Who will manage the two million Shiite Muslims of Russia?
Sender: Saleem Nurizadeh
By: Paul Goble
Russia’s three largest Muslim Spiritual Directorates
(MSD) are now actively discussing the possible formation of a single
Muslim hierarchy, but neither they nor the Russian powers that be
appear to be paying much attention to one group of Muslims there – the
more than 2.1 million followers of Shiia Islam.
All of the Russian MSDs are Sunni in orientation, a reflection of both
the past in which until the 1990s, there were few Shiia Muslims in the
Russian Federation, and those few could look to the Transcaucasian MSD
based in Baku, whose head, the sheikh ul-Islam, was responsible for
all Shiia in the USSR.
But the collapse of the Soviet Union had two consequences. On the one
hand, it unleashed powerful migration flows, as a result of which some
two million Azerbaijanis, almost all of whom are traditionally Shiia,
came to Russia. And on the other, their traditional leader in Baku was
now in a foreign country.
Curiously, neither the MSDs in Russia nor the Russian authorities have
shown much interest in trying to solve this situation. The Sunni
leadership in Russia has often viewed the Shiia as a foreign, even
alien element, despite the fact that as a result of Soviet
anti-religious efforts, few Muslims Sunni or Shiia in Russia can
explain the distinction between them.
And Moscow has been more interested in winning the support of
Allashakhur Pasha-zade, the Baku sheik ul-Islam, even to the point of
securing his selection as head of a CIS-wide religious group, than in
seeing yet another Muslim spiritual directorate, this time Shiite in
orientation, on Russian territory.
Today, however, there are three reasons why this neglect is no longer
sustainable. First, because Russian MSDs are not supporting the Shiia
gastarbeiters, many of the latter are turning to unofficial and more
radical imams for instruction, something that threatens to exacerbate
the already severe tensions between the migrant laborers and the
Second, because Iran is the leading Shiia power and because there are
large Shiia populations in Azerbaijan and in Iraq, the Russian powers
that be have a clear interest in presenting themselves as supportive
of the Shiia rather than as opponents of this trend.
And third, if the three Sunni MSDs in the Russian Federation are able
to come together, something that is far from certain at present, at
least some among the Russian powers that be are likely to want to have
yet another lever they can use against an increasingly united Muslim
umma in the Russian Federation.
That makes the question of the status of the more than two million
Shiia in the Russian Federation more important, something that a
conference of Shiia from Syria, Palestine, Azerbaijan, Turkey and
Russia in St. Petersburg at the end of last month highlighted for the
Russian audience (
Speaking to that meeting, Taras Cherniyenko, the director of the
Prague Institute of the Dialogue of Civilizations, said that despite
the president of 600,000 Shiia in St. Petersburg and 1.5 million Shiia
in Moscow, Russian scholars have devoted “practically” no attention to
this trend in Islam.
“The works of Shiite authors are in practice not translated and very
little published,” he continued, even though Muslims and Russian
officials must certainly know that “precisely Shiia Islam can be a
most effective factor in blocking the activity of various kinds of
reactionaries who speak out in the name of Islam.”
As a first step toward rectifying this situation, Cherniyenko said,
“the main task of Russia Shiites today [must be] the formation of a
single spiritual movement and the establishment of [their own
separate] religious organization.” His words have been picked up by
various Muslim websites, but it remains to be seen how the Shiia of
Russia will respond.
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