Russian Muslims

Olga Kravets

Published on 17/10/16

Thou­sands of eth­nic Rus­si­ans con­vert to Islam annu­ally, accord­ing to the mem­bers of the Mufti Coun­cil of Rus­sia. Con­cerned with the idea of pro­tec­tion of the Rus­sian (mean­ing – Ortho­dox) iden­tity, the gov­ern­ment launched a sys­tem of per­se­cu­tion of the con­verts, brand­ing them as ter­ror­ists. Many of them flee, but the Rus­sian secret ser­vices try to hunt them down even abroad, and for­eign coun­tries treat them with suspicion.

But who are they in real­ity and why do they convert?

The fact that there are eth­nic Rus­si­ans in Rus­sia who choose to con­vert to Islam was largely unknown before the killing of Said Bury­at­sky (born and Alex­an­der Tik­homirov) in Ingush­etia in 2010. He was an Islam­ist mil­it­ant leader in the Rus­sian North Cau­casus, the chief rebel ideo­lo­gist and the regional coun­ter­part of Osama bin Laden. There was one par­tic­u­larly strik­ing fact about him – he was born to a Buryat Buddhist father and a Rus­sian Chris­tian mother and con­ver­ted to Islam at the age of 15.

This event gave the basis to think that all of the con­verts were picked and brain­washed by the ter­ror­ists. How­ever, the eth­nic Rus­sian Muslim com­munity claims they all had totally dif­fer­ent reas­ons to do so: adopt­ing a spouse’ reli­gion; fashion//trendiness; the oppos­i­tion of Islam to the sys­tem such as cur­rent Rus­sian State due to it’s anti-dogmatism; sufism; prac­tic­al­ity of Islam, busi­ness, bur­eau­cratic or even crim­inal reas­ons in pre­dom­in­antly Muslim repub­lics such as Bashkiria and Tatarstan, and finally, adopt­ing Islam while serving as a sol­dier in Afgh­anistan or Chechnya.

The cur­rent Rus­sian State heav­ily build­ing upon the reli­gious Ortho­dox iden­tity, sees the increas­ing num­ber of Muslims among those who should be Ortho­dox by blood as a slap in the face – the lists of con­verts are taken from the imams, the people are summoned to ques­tion­ing, their fin­ger­prints are taken, they get arres­ted, and even­tu­ally, most of the ideo­lo­gists and intel­lec­tu­als have to flee.

In early 2014 a Chechen friend asked me as a journ­al­ist to help her Rus­sian Muslim friend in trouble in Tur­key. While the only thing I could do is to send out his call for help to the employ­ees of the inter­na­tional human rights organ­iz­a­tions, we did start a dia­logue with this man and even­tu­ally, thanks to my work with Muslims in Chechnya, I was gran­ted access to the wary com­munity of exiles in Turkey.

They chose this coun­try for being European and Muslim at the same time, but there are three prob­lems about it: Tur­key doesn’t quite under­stand who are the “Rus­sian Muslims”, as opposed to Rus­sian Chechen, Tatar and other Muslims. They there­fore sus­pect them of being sent to Tur­key as Russia’s intel­li­gence agents under the pre­text of exile, so they hap­pily give them back to the Rus­si­ans once Moscow asks for cer­tain people, even at times when Erdogan and Putin seem to not be get­ting along well. In a latest devel­op­ment, many get arres­ted on sus­pi­cion of being ISIS members.

While I already have enough mater­ial from Tur­key, I am seek­ing to fin­ish the pro­ject this year in Rus­sia and Ukraine. I intend to visit four spe­cific places that I picked up after a lengthy research: a vil­lage out­side of Krasnodar where the vast major­ity of inhab­it­ants have con­ver­ted to Islam in a trend star­ted by a local doc­tor whom all of them respect; in Tyu­men where secur­ity ser­vices are know to be the most harsh on con­verts; in Astrakhan, where con­verts are believed to often rad­ic­al­ize; and finally in Crimea. De jure Ukrain­ian pen­in­sula is vital for this story, because before Rus­sia occu­pied it, people used to enjoy com­plete reli­gious free­dom under Ukrain­ian gov­ern­ment. Plus many Ukrain­i­ans and Rus­si­ans liv­ing there dis­covered Islam because of Crimean Tatars, Muslim eth­nic group.

Telling the story of con­verts from Rus­sia has a spe­cific value, because Chris­tian­ity and Islam have coex­is­ted on the country’s ter­rit­ory for more than a thou­sand years, and his­tor­ic­ally Islam is second reli­gion in Rus­sia. The argu­ments like “it is reli­gion of migrants” make no sense here. People have right for reli­gious free­dom and right not to be branded as ter­ror­ists if they have not com­mit­ted any crime.

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