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Tuesday, 6 March, 2001, 00:22 GMT
Moscow courts its million Muslims
A group of Muscovite Muslims
Prayers in the snow: Muscovite Muslims celebrate Eid
Moscow Mayor Yuriy Luzhkov attended a service at the city's main mosque to mark Eid al-Adha, the Muslim feast of sacrifice, on Monday and promised to help provide more facilities for Moscow's million-strong Muslims.

He urged Muscovites to embrace religious tolerance, a theme taken up in a message to Muslims by President Vladimir Putin, who spoke of "respect among all the peoples of multi-national Russia".

Mayor Luzhkov with Sheikh Ravil Gaynutdin
Mayor Luzhkov (left) has ground to make up with Muslims
This is only the second year that Russian leaders have taken the trouble to greet the Muslim community on their feast day, and some commentators see the attention as being an attempt to win support for the war against the Muslim Chechens.

Certainly, the leadership of Russia's Muslims has been careful not to side with the Chechens.

Supreme Mufti Talgat Tajuddin told worshippers in the Tatar city of Ufa that the war was a "necessary measure against terrorists rather than brothers-in-faith".

The second most senior cleric, Moscow-based Ravil Gaynutdin, opened the country's first Islamic university in Tatarstan last September to prepare clerics, and was at pains to say it would "protect the country from foreign extremist teachings".

The country's most prominent Muslim MP, Abdul-Vakhid Niyazov of the Refakh (Welfare) movement, sits in the pro-Putin Unity bloc in parliament.

Subservient congregation

There is, however, disillusion among many young Muslims at the political subservience and local complacency of their religious and community leaders, which has fed into Russians' traditional distrust of Islam to produce some ugly anti-Muslim acts.

Young Muslim at Moscow mosque
High birth rates have increased the proportion of Muslims
Ironically, Moscow's Muslims have long complained about the tone of Mayor Luzhkov's campaign against unregistered market traders, most of whom are Muslims from the Caucasus.

Combined with antagonism stirred up by the Chechen war and alleged terrorist attacks on Russian civilians, this has led to an atmosphere of police intimidation and public suspicion against Muslims or people who simply "look Muslim".

Doubts and divisions

The Muslims of Russia number about 20 million, or 15% of the population. Perhaps four to five million of these are practising Muslims, although their higher birth-rate and increasing cultural and religious self-confidence mean that Muslims are likely to increase both in absolute numbers and in their proportion of the population.

In terms of political orientation, they have tended to vote for the Communist Party, as the bastion of conservatism and regional elites, although nationalist and pro-Islamic parties are gaining popularity in Tatarstan and the northern Caucasus.

Moscow Muslims at prayer
Muslims have a grim reputation in Russia
The Muslims of the industrialised Volga - mainly the Tatars, Bashkirs and Chuvash - see Islam as a badge of national self-confidence and the role of their regional leaders as power-brokers.

They traditionally supply the elite of the Muslim community, such as Tajuddin and Gaynutdin.

The Muslims of the northern Caucasus - Chechens, Circassians and Dagestanis, among others - often feel like poor relations. They were absorbed into Russia much later, live in poor mountain areas, and have suffered most from their community's grim reputation among Russians.

This reputation has been fed by media stereotyping and the growth of Sharia law and militant sects - such as the pro-Saudi Wahhabis - in the Caucasus.

Russia's leaders may have decided the time has come to court the growing Muslim constituency before its loyal, Tatar leadership gives way to more militant trends that seek guidance from abroad.

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See also:

04 Mar 01 | Middle East
Hajj reaches climax
08 Dec 99 | Europe
Russia defiant over Chechnya
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