silantiev as terrorists and criminals.

[3] More about Russian Muslims see for instance: Bekkin 2012.

2018 - Volume 12, Issue 3