MAKHACHKALA, Russia: Ask Khadji Gasan Gasanaliyev, imam of an independent mosque in this North Caucasus city, what’s wrong with Russia, and he tells how a three-year-old held a gun to his head. The bearded, excitable imam sprawled face-down on the floor, imitating a friend’s young son who threw a tantrum when Gasanaliyev was trying to lead the namaz, or daily prayer devout Muslims perform five times a day. Gasanaliyev dragged the boy up from the floor, and in return the boy got a toy gun and pressed it to the kneeling imam’s temple.
“A three-year-old boy! Where did he learn this?” Gasanaliyev asked, his eyes wide behind a pair of thick glasses. “There is no pity, there is no kindness here…. Look at this civilisation: Women going around naked on television, even on the street, violence everywhere. This is civilisation?” Muslims all across the country are asking similar questions about the nature of contemporary Russian society – even as their rapid rise is transforming not only the face of this traditionally Orthodox Christian country, but its culture.
Mosques that were once all but empty now overflow with believers at Friday midday prayers, from Makhachkala to the courtyard of Moscow’s central Cathedral Mosque, where hundreds of men denied spaces inside kneel on prayer rugs and newspapers. Russia’s population has been in free-fall since the Soviet collapse in 1991, dropping by five per cent to 142.5 million and sparking forebodings of the collapse of the state along with multi-billion-dollar programmes to raise birth rates.
But while ethnic Russians struggle for survival, the country’s Muslim population is booming thanks to higher birth rates and a flood of immigrants from largely Muslim Central Asia. Official statistics put Russia’s Muslim population at 12 million in 1989, while current estimates are as high as 30 million. Mix in concerns over Islamist radicalism in the Northern Caucasus, which has seen two wars and hundreds of extremist attacks since the Soviet collapse, and Muslims here face challenges that range from ignorance about their religion to threats to their lives.
Dzhamshid Aliboyev, 26, told how he bewildered his co-workers on his first day of work in February at a Moscow auto-parts factory, where he was the only Muslim on a team of 50. He laid out his prayer rug in the lobby for morning namaz, and “one by one, every single one of them stopped work to poke their heads in the door and stare at me. They said: ‘We’ve got a Muslim! What on earth is he doing?'” After several weeks of lunchtime question-and-answer sessions, “now my cell phone alarm goes off to remind me about the namaz, and they’re all excited. ‘You’re going to pray now?’ they say.”
Not all of Russia’s Muslims feel so welcome. “Of course I’m afraid,” said Makhmud, a Kyrgyz man in his late 50s who moved to Moscow three months ago seeking work. “You see young men with shaved heads on the street or the metro, and you know that anything could happen.” Muslims bear the brunt of the escalating racist violence in Russia. Racist attacks struck 539 people last year, a 17 per cent rise over 2005, the Sova analytical centre said in a report last week. Nearly half of the 56 people killed in the attacks were from the North Caucasus and Central Asia – both overwhelmingly Muslim.
“Xenophobia is growing very quickly here, and Islamophobia is growing along with it and will continue to, there’s no question,” said Alexei Malashenko, an expert on Islam in Russia at the Carnegie Moscow Centre. Underlying the threat to Russian Muslims as individuals is a deep uncertainty the Russian government feels about how to handle the quick rise of the faith. President Vladimir Putin meets with Kremlin-friendly Muslim leaders regularly and underlines the centuries-old presence of Islam in Russia during his visits to traditionally Muslim countries.
But in Makhachkala, the capital of the Caucasian region of Dagestan, Imam Gasanaliyev’s energetic delivery turned angry when he was asked about the government’s relation to Islam. “They hate this religion,” he said, pounding his fist on the table. “There’s no help, no support for us at all.” It might seem an odd claim in Dagestan, where 80 per cent of the population is Muslim and the government is sponsoring a mosque-building boom.
But as an advocate of what he calls “pure Islam” – as opposed to the government-friendly Islam that has dominated in Russia since the time of the tsars – Gasanaliyev hovers on the edge of what authorities see as a foreign-sponsored threat. When the Soviet Union fell, radical Islamist influence from abroad provoked a split in the North Caucasus “between so-called traditional Islam and pure Islam – the Wahhabists, as we call them,” Dagestani President Mukhu Aliyev told journalists recently. “We’re openly struggling against them and will continue to, because they don’t recognise the constitution, don’t recognise the authorities… they don’t recognise any language except that of the machine gun.”
For many Muslims, though, corruption among politicians and state law enforcement agencies only proves the need for a higher authority. “They steal, they say they’re going to do things for people and do nothing – of course we trust our imams more,” said Rasul, 26, an unemployed agricultural college graduate in Makhachkala. Gasanaliyev also charged that law enforcement deliberately targeted the most devout young Muslims, seeing them as potential radicals. “No less than 20 or 30 young people have disappeared over the last two to three years, no one knows where,” Gasanaliyev said. “There are people like that in every mosque. The most worthy, respectable young people are the ones who disappear.”
Back in Moscow, local and federal authorities show their two-sided relationship to Islam just as clearly. Dozens of the faithful waited long after a recent midday Friday namaz for the results of a meeting between Russian Council of Muftis head Ravil Gainutdin, Moscow mayor Yury Luzhkov, and two top Kremlin aides over how to kick-start the planned expansion of the Cathedral Mosque. Construction of a new hall that would quadruple the mosque’s capacity has been stalled for over a year in spite of a pledge of support from Putin in January 2005. The talks this month ended with vague promises to help find additional funding. Twenty-five-year-old Abdul-Qodr, an Uzbek immigrant to Moscow, was not disheartened. The whole world is moving closer to Islam, he said, and Russia is moving along with it. “Just a few years ago we were amazed when Russians or Americans or French people converted to Islam. No one’s amazed anymore,” he said.