RUSSIA: The Muslims of Volga, Torn between Atheism and Radicalism












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Mesnager, Paris


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ElfiaUnlike the young Russian women who stroll on Kirova Prospekt, Saratov’s trendy pedestrian avenue, Elfia, a 25 year-old Muslim, dresses very strictly : no tight-fitting jeans or miniskirt, no short blouse uncovering the navel, no long hair cascading down the shoulders. On the contrary, she wraps her hair in a scarf that almost resembles a hijab, and wears a long skirt and a severe black sweater with long sleeves.

"Until I was 14 years old, I was a passive Muslim", explains Elfia. "I did not fast during Ramadan, I did not pray, and I did not cover my head. Then in 1995, I went on holiday to a summer camp sponsored by the mosque of Saratov, and I became an active Muslim". Elfia says that she faced no problem at her high school, where the other students liked her and where there were a "number of students from Ingushetia and Chechnia who protected me". Her parents feared her decision would exclude her from society, because at that time only three or four teenagers were wearing a scarf, but the soft-spoken Elfia persisted, and she claims she is today just one among several thousand women living in Saratov as "active Muslims".

A small minority

Elfia’s story illustrates the deep transformation of the Muslim community living in this Russian city of roughly one million inhabitants on the Volga 1.000 km south of Moscow, not very far from the war-stricken Caucasus. Unlike Tatarstan where half the population is made of Tatars, a Muslim people, the "oblast" (region) of Saratov -- population  2 million -- is inhabited by a large majority of Slavs. The Muslims number only 200.000-250.000, or 10 % of the total population, according to estimates by Mukaddas Bibarsov, the mufti of Saratov, and there are some 30 regular mosques and 50 praying rooms.
The Muslims of Saratov are now a small minority in what used to be a muslim state : "Islam came here before Christianity in the 9th century with Ibn Fadlan, an Arab sheykh", the mufti points out, " and Islam became the official religion of the Bulgarian state of Volga as early as in 922, while Kiev became Christian only in 988, and the Volga area still later. The elite of the state was Muslim, the other inhabitants were pagans".

Speaking in his office at the recently rebuilt Rachida mosque, Mukaddas Bibarsov says paradoxically the fact that the Muslims had become a minority in their own land helped them during the decades of communist repression and atheism : "Here in the Volga area, we enjoyed a better situation than the Muslims of Tatarstan", he says, "since the number of Muslims was not high, and here there was no muslim national movement as in Tatarstan. The regime applied the pressure on the Christian Orthodox people".

Mukaddas BibarsovThe mufti was born in 1960 in the small city of Sredniaia Yeluzan, near Ufa, in the Russian republic of Bachkortostan. Sredniaia Yeluzan’s 11.000 inhabitants are all Muslim Tatars, Bachkirs, and Kazakhs, and make a prosperous and closely knit community which prouds itself on having a bakery, a forge, and a halal sausage factory which produces the "best halal sausage in Russia", the mufti proudly claims. Son and grandson of an imam, he studied at Bukhara, in Uzbekistan, and came back to Russia in 1987, during perestroïka. He was appointed mufti of Saratov three or four years ago, since wheen he has overseen the complete rebuilding of the Rachida mosque of Saratov.

A new mosque

Originally built in 1836, it became a school after the Russian 1917 Revolution and in the 1970’s a shelter for drunk people! The new building, inaugurated last year, is an impressive complex with separate prayer rooms for men and women, a library, a shop, several class rooms for the "madrassa", attended by some 150 students, and a computer room "so that Muslims feel at ease in a modern society". The new mosque which cost "over one million dollars" was financed by Saratov’s muslim merchants and a loan of the Saudi Islamic Development Bank.

While minimizing the impact of the "atheism campaign" of the previous communist regime in the Volga area, Mukaddas Barbisov admits that it did affect the Muslim community. "My father, who studied religion at Damascus, was not at all involved in politics. His only activity was to lead the prayer at the local mosque, and to attend family functions, such as circumcisions and weddings. He could not transgress these limits. And myself, I used to go to the mosque and fast when I was 17. But my friends were ashamed to enter a mosque. During the Soviet period, a believer was considered as backward, be he a Muslim or a Christian. This complex situation is the Soviet inheritance".

"When I tell the women and their husbands that the women should wear a scarf, they don’t listen to me" adds the mufti. "Many women would do it, but they have a complex and don’t wear it in the street -- they would do it if the other women did " .

Elfia, who bravely decided to wear a scarf 10 years ago, when only a handful of women were doing it, never had such complex but she admits that she faced problems with skinheads who used to insult her, calling her names like Shahid -- alluding to the Chechen women suicide bombers. But she claims the situation has improved during the last two years, except among the less educated fringes of the population.

Anti-Muslim campaigns

"Anti-Muslim campaigns help to erase this complex, especially among the young people", says the mufti, "the cult of force has the opposite result on the young people here : when one speaks of Muslim extremism, they are proud of it".

If the "haj", the ritual pilgrimage to Mecca, is a way to assess the religious commitment of Muslims in this Russian province, it is unimpressive : 30 travelled to Saudi Arabia for the last "haj" -- "a very low figure for a population of 200.000 - 250.000 Muslims", Mukaddas Barbisov acknowledges, "but a lot if we compare it to the zero figure during the Soviet period". The mufti feels that 100 local faithful would perform the haj if they had the money -- but the pilgrimage is quite expensive ( between $1.200 and $1.600) for a Russian citizen.
The mufti performed the haj four times. He also has, surprisingly enough, two wives, who gave him seven children. Asked if polygamy is legal in Russia, the mufti claims it is not a problem : "My parents registered their marriage after the birth of their fifth child. Registration is not important. What is important is to live according to the tradition. I am officially married to my first wife, and all my children carry my name", he says adding "There is no problem with the Russian state, all Russia is like this : in Russia, we do not know how to live legally"..
As far as relations with the Orthodox Church are concerned, Mukaddas Barbisov’s answer is brief : "We have good relations. We respect them -- and we demand that they respect us".

Finally, asked if there is a danger of fundamentalism in his region, with the presence of a number of refugees from Chechnya and Ingushetia, the mufti answers "What do you mean by fundamentalism ? There are radical movements everywhere. Russian society is radicalising itself. But there is no more radicalism among the Muslims of Saratov than in Russian society at large".
A leading Saratov academic claims part of the problem is due to the fact that the Orthodox Church exerts a strong influence. "The presence of the Church is felt until inside the schools, where all Russian pupils must follow a program called "the bases of orthodox culture" . And many Russian politicians use the Orthodox religion for political aims.

Muslims make up 24 % of the Russian population -- and it is increasing -- nevertheless the State is ignoring Islam".
"With the economic crisis, many people are living in utter poverty, without any assistance from any quarter. This results in a strong comeback of religions, Orthodox and Islam. It creates tensions and the development of a radical trend. The State wants to control these tensions, but it does not know how. Every six months it organizes a conference on Islam in Russia and invites experts -- but nobody listens " .

(The Middle East magazine, July 2.006)












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