How and why ethnic Russians choose to become Muslims

Ethnic Russians who convert to Islam face disapproval from their own friends and family. Traditional Muslims are also wary about the converts, and some Islamic clerics are actually hostile. Converts are suspected of being more likely to become fanatics, even terrorists.

Controversies about ethnic Russians converting to Islam started arising back in the late 1990s. The conversion of a former Russian Orthodox priest, Vyachslav Polosin, attracted the most publicity. The former Father Vyacheslav used to be a parish priest in Dushanbe; in the perestroika years he was elected to the Supreme Soviet; now, having added “Ali” to his name, he is an advisor to Ravil Gainutdin, one of Russia’s most prominent muftis (Islamic clerics).

The Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) leadership didn’t approve of this, of course; but since it was an isolated case, the ROC pretended that nothing out of the ordinary had happened.

By the start of the present decade, the conversion of ethnic Russians to Islam had become much more widespread. In Petrozavodsk there appeared a whole community of Russian Muslims. The community was created by philosopher and traveler Mustafa Starodubtsev, who embraced the spirit of Sufism in the 80s of the last century already, when traveling about Asia. Actually, the Petrozavodsk Russian Muslims could be paid no attention, as they were no more than a hundred of intellectuals in spiritual searching. This community had nothing to do with political protest. Still, they were bullied by the local department of the Federal Security Service and the traditional community of Petrozavodsk Muslims, consisting mostly of Tatars.

The later were especially discontent about the fact that imam (spiritual head of the Russian community and leader at praying) was elected not out of them. The first serious signal that the Russian Muslims may become soon a headache came when they tried to ban the site, because of certain political speculations. As it was found out, the pretences to the site emerged after the appeal “Russian people! Read the Koran, convert to Islam” appeared on its main page. The slogan was illustrated with a picture of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, altered to show a crescent atop the onion dome.

In 2004 Russian Muslims turned from a religious curiosity into a factor of political and social life. While earlier Muslims of Russian origin existed as individuals or a group of coreligionists, gathering together only for praying, now there appeared a whole social political organization of Russian Muslims. They have called themselves NORM (National Organization of Russian Muslims), announced their establishment at the press conference held by Izvestia newspaper, and closely taken up deals little or not connected with religious liturgical practice.

The widest publicity got the NORM’s victory in the fight with the producers of Sunsilk hair cosmetics regarding the commercial where a girl asks the God for help with her hair problems. This commercial in no way contradict the existing in Russia law about advertising, consequently, legally Russian Muslims’ claims were groundless. However, the producer company made some concessions and agreed to cut out of the commercial the appeal to the God.

No less publicity was caused by National Bolshevik Party leader Eduard Limonov’s statement about “playing the Islam card.” This practically coincided with the “negative advertising” success of the NORM. “The Russian politician who firmly declares his intention to make Muslims first-class citizens and takes corresponding steps to realize this intention, will receive great support from the Muslims of Russia.”

“When I was in prison, I envied my Muslim fellow-prisoners,” said Limonov. “Their religion and its ceremonies, prayers five times a day, certain rituals and restraints – all these made them strong. The Koran law, specifying every aspect of the Muslim’s life, makes his life more honourable.”

It should be noted that the “Muslim fellow-prisoner” whose endurance impressed Limonov was Salman Raduev’s former sidekick Aslan Alkhazurov, with which the NBP leader shared a cell for some time. However, this statement was immediately followed by another one, saying that hundreds of the NBP members had converted to Islam or were on the point of doing so in the near future. Still, when we tried to check this information, it turned out that the number of Limonov’s adherents having converted to Islam was overstated to a certain extent, though we found about a dozen Russian Muslim National Bolsheviks.

No one has succeeded in counting the Russians adopted the religion of Prophet Muhammad. Ones are eager to overstate the figure, others, to the contrary, understate it. According to the data of the Russian Muslims, 20,000 people become Muslims annually. The ROC considers this figure to be greatly exaggerated. According to the information of the ROC’s official publication “Tserkovny Vestnik,” there are very few of Russian Muslims. They have counted 2-3,000 Russian women who married “ethnic” Muslims and converted to Islam, and they counted even fewer “ideological” new Muslims – 200-300. So, the Russian Muslims is not numerous, but dilacerated by internal conflicts group, which is noticeable only thanks to heavy activity of several activists.” And on the whole, “there are no serious grounds to state that the existing proportion between Russian Orthodox Christians and Muslims will change in the observable future.” That is, there is no cause for concern. The Islamic semi-official newspaper agrees with the Orthodox clergy. “The ethnic Russians who have converted to Islam in each region can be counted on the fingers of one hand,” says Mukhammedgali Khuzin, spokesman for the Central Religious Administration of Russian Muslims. “Any triumphant announcements in this connection would be inappropriate.”

The first thing Russian Muslims have to face is incomprehension of their friends and relatives. But the neo-Muslims have problems with more than their families. The fact that the Orthodox Christians treat Russian Muslims as apostates is understandable. Press Secretary of the Union of Orthodox Christian Citizens Kirill Frolov maintains that the core of the guerrilla group that seized the school in Beslan consisted of ethnic Russian Muslims. Indeed, there are several instances of Russians who went underground on conversion to Islam. The Federal Security Service has reported recently that there was detained Maxim Panarin, a native of Rostov region having converted to Islam. According to these data, he and his sidekicks were accessories to a series of bombings on various transport facilities, including those in the Moscow Underground. In February, guerrillas killed in the course of a special operation in Nalchik included two ethnic Russians.

Another issue is interesting: traditional Muslims are also afraid of their new Russian brothers, and they get even hostile when the matter concerns official muftis.

Right after creation of the NORM the first who rose against the Russian Muslims was oldest Russian Mufti Talgat Tadzuddin, who accused the Russian followers of Muhammad of nationalism, and wondered, why do Russians need a “Tatar religion”?

The issue was developed by Chairman of the Muslims’ Religious Department of the Republic of Tatarstan, rector of the Russian Islamic University Gusman Iskhakov: “As a mufti, I cannot be glad that Russian people convert to Islam… let Russian people stay Orthodox Christians, and Tatars – Muslims. And the Russian Orthodox Christian Church will preach among the nations which traditionally profess Orthodoxy, and we – among peoples traditionally professing Islam. And then, the examples of Russians having converted to Islam are no so much promising: usually they are exceedingly aggressive, and their mentality is different… I think everyone must preserve his original customs and traditions.”

Into the situation there also interfered hierarchies having no direct relations with either Muslims or Orthodox Christians. Israel rabbi Avrom Shmulevich stated that the Russian Muslims represent “the fifth column,” and are financed by oil sheikhs from countries of the Persian Gulf.

Solidarity of the Islamic and Orthodox Hierarchies actually can be explained by not only several Russian extremists believing in Allah and the prophet. Official representatives of different confessions closely communicate. There’s even the Inter-religious Council of Russia, where representatives of the traditional religions – leaders of the ROC, Russian Muslims, Buddhists, Jews – are working out common coordinated decisions. On the ground of this council, the ROC and Islamic muftis have made a private “pact of nonaggression.” Its essence was factually formulated by Tatarstan Mufti Gusman Itskhakov: Orthodox priests preach Christianity among Russians, while muftis preach Islam among the Tatars, Bashkirs and peoples of the Caucasus. So, observing this agreement’s terms, muftis keep well away from ethnic Russian Muslims.

At first sight, for Russian people Islam is a kind of protest ideology, a kind of Marxism for the 21st century. Still, closer examined, it turns out to be somehow different. Many of Russian Muslims are not inclined to quarrel with authorities, and they philosophically view the State’s pressure onto Muslims. What’s more, they consider Russia one of the most comfortable world countries to live in. “There are extremities, but the both sides have tem,” believes Chairman of the Theological Center of Muslims-Shiah, NORM member Abdul Kerim Chernienko. “I admit, I’m not pleased to be apart of the group whose interests have to be sacrificed at the present moment. But I understand the president of a secular sate, the majority of the population of which is not Muslim. Our country still remains rather democratic in comparison with many even European countries, France, for example, where they banned the veil in educational institutions. Saying noting about such regimes as in Saudi Arabia, where under the shelter of the main Muslim sanctities they executie Shiah Muslims for observing their rituals.”

Kharun ar-Rusi, leader of the Sunni organization Akhl Sunna val Dzhama’a (Supporters of Tradition and Unity), and still a member of NORM, says: “This is an organization of evidently non-Islamic ideology. The principle task of the NBP – opposition to Putin’s system. The Kremlin has established the Our Own (Nashi) youth movement as a counterweight, and this movement’s summer camp was visited by some Muslim leaders I respect. It’s evident that an Islamic wing of this movement is being created. So, we’ll get the following: Our Own Muslims fighting the NBP Muslims for ideals that are a long way from Islam. The Umma will be divided, and Muslims will become small change in conflicts with which they actually have nothing to do. I don’t see what kind of Islamic objectives Muslims of the Our Own youth movement or the NBP can stand for. To say, conflicts of Putin and Khodorkovsky is not task number one for the Muslims today. Development of our own community and of the Muslims’ own political subjectness in Russia bears much more importance for us. It’s dangerous when the Muslims are torn between different directions. We know the example of the same Bolsheviks, who promised the Muslims support, and in the result their situation in the Soviet era didn’t improve, to put it mildly. We should learn lessons of history. Our problem is that the Islam factor in Russia today is deprived of its proper political status as a subject. It’s either associated with separatist movements on the periphery, or used speculatively by opposition and pro-power forces. Today in Russia there is actually no Islamic movement, that is, no movement connecting Islam’s political perspectives with Russia’s fate as it is, not with struggle for separation of certain peoples and territories from the country. This is our principal problem. If our brothers and sisters have excess political energy, I would appeal to them to spend this energy in this very direction, and not allow being used in conflict dealings having nothing in common with religion.”