By Mairbek Vatchagaev
November 6, 2014
At times it appears as if Russia’s treatment of its Muslims is completely devoid of prior experience or historical lessons learned. Otherwise, it is difficult to explain why the Russian state does not seem to have a clear policy toward a part of its population that comprises, according to different estimates, 14–20 million people (tatworld.ru, No. 19, 2003). And the number of practicing Muslims in the country has doubled in the past ten years (Interfax, December 24, 2013).
Despite these figures, Moscow has never proposed or revised its approach to the Muslim minority. For example, for the million Muslim residents of Moscow, there are only four mosques and several unsuitable private prayer houses that Muslims rent. The capital city’s mayor opposes building new mosques in Moscow (nr2.com.ua, November 22, 2013). At the same time, 200 new churches have been built in the city, while many of the existing ones are not filled even during holidays (temples.ru).
The recent conflict in Moscow, when a crowd of thousands of Muslims forcibly freed Magomed Tochiev, a resident of Ingushetia who had been detained by police near a local mosque, signalled that a serious revolt may be looming (1-nah.ru, October 6). The authorities subsequently arrested several dozen protesters who had resisted the authorities, but the experience of the Muslim community’s mass resistance to the police was important. Not surprisingly, some Russian Orthodox media outlets perceived the event as the beginning of Russia’s demise (3rm.info, October 1).
The Russian media reported on this incident nation-wide, so the Muslims in the North Caucasus dissatisfied with the government’s policies in the region could not have missed that signal as well.
Meanwhile, police in Makhachkala arrested nine parishioners of one of the city’s mosques. Several accused Salafists were detained after Friday prayers near the mosque on Hungarian Fighters Street (Ulitsa Vengerskikh Boitsov) in the Dagestani capital: nine were taken to the Sovietsky district police station in Makhachkala. The reason for their detention remained unclear (rosbalt.ru, October 31). According to the official version of the incident, hundreds of the mosque’s parishioners gathered to protest, demanding that the police release their co-religionists. The protesters threw rocks at the police and these units had to call in reinforcements. The special police force (OMON) managed to stop the riots by shooting in the air. The police checked the detained individuals and then released them from custody (kavkasia.net, October 31).
According to eyewitness accounts, however, events unfolded quite differently. The police repeatedly came to the mosque on Hungarian Fighters Street each Friday and on each occasion detained several random Muslims. The indignation of the mosque’s parishioners gradually rose because the police offered no explanation for the detentions and there were no obvious reason for them. The mosque’s imam warned the police that this might end up provoking the parishioners, and people started asking questions and a scandal ensued, after which the police fired in the air and used tear gas (YouTube, October 31). A child who was nearby lost consciousness, which further angered the protesters, who broke the windshield of the police car, freed the detained people and left the scene. The police did not arrest anyone (mirislama.com, November 1). The website of the armed underground Islamic movement hailed these events, stating: “Muslims are increasingly less willing to put up with such humiliation and are increasingly in favour of fighting this system, transitioning from words to actions” (vdagestan.com, October 31).
This was not an isolated case of Muslims resisting the police. These acts of violence are rooted in a much wider problem than the random detention of Muslims in mosques. Such detentions have been in place in Russia for dozens of years. The Russian authorities became carried away with imposing various bans on the Islamic literature. The process is not even controlled by the central authorities, but has been delegated to regional judges. The outlawing of the Russian-language Quran (kavpolit.com, September 20, 2013) and the banning of the best known compilations of Hadiths (ansar.ru, January 11, 2013) indicate that the people who outlaw these pieces of Islamic literature do not realize what they are doing. These steps are likely to anger the entire Muslim world. If the outside Muslim world perceives the banning of the Russian translation of the Quran as a result of faulty translations, the outlawing of the compilation of the Hadiths of the Imam An-Nawawi indicates also that Russia is against Islam in principle. The Russian authorities’ moves to ban Islamic literature have resulted in an increase in the activity of an underground movement in Russian cities. Signs, posters and leaflets calling for resistance can be seen in different parts of Russia—not only in Moscow, but also in Chelyabinsk, Tyumen, Makhachkala and so on (lenta.ru, September 27, 2013).
The resistance is expanding and it can be seen in the fact that a Moscow medical institution that banned the Hijab in 2013 (m24.ru, March 12, 2013) recently had to make concessions on the issue (lifenews.ru, September 12). Having encountered strong resistance to the ban on the Hijab among the students and Moscow’s Muslim community (islamnews.ru, October 30), the leadership of the institution was forced to compromise, allowing the students to wear the Hijab but also obliging them to wear white robes and caps (lenta.ru, October 30). The compromise was found despite the fact that the Russian Supreme Court ruled, in 2013, in favour of those who advocated the banning of the Hijab in Russian educational institutions (RIA Novosti, July 10, 2013).
Moscow, which already faced Islamic armed resistance by the Caucasus Emirate in the North Caucasus, now also faces other types of resistance. While this other form of resistance is non-violent, it is an Islamic underground movement that appears prepared to take wider action across the country to defend the foundations of the Muslim religion.