RUSSIA’S ISLAMIC POLICY
Leonid Sjukijainen, Doctor of Law, professor, leading research associate, Institute of State and Law, Russian Academy of Sciences (Moscow, Russia)
Starting with the 1990s Islam has been stepping up its influence on society and the state in Russia. It is felt in many fields, especially in religion, the social and cultural sphere, and politics. The results and prospects of Islamic resurrection in these fields are different and contradictory. Without going into details let us look at the intermediary results signally important for the future Islam-related politics of Russia.
Islamic Resurrection: Pluses and Minuses
It is in the sphere of religion and religious cults that the most radical changes in the status of Islam in Russia have occurred. Many of them positively affected the Muslims’ ability to realize their right to the freedom of confession stated by the Constitution and to fulfill their requirements related to religion. Hundreds of new mosques were built, the number of pilgrims increased many times over, books on Islam are being issued in huge numbers, there are numerous religious educational establishments functioning in the country, including several universities, dozens of spiritual administrations of the Muslims have been registered. This is a sure sign of the growing religious awareness of the Muslims and their greater involvement in religious activities.1
The process is not free from certain negative features: the continued relatively low level of the religious culture proper among the Muslims of Russia created by an absence of highly educated religious leaders who could play the role of spiritual teachers and authorities in comprehending, through Islam, the secular problems related to Russia and the world. There is no single religious center while the spiritual administrations of the Muslims are locked in bitter rivalry. Some of them still depend on aid from Islamic organizations abroad—the latter not being concerned with settling the most urgent problems of Muslims in Russia.
In the spiritual and cultural sphere the results of Islamic resurrection are even less spectacular: the religion has not yet tapped all its potentials and has so far failed to become an inalienable part of the country’s moral and intellectual rebirth. It is not playing a more or less important role in forming Russia’s cultural and ideological potential. Like the sphere of religious education and enlightenment this sphere, too, is plagued by lack of educated people, slow resurrection of traditions and their failure to blend with the latest achievements of Muslim thought. The attempts made by Islamic centers abroad to fill in the gap and bring Islamic culture and spirituality closer to the Muslims of Russia create little or no effect. More often than not these attempts do not disseminate profound and objective knowledge of Islam but discredit it. As a result, Islam as a system of moral and spiritual values and an important part of world culture has not yet been embraced by Russian society.
What Islam did in Russia to resolve social problems cannot impress anybody. Recently, there have been positive shifts: the Muslim organizations not only try to put into practice limited programs for social and humanitarian aid (something that Muslim structures abroad are doing on a much broader scale), they are out to comprehend the limits and aims of their social activities. The Council of the Muftis of Russia organizes regular seminars on social-related issues; it has adopted a social program2 while the Congress of the Muslims of Tatarstan held in February 2002 discussed social problems. On the whole, however, contrary to the insistent efforts of the heads of Muslim organizations to concentrate on the social sphere Islam fails to noticeably affect this side of Russian life.
The contradictory results of Islamic resurrection in Russia are convincingly confirmed by its political role. To correctly assess it one has to bear in mind that starting from the mid-1990s Islam stopped being only a religious factor and a vehicle of spiritual and cultural values and social programs. It also became one of the important components of Russia’s political process.
Russian power cannot assess Islam’s involvement in politics unambiguously. While individuals who claim to represent special Muslim interests reap dividends from their political activity, on the whole political Islam neither consolidates society according to democratic principles nor strengthens the rule of law. One can say that so far Islam as a positive political and legal factor can barely affect the country’s political life by introducing into it the Islamic principles of moderation, the tendency to look for compromises, tolerance, and loyalty to legal authorities. The moderate Islamic leaders and organizations that side with power and strive to use Islamic potential for the sake of the state and society are neither skillful nor consistent. They can barely be seen on the country’s political stage.
If one disregards ethnic or religious affiliation stated in the names of public and political organizations and concentrates on deliberate use of Islamic values to justify the aims and forms of political involvement, one should conclude that in Russia today the organizations that occupy the fairly irreconcilable or even radical positions and oppose themselves to the authorities demonstrate the greatest activeness. The Muslim masses are indifferent to political issues thus allowing these organizations to shape an image of Islam. More often than not the political bias of Islam does not meet the state’s national interests and does not strengthen the state. In particular, political Islam is used to create additional problems in the relationships between the federal center and the RF subjects, to put pressure on the authorities, and to provoke actions against the leaders of the so-called Muslim republics, to bring up tension in the traditionally Islamic areas. The nationalist forces there exploit Islam to destabilize the situation, oppose the federal center and justify their separatist aims.
As a result Islam as a political factor is often used for the purposes of destruction rather than for social consolidation and the strengthening of state power. Political extremism and terrorism that use Islamic slogans are the extreme forms of anti-state activities. In the recent years the danger created by them has not declined—it is mounting. This is one of the key elements to be taken into account by those who want to assess Islam’s political role in Russia, at least from the positions of Russian power. No wonder, in its relations with political Islam the state recurs to law enforcement measures and operations involving power structures. It rarely takes positive measures to tap Islamic values for the purposes of political stabilization, social consolidation, and strengthening Russia’s statehood.
Power in Search of the Right Treatment of Islam
There are many reasons why Islamic resurrection has produced highly contradictory results, especially in the fields far removed from religion. One of them is the special way in which the Muslim leaders and centers comprehend the forms and methods of their involvement in social, political, cultural, and spiritual life of Russia, in the efforts to resolve its social problems. What is even more important is their idea of the relationships between Islam and the powers that be.
There is a wide range of ideological approaches to these questions inside Islam in Russia: they can be different or even contradictory and vary from complete loyalty to extreme opposition, from subjugating Islamic arguments to political expediency to the idea about politics as an instrument of translating the Islamic dogmas into practice, from stressing the role of Islam as a religious, spiritual, and moral factor to stressing its inevitable political involvement, from staking on moderation and avoidance of political extremes to emphasizing its role of an initiator of radical changes and political upheavals. Not infrequently, what the Muslim leaders and organizations say about their political involvement contradicts what they do on the political scene.
Any detailed analysis of the above requires a special article. Here I intend to point out that the ideological statements of Islam in Russia, no matter how varied, have one thing in common: the Muslim foundations of their social-political activities are inadequately elaborated. They lack a clear program that would help them connect Islam’s political involvement and the realization of its principles. This is true both of the leaders and structures that are actively cooperating with the authorities and the leaders and movements that stand opposed to them. In particular, the official spiritual administrations of the Muslims as a rule limit themselves to stating the most general principles of their political activities (that can also be called passiveness) frequently explained by their purely pragmatic desire to move as close to the authorities as possible. Naturally enough, cooperation with the state structures is one of the corner-stones of the Islamic form of government, yet this principle alone cannot supply an understanding of the positions Islam should take vis-à-vis political and state powers. As a result, official Muslim leaders take part in the country’s political life for purely personal reasons and for the sake of purely personal ambitions rather than because they want to introduce Islamic values into Russia’s politics, to cooperate with it from the Islamic positions, and to address the tasks of Islam by political methods, through their constructive cooperation with the secular state.
It should said that recently some of the spiritual administrations made attempts to formulate their political stands: the Council of the Muftis of Russia stresses that it bases its attitude to the state on rational principles that defend freedoms and profess obedience to laws in full accordance with Islamic ideas of “peace and accord”—the formula of an agreement between the Muslims living in a non-Muslim state with the state designed to protect their rights and freedoms.3 However, the specific political and legal content of this principle has not yet been fully revealed. This confirms that the official Muslim structures have not completely elaborated the properly Islamic foundations of their political activities.
This fully applies to the political conceptions of oppositional Islam in Russia (G. Jemal’s Islamic project is one of the examples). At the same time, the theoretical postulates of the ideologists of radical Islam are an important exception to the rule. The political formulas of those who are described as Islamic extremists, fundamentalists, Salafis, and Wahhabis are deeply rooted in Islamic arguments and are, in fact, practical programs of planting the Islamic norms and principles mainly through violence. Regrettably, these destructive forces managed to arm themselves with the ideas of political Islam. As distinct from them, the loyal Muslim centers for different reasons have not yet articulated any detailed, convincing and Islamic-oriented propositions about the most topical social and political problems. They tend to avoid any meaningful discussion with the radicals and extremists. Even if they try to oppose them, they demonstrate their inefficiency by avoiding sharp questions and recurring to general declarations.
The Muslims and Russian society as a whole can hardly be satisfied with these results of “resurrected” Islam. The fact that its positive creative potential in social, spiritual, cultural, and educational spheres and in political life is hardly realized and, therefore, inadequately affects social and democratic progress is the main problem. At the same time, Islam’s negative political potential that is threatening democratic reforms, the state’s integrity and Russia’s national security is only too obvious.
It seems that it is for this reason that Russian power has to respond to the political aspects of Islamic resurrection in the first place. In the religious sphere power treats Islam in full accordance with the constitutional principles of the freedom of confession and the state’s secular nature. The state is not active enough even within these narrow limits to be able to protect its interests and consolidate society. Little is done to unite the Muslims of Russia and overcome rivalry among their leading spiritual centers; little attention is paid to the system of religious education (in particular, to the training of spiritual leaders in Russia rather than abroad). The relations with Islamic centers abroad are one-sided and are realized mainly by the law enforcement bodies. Such centers are regarded as potentially threatening the state interests, not as partners in dealing with the religious and social problems of Muslims in Russia.
It seems that the state has not yet formulated its positions in the spiritual and cultural sphere—it is satisfied with general declarations about recognizing Islam as a vehicle of positive moral humanitarian values. Official educational and cultural structures are too passive and do nothing to practically realize these abstract slogans. What is more, they treat cautiously all initiatives associated with Islamic enlightenment—quite often they just reject them.
Naturally enough, one cannot say categorically that the Russian state has no definite line in relation to Islam, in the religious and social-cultural aspects. But if this position exists, it is neither clear, nor consistent, nor oriented to substantiated strategic criteria. It is dominated by the idea that Islam is an ideology, political force, and practice that threaten stability, integrity, and the constitutional foundations of power in Russia. While the Muslims and their spiritual centers look at tolerance, high spirituality, morality, and humanism of their religion as an axiom not needing special proof and confirmation, the majority of Russians and the Russian authorities (and the non-Muslim world as a whole) look at Islam as an aggressive, self-contained, radical and fanatical religion. In other words, the former proceed from the presumption of innocence of Islam while the latter, from the presumption of its guilt.
In full conformity with this is the law enforcement bodies and other power structures’ involvement in dealing with Islam in the Russian state which looks at Islam as a suspect or even as an accused. It creates an impression that recently they have started determining the Islam-related policies in Russia. One has to agree that this is partly justified, yet Russian power should try to answer the following question: Can one explain the persisting and even increasing problems created by Islam merely by the blunders of the law enforcement bodies or should this be explained by an incorrect assessment of the causes of such problems, which decreases the efficiency of measures designed to remove them?
The answer is self-evident. It is equally clear that the state is unable to resolve all Islamic problems, yet the state can do a lot by elaborating and pursuing reasonable policies. They should not be monopolized by the power structures: they should receive more attention from the country’s leaders, including their top echelon.
It seems that so far we haven’t got this policy: there are attempts made by certain religious leaders and political figures to persuade the state to support the so-called traditional Islam. In the Caucasus it is represented by Tariqatism based on Sufism, in Tatarstan, by Jadidism.4 These variants are described as an alternative to the ideological positions of Islamic extremists and a remedy against Wahhabism.
I am convinced that both variants, traditional for Russia, can be accepted while the state policy toward Islam is being elaborated, yet on the whole their potential is limited. Life has shown that they cannot successfully compete with the radicals in the sphere of political Islam.
When trying to assess what Russian power is doing in this sphere, one can conclude that the policy is badly balanced, that it was shaped by the idea about Islam as a mainly dangerous political factor. No wonder the state has concentrated on its fight against Islamic extremism and terrorism that is reduced to law enforcement measures.
The Aim and Tasks of Russia’s Islamic Policy
This one-sided treatment of Islam poorly fits the phenomenon and its place in the life of present-day Russia and in the worldwide processes. This treatment does not meet the most urgent demands of Russian power either. In the Soviet Union Islam as a religion was officially tolerated while being eradicated in full conformity with the theories of scientific atheism. In the post-Soviet period this policy was replaced with the line on strengthening the constitutional right to the freedom of confession and a declarative recognition of Islam’s positive spiritual and moral potential. Today, the Russian state while keeping in sight all other aspects should concentrate on Islam’s social and political role that can be often destructive indeed. This happens not only because its political ideology is highly ambiguous while the forces that use it are too radical. This happens because Russian authorities are not yet prepared to respond to Islam’s massive involvement in politics: the time-tested forms of interaction between the state and Islam as a religion cannot ensure the state interests in the face of Islam as a form of politics.
Russia has entered a new stage of development and it has to elaborate a new strategic line and an integral policy in relation to Islam on the basis of which it would be able to address the entire set of Islam-related problems, the political problems in the first place. This cannot be done if the aims of such policy are not clearly formulated. Its task should be to use the positive spiritual, moral, cultural and intellectual potential of Islam for promoting democratic changes in Russia, as well as for channeling Islam’s activity in the political and legal sphere along the lines leading to a stronger statehood and a stronger legal system, and also to the consolidation of Russian society.
At the same time, the state should formulate more specific aims of its policy as applied to various spheres in which Islam is active and the relations of which to the interests of the Russian state vary and therefore demand a differentiated approach. For example, in the religious sphere the state should maximally participate in a consistent realization of the Muslims’ constitutional right to the freedom of confession, which presupposes that the state would not interfere in the religious affairs of Islam that belong to the competence of corresponding spiritual administrations. The state, however, can and should correct its position in relation to certain purely religious issues and act in a more determined way, for example, to bring more order to organization of pilgrimages, create conditions for the Muslims to perform other rites and even to settle conflicts between spiritual centers. In addition, the authorities can and should do more to organize not merely a dialog but cooperation among the confessions designed to resolve burning social problems.
In the social and the spiritual and cultural spheres, the authorities can no longer limit themselves to stating their respect for the positive Muslim heritage. The thesis about Islam’s huge spiritual and moral potential and its clear social message stated by Muslim leaders and accepted by the authorities should acquire real content and be substantiated with Islamic arguments applicable to a secular state. Muslims, their ideologists and centers should do this while the state can and should stimulate the process and channel it along the lines that meet the interests of the Muslims and society as a whole. One can expect these efforts to create a system of Islamic social, cultural, educational, and humanitarian structures that, in the final analysis, will make the state and the Muslim centers social partners of sorts. This process will be accompanied by another one, which will resolve a no less important political task. It will create a better understanding of Islam by the entire Russian society, which will overcome its cautious treatment of the Muslims and their religion.
This is of primary importance for the state and its leaders because this trend is directly related to the interests of the nation, to the problems of political stability and security that the state should provide in the first place. The state policy cannot remain inconsistent and limited to granting freedom to Islam as a religion while if not excluding then maximally reducing its political role by regarding it as a threat to the country’s constitutional order. Power should pose itself a different aim: rather than pushing Islam away from politics it should channel its political activity—and the Islamic political ideology as its basis—along the lines that coincide with Russia’s interests. This is directly related to the issues of state importance, therefore it is for the state to outline the limits, forms, directions and the final goals of Islam’s political activity and to create the mechanisms to influence its political involvement.
This approach will be even more effective if Islam itself substantiates the parameters of its participation in Russia’s politics and orientates its activity to the positive principles of the Muslim political and legal culture adapted to the conditions existing in a secular state. This poses another task for the state: it should actively influence this process so that the end result—Islamic political conception—would not contradict (or, better still, meet) the state interests.
This task should be resolved within a general context of measures that the Russian state should take to oppose acts of Islamic extremism in a more efficient way. Harsh laws are obviously not enough. The ideological aspect of such struggle is topical and important. Indeed, among all aspects of Islamic extremism it is Islamic ideology that is directly related to Islam. The Muslim radicals rely not only on the still unresolved political, social, economic and ethnic problems—they rely on the theoretical basis made up of Islamic conceptions. Today, the state has already taken more or less effective measures up to and including wide international cooperation in other spheres of struggle against this threat. However, the above-mentioned side of this phenomenon has so far escaped the Russian authorities’ attention. Meanwhile, the state will never undermine Islamic extremism and its influence if it fails to tap the positive intellectual Muslim potential. This explains why the state’s Islam-related policies should treat formulation of an Islamic ideological alternative to terrorism and extremism as top priority.
When working on and realizing a long-term and consistent Islamic policy, the state should take certain initial principles into account. One of them is an understanding that Russia is not opposing Islam as a foe but is convinced that Islamic resurrection is a positive factor of the country’s sustainable development; that Russia is convinced that Islam and Muslim culture (political and legal culture included) comprise an important part of life in Russia at the social and state levels. The Islamic values should not be regarded as a threat to Russia’s national interests and security but as its potential ally.
The state should proceed from an idea that Islam is not an alien element in the country but part of its history, culture, and the way of life and that for millions of Muslims Russia is home. At the same time, we should not forget that Islam is more than a religion. It is a civilization and culture that has created a rich ideological heritage, which includes political and legal conceptions. While the secular state should remain neutral to the Islamic theology and purely religious issues, the Muslim ideas about power, law and politics cannot be ignored. The state should formulate a clear position in relation to the Islamic principles that it accepts, supports and uses and to the conceptions that cannot be realized within a modern democratic society.
One should bear in mind that throughout many centuries of its history Islamic culture formulated varied ideas about the foundations of power and law, the relationships between man and the state, about society as a whole. Some of them are rudely detached from the general context of Muslim thought and are offered to the poorly educated groups to be used to justify extremism. In fact, not these ideas but theoretical substantiation of different principles (moderation, compromise, stability, consensus, loyalty to the authorities, gradual advance, collective discussions, avoidance of harm, etc.) forms the core of Islam’s ideological influence and contemporary Islamic philosophy. These views can be substantiated in a more convincing way than any radical ideas. This applies to the positions of the most respected contemporary Muslim thinkers. The original Islamic principles and their interpretation by the most prominent Muslim philosophers offer a convincing argument against the ideology of Islamic extremism and terrorism.5 The political and legal teaching of Islam can and should serve the democratic forces and consolidate society and the state rather than to be wielded by extremists wishing to destabilize the situation.
The Russian state should revise its attitude to the Muslim legal culture. Today the authorities perceive the Shari‘a as a symbol of Islamic fundamentalism and separatism and flatly reject any possibility of using some of its provisions. They are convinced that it is a remnant of the past to be removed without qualms. Meanwhile, Muslim legal culture does possess considerable positive potential that can be fit in the legal context of certain subjects of the Russian Federation granted the constitution is also strictly observed.6 Its use can provide an additional impetus to Islam’s social role. The legal institute of Waqf can serve as a relevant example: it was recognized in 1999 in Tatarstan by the law on the freedom of conscience and religious organizations.
The attempts to support Islam without the Shari‘a on which certain authors are insisting7 will put this powerful political and ideological instrument into the hands of Islamic radicals. Guided by these considerations, the state should shoulder the initiative in discussing the prospects of the Muslim legal culture.
This approach to Islam’s legal side is directly related to another initial aspect of the state’s Islamic policy. It is necessary to take into account certain variants of its realization in Russia as a whole and in its subjects closely related to Islamic culture and civilization. In the regions with Muslim majority Islam is one of the pillars of society, traditional lifestyle and world outlook, therefore secular power has to act in the mainly non-secular Muslim context. To influence it, to say nothing of ruling it, the state should take the Islamic element (closely connected with the local customs and traditions) into account. In fact, even this is not enough—the Islamic institutions, norms and values should be purposefully used while any steps the state undertakes should be correlated with them, otherwise the authorities run the risk of being deprived of social support and of part of its legitimacy in the Muslim eyes. This is as urgent for certain Central Asian countries that are facing the task of formulating cooperation between the state and the Muslim civil society.
If the state takes into account the regional component of its Islamic policies, its positive potential can be applied to dealing with the very complicated problems related to national specifics or to the relationships between the federal center and the regions. By pursuing this line Russian society will be able to deal with the political, socioeconomic and national-cultural problems of the Islamic regions in a more efficient way that will account for the Muslims’ mentality and lifestyle. By addressing the positive Islamic values the federal center will consolidate its policy in these regions, will earn trust of their Muslim population, will strengthen the union of power and society, will organize closer cooperation between the federal center and the federation subjects, and add legitimacy to the state in the eyes of Muslims. By the same token this will undermine the influence of those forces that exploit Islamic slogans to reach separatist aims. At the same time, the principled line pursued by the state invites a legal policy in the Islamic regions of Russia which would make it possible to use certain achievements of the Muslim legal culture in the interests of the country’s development strictly within the Russian Constitution and current legislation for the sake of strengthening the state and the Muslims’ confidence in the state’s legal policies.
I am convinced that Islamic policies can resolve another urgent problem: to let Islam play a constructive role in the state’s plans and programs of rehabilitation of the Chechen Republic as an important element of the republic’s cultural, moral and spiritual renaissance. This process should proceed from an understanding that all Islam-related problems connected with restoration of its cultic objects and religious education should be resolved with the state’s decisive contribution.
The Chechen subject brings to mind another promising aspect of Russia’s state policies in relation to Islam as an international phenomenon. Therefore, practically all processes in the Russian Islam are closely connected with everything that is going on in the Islamic world. Islam is an important factor of world politics, therefore the future of Russia’s relations with the Muslim world and its place in the world depend on Russia’s treatment of Islam. This policy will help the state to raise the contacts with Islam to a new level: this will make economy more effective and foreign policy more balanced. The potential of the ties with the Islamic world can be used to boost the country’s authority on the international arena. At the same time, this will create a more favorable context for efficient cooperation between Russia and the Muslim states and the respected Islamic centers abroad in the struggle against Islamic extremism and terrorism.
1 For more detail, see: A.V. Malashenko, Islamskoe vozrozhdenie v sovremennoi Rossii, Moscow Carnegie Center, Moscow, 1998, pp. 68-104; F.M. Mukhametshin, Musul’mane Rossii: sud’by, perspektivy, nadezhdy, Moscow, 2001, pp. 64-82.
2 See: Osnovnye polozhenia sotsial’noi programmy rossiiskikh musul’man, Moscow, 2001.
3 See: Ibid., pp. 30-31.
4 See, for example, an interview of President of Tatarstan M.Sh. Shaimiev, Nezavisimaia gazeta, 28 November, 2001.
5 For more detail, see: L. Sjukijainen, “Islam vs. Islam. On Islamic Alternative to Extremism and Terrorism,” Central Asia and the Caucasus, No. 3 (15), 2002; idem, “Mezhdunarodniy terrorizm i Islam,” Konstitutsionnoe pravo. Vostochnoevropeiskoe obozrenie, No. 4 (37), 2001.
6 See: L. Sjukijainen, “Naidetsia li shariatu mesto v rossiiskoy pravovoi sisteme?” in: Islam na postsovetskom prostranstve: vzgliad iznutri, Moscow, 2001; idem, “Shariat i musul’mansko-pravovaia kultura,” Tsentral’naia Azia i Kavkaz, No. 4 (5), 1999.
7 See: N. Azarkin, “Islamu—‘da,’ shariatu—‘net,’” Iuridicheskiy vestnik, No. 10 (240), May 2000; A. Davydov, “I vse-taki shariatu tverdoe ‘net,’” Iuridicheskiy vestnik, No. 12 (242), June 2000.