Islam in Russia under the Federal Law on Freedom of Conscience and on Religious Associations: Official Tolerance in an Intolerant Society

Article excerpt

I. INTRODUCTION

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the 7000 Muslims in Taganrog, a city in southern Russia, "have had nowhere to meet."1 When the "community applied for permission to build a mosque, the city administration offered a plot of land."2 After construction began, however, the non-Muslim community began expressing fears and concerns, sometimes violently.3 As local elections approached, "[T]he Cossacks issued an open letter saying they would only support a candidate opposing construction of the mosque."4 Finally, the regional administration called a meeting to resolve the problem. Despite agreeing that religious groups have the right to build places of worship, the administration, "bowing to public unease, . . . agreed the mosque should be built without a minaret so that it would not be obvious as a mosque."5 While Russia guarantees its citizens religious freedom, the unfortunate reality, as seen in this example, is that religious freedom is often sacrificed to the whims and prejudices of various authorities, especially when pressured by political majorities.

In 1997, the Russian Federation passed a new law on freedom of conscience.6 Many people in the West have concentrated on how this law affects religious freedom in Russia and the ability of non

traditional Christian religious groups to proselyte and operate in Russia.7 Few people have focused on how this law affects nonChristian religious practices such as Islam. Though Muslims have historically played important roles in the development of Russian history, culture, and politics, they have experienced state-sponsored discrimination and repression. Currently, the government officially supports the existence of Islam in the country; however, treatment of Muslims by government officials indicates that intolerant attitudes still exist. The main obstacle for Islam under the new law is not the law itself, but how the law is applied in connection with historical and contemporary perceptions and prejudices about Muslims.

To provide a background for understanding current perceptions of Islam in Russia, Part II briefly explains the history of Islam in Russia. Next, Part III examines the contemporary laws of the Russian Federation enacted to protect and regulate freedom of conscience and religion. Part IV provides a brief description of the organization of Islam in Russia and discusses the treatment of Muslims in different areas of the country. Part V suggests three main areas of concern that Russia should address in order to assuage the Islamic community's concerns and avoid what the government fears most-a rebellion of the Islamic population, the likes of which have not been seen since Pugachev.' This paper concludes in Part VI that while the Muslim population is stable and loyal to the Russian government, the situation could change quickly, especially if the government continues to allow police persecution of ethnic Muslims and the repression of all Muslims in order to control extremism and terrorism.

II. HISTORY OF ISLAM IN RUSSIA

From its modest beginnings over a thousand years ago, Islam has become a very large movement in Russia. Official state treatment of Islam varied over the course of time according to who was in power.

Under the tsars, Muslims received some official recognition. The Soviets, after initially ignoring the Muslims, sought to eliminate Islam along with all other religions. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Islam has experienced a rebirth. This rebirth shows that, as a religious minority, Muslims will have an important voice in Russia's future.

A. Russia and Islam Under the Tsars

Only twenty years after it was founded in what is now Saudi Arabia, Islam came to Dagestan as the result of conquest by Arab Muslims.9 Conversion of the people along the Volga River (Tatarstan) occurred in the ninth century. In A.D. 922, the Volga Bulgars, the ancestors of the Tatars, adopted Islam. …