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20 November 2006

Russia has a Muslim dilemma Ethnic Russians hostile to Muslims

medium_mn_russia_islam06.jpg(sfgate.com)  Crammed amid the gray monoliths of Moscow's 1980 Olympics complex...

Moscow -- Crammed amid the gray monoliths of Moscow's 1980 Olympics complex, the Sobornaya Mosque was the only Islamic house of worship that was allowed to function under the Soviet regime. It stood largely empty then, filling up only with the occasional large foreign delegation from Islamic countries.

Today, its pale blue walls cannot contain the hundreds who come to pray. On Fridays and holy days, it overflows with worshipers, leaving many forced to kneel on newspapers outside, their foreheads pressing against the concrete.

Zabir Valeev was attending midday prayers on a recent Friday with his 8-year-old son, and could hardly hide his frustration. "We shouldn't have to stand out here in the cold," said Valeev, 32. "What does it show to my son that there is no place in Moscow for us to pray?"

The Sobornaya is one of four mosques in the Russian capital to serve a Muslim population of about 2.5 million -- the largest of any European city. Muslim leaders say attempts to build more have been blocked by local officials, who fear angering Moscow's ethnic Russian majority.

"In the Soviet period, people were forbidden from practicing their religions. Now they are embracing their faith again," said Ildar Alyautdinov, an imam at the Sobornaya Mosque. "But to have only four mosques in Moscow -- obviously that's not enough. ... We deserve more respect."

Across Russia, Islam is thriving. Experts say the country is undergoing a startling change and that if current trends continue, more than half of Russia's population will be Muslim by midcentury.

"Russia is going through a religious transformation that will be of even greater consequence for the international community than the collapse of the Soviet Union," said Paul Goble, an expert on Islam in Russia and a research associate at the University of Tartu in Estonia.

As in many Western countries with growing Muslim populations, tensions are also on the rise. Ethnic Russians fear their country is losing its traditional identity; Muslims are offended by widespread discrimination and a lack of respect for their faith.

Russia's Muslims are extremely diverse, including Volga Tatars, the myriad ethnicities of the North Caucasus and newly arrived immigrants from the former Soviet republics of Central Asia. But they all share an important demographic -- birth rates far higher than that of Russia's Christian Orthodox, ethnic Slavs.

Russia's overall population is dropping at a rate of 700,000 people a year, largely due to the short life spans and low birth rates of ethnic Russians. The country's 2002 census shows that the national fertility rate is 1.5 children per woman, far below the 2.1 children per woman needed to maintain the country's population of about 143 million. The rate in Moscow is even lower, at 1.1 children per woman.

But Russia's Muslims are bucking that trend. The fertility rate for Tatars living in Moscow, for example, is six children per woman, Goble said, while the Chechen and Ingush communities are averaging 10 children per woman. And hundreds of thousands of Muslims from Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan have been flocking to Russia in search of work.

Since 1989, Russia's Muslim population has increased by 40 percent to about 25 million. By 2015, Muslims will make up a majority of Russia's conscript army, and by 2020 a fifth of the population.

"If nothing changes, in 30 years people of Muslim descent will definitely outnumber ethnic Russians," Goble said.

For many ethnic Russians, the prospect of becoming a minority in their country is unthinkable, and nationalist sentiments are on the rise. "Russia is historically a Slavic, Orthodox Christian land, and we need to make sure it stays that way," said Alexander Belov, head of the Movement Against Illegal Immigration, an increasingly powerful interest group that has organized dozens of rallies in recent months.

Most Muslims living in Russia are not immigrants, but the indigenous people of lands long ago seized by the expanding Russian empire. And Islam is recognized as one of Russia's official religions, along with Orthodox Christianity, Judaism and Buddhism. But few nationalists make a distinction between immigrants from former Soviet countries and non-Slavic Russian citizens.

Attacks on mosques have been increasing. In September, an imam in the southern city of Kislovodsk was shot dead outside his home. During days of rioting in August, mobs chased Chechens and other migrants from the Caucasus region out of the northwestern town of Kondopoga.

Many Russians associate Islam with extremists from Chechnya, who have carried out dozens of bombings and other attacks against civilians. Separatism began in Chechnya as a largely nationalist movement, but has been increasingly influenced by the ideas of radical Islamist organizations such as al Qaeda.

Sensing the nationalist mood, Russian authorities have begun to crack down. This fall, four Russian regions introduced mandatory classes in Orthodox Christianity in all schools. On Wednesday, the Russian Cabinet announced a new law that will ban foreigners, most of them Muslims, from working in retail stalls and markets, starting next year. Thursday, the director of the Federal Migration Service, Konstantin Romodanovsky, said foreigners should not be allowed to create "ethnic enclaves" in which they outnumber "native Russians" in any district or region of the country.

Belov said non-Slavs, no matter what their citizenship, should be restricted from living in "traditional Russian lands."

The Orthodox church hierarchy has denounced nationalist and anti-Islamic statements. "Orthodox Christians, Muslims and members of other traditional churches have lived in Russia side by side for centuries. Russia has never had religious wars and, I hope, it never will," Orthodox patriarch Alexey II said last summer.

Muslim leaders say the nationalist rhetoric reflects a clear lack of understanding of Russian history.

"The Muslims of Russia have roots here; we have been part of Russia for centuries," said Rusham Abbyasov, a spokesman for Russia's Council of Muftis, which represents Islam's spiritual leaders in the country. "It is not right to say that Russia is a Christian country. These people either don't know the history or they are ignoring it."

Abbyasov said one of the main reasons for antagonism toward Russian Muslims is their portrayals in the media. On Russian television, Muslims are most often portrayed as either criminals or religious radicals waging a holy war against Christians. One of Russia's bestselling novels last year, "The Mosque of Notre Dame de Paris," depicted a mid-21st century Europe where Islam was the state religion and Christians were forced to live in ghettos.

"The image of Muslims presented in the media is very distorted," Abbyasov said. "When people hear the phrase 'Allahu Akbar' ("God is great" in Arabic), they immediately think of people shooting at them or blowing themselves up."

The danger of growing anti-Islamic sentiment, Goble said, is that it threatens to push Russian Muslims further outside the mainstream and into the arms of radicals. Because of the Soviet legacy of religious repression, the majority of people living in Russia with Muslim backgrounds are largely secular -- attached to Islam mostly as part of their ethnic identity. But with interest in Islam surging, that also leaves them open to being influenced by extremist ideas, he said.

In recent years, Russia has expelled dozens of foreigners accused of preaching radical Islam on its territory. "People who know they are Muslims but don't know exactly what that means could be radicalized, especially if they feel excluded from Russian society. It's a real threat," he said.

Goble said Western governments need to do more to encourage Russia to integrate Muslims into society and avoid discrimination. "When Muslims are in the majority in Russia, they'll remember whether we spoke out for their rights or failed to," he said.

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