Thursday, September 7, 2017

Political Islam has Been Reborn in Russia, Ostalsky Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, September 6 – Last Sunday is likely to pass into history as “the birthday of political Islam in Russia,” London-based Russian commentator Andrey Ostalsky says, a development that represents a turn of events that will leave the country “much changed” however the Kremlin responds.

            What signaled this development, Ostalsky says was a demonstration by Muslims in front of the Myanmar embassy in Moscow against that country’s repression of the Rohinja minority, an event that attracted much attention that that creates “an important precedent” for the followers of Islam in the Russian Federation (

                The Russian authorities clearly did not know how to respond at least initially, he continues, and as a result Russia’s Muslims began to feel themselves a unified force and may now act on that basis not only concerning foreign policy issues but on domestic ones as well – and in particular on “the interrelationship of Muslim communities with the secular powers.

            That suggests, the commentator argues, that political Islam has now emerged in Russia. But that term is problematic not only because Muslim theologians reject it – Islam by definition and from the beginning has been a political program – but also because the term is applied to groups from the most radical to the most moderate within the Islamic world.

            After the end of the caliphate, the last state where the ruler combined political and religious authority, modern political Islam emerged in Egypt with the Muslim brotherhood that wanted to restore the earlier form of rule.  Its supporters, Ostalsky recalls, began to be called “’Islamists.’” 

            That term too is one the ulema does not recognize, he continues; and like “political Islam,” it includes a variety of forces from those who want to restore the caliphate to those who want shariat to be the basis of law to those who simply seek protection for their values from the secular authorities. 

            Ostalsky notes that “some authoritative Sunni theologians consider that almost all of Russia’s territory should be considered part of the ‘dar-ul-Islam,’” the “abode of peace” in which Islam is to rule. They point to the fact that in 1313 CE, “Khan Uzbek proclaimed shariat on the territory of the Golden Horde and this was a large part of the territory of present-day Russia.”

            Contemporary Islamists in Russia can look back to a tradition of “political Islam” at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries.  Then the jadids, a group which promoted the modernization of the faith, called for the revival of Islam and for its followers to live in peace and equality with Christians, Jews, and believers in other faiths.

            The jadids formed what Ostalsky properly calls “a completely liberal” all-Russian organization, Ittifaq al-Muslimin (“the Union of Muslims”) which entered into an alliance with the Constitutional Democrats. The Soviets destroyed this group, and today, Ostalsky says, “it is impossible to imagine” that followers of political Islam will revive that tradition.

            Most of them view the jadids as traitors to the faith for “’playing with European values.”  And consequently, especially if they face resistance from the authorities, today’s Islamists in Russia are likely to become radical rather than return to moderation.  Exactly how things will work out, however, remains very unclear.

            Ostalsky says that “at present we know too little” about the Islamists of Russia.  They are back, however, and they are going to carve out a role.  That role of course will reflect Russian realities too, he says, because “without doubt every country and every society has the kind of political Islam it deserves,” radical or moderate as the case may be.

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