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IOS Minaret Vol-1, No.1 (March 2007)
Vol. 10    Issue 10   01-16 October 2015


Professor A. R. MOMIN

Russia has more Muslims than any other European country (except Turkey). According to the 2002 census, Russia's Muslim population was 14.5 million, constituting about 10 per cent of the Russian Federation's total population. In 2005, Russia's foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, put the number of Muslims in Russia at 20 million. The current estimate of the population of Muslims in the Russian Federation is about 23 million, which accounts for about 15 per cent of the country’s population of 145 million. Russia’s Muslim population is largely concentrated in Dagestan, Bashkortostan, Tatarstan, Chechnya, Kabardino-Balkaria, Ingushetia, Karachaevo-Cherkessia, Adygyea and Moscow. Nearly 2 million Muslims live in Moscow, making up about 16 per cent of the city’s population of 12.5 million.

The Siberian Muslims are among Russia's oldest surviving Muslim communities. According to local legend, a large number of people in western Siberia were converted to Islam by some of the disciples of Bahauddin Naqshband (1318-1389), a prominent Sufi saint and founder of the influential Naqshbandiya order, who came to western Siberia in the closing decades of the 14th century. There are three large and distinct Muslim ethnic groups in the region: Siberian Tartars (80,000), Western Siberian Kazakhs (160,000) and the Volga-Ural Tartars (60,000). Since the conquest of Tatarstan's capital Kazan by Ivan the Terrible in 1552, the city's Kremlin houses a mosque with towering minarets, situated next to an Orthodox Christian church.

Tatar Muslims are divided into several ethnic groups, including Crimean Tatars, Kazan or Volga Tatars, Astrakhan Tatars, Siberian Tatars and Lipka Tatars. There are about 2 million ethnic Tatars in Tatarstan, a federal subject of the Russian Federation. More than 1.5 million Kazan Tatars live in the Volga and Urals region of Russia. The Siberian Tatars, estimated to number around 100,000 live in western Siberia. The population of Crimean Tatars is estimated to be around 6.6 million. They are scattered in 22 countries, including the Russian Federation, Ukraine and the Central Asian republics.

The annexation of the Muslim-dominated regions of the Caucasus and Central Asia by the Soviet Union in the early decades of the 20th century brought about untold hardships and suffering for millions of Muslims in the region. The economic policies of Joseph Stalin caused a severe shortage of grain in the northern Caucasus, the Lower Volga region and Ukraine and resulted in a devastating famine in 1932-33, which took a toll of nearly 10 million people, mostly Tatar Muslims and Ukrainians. Between 1917 and 1933 nearly half of the Crimean Tatar population was decimated as a result of starvation and famine.

In 1944, nearly half a million Chechen and Ingush Muslims and Crimean Tatars were deported to Siberia and Central Asia on orders from Stalin. The deportees also included Balkars, Karachai, Kalmyks and Meshkhetian Turks. More than a third of them perished in the course of the long and arduous journey. Those who survived were relocated to other regions and forced to work as indentured labourers in the Gulag system. Stalin suspected them of collaborating with the German forces during their incursion into the Caucasus in 1942-43. In 1967 the charges against Crimean Tatars and Chechen and Ingush Muslims were dropped but they were allowed to return to their homeland only in the late 1980s.

Authorities in the Soviet Union carried out a systematic and oppressive campaign of Russification aimed at the obliteration of all ethnic, religious and cultural distinctions and identities. Stalin sought to eradicate the presence of Islam in the Soviet Union by ordering the closure of mosques, madrasas and Sufi lodges and by proscribing the observance of Islamic rites and rituals. The use of the Arabic script was banned and was replaced by Latin and Cyrillic scripts. Thousands of ulama and Islamic teachers were imprisoned, deported or executed. There were 16,000 mosques in the Soviet Union before the 1917 Russian Revolution. By 1984 their number was reduced to 400.

Daghestan, situated in the northern Caucasus region, has a population of 2.7 million, 90 per cent of them Muslims. Dagestan is rich in oil and gas reserves, but the people of Dagestan are among the poorest in the Russian Federation. In the 1920s Dagestan became an autonomous Soviet republic within the Russian Federation. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 it has remained a part of the Russian Federation.

In 1999, an Islamic group declared the establishment of an independent Islamic state in parts of Dagestan and Chechnya and called on all Muslims in the Russian-held territories to rise in revolt against Russian domination. Chechen fighters moved into Dagestan and joined hands with the group. Vladimir Putin, then Russia's president, dealt with the uprising in a ruthless manner. Since then the Russian forces have carried out a brutal campaign of terror and repression in the region. The pro-independence fighters have put up a strong resistance against Russian onslaught. There has been a spate of bombings targeted at Russian forces. The region continues to be dogged by violence, political instability and lawlessness.

The southern Russian republic of Chechnya is has rich oil reserves. The capital Grozny is a major oil centre with pipelines to the Caspian and Black seas. In the 19th century, Imam Shamil and his fighters kept the Russian forces at bay for nearly 25 years. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Dzhokhar Dudayev, a former senior officer in the Soviet air force, declared Chechnya's independence from Russia. Russia sent its forces to quell the rebellion but with little success and Russian forces suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of Chechen fighters in 1994. The fierce fighting in Chechnya continued till 1996, which left nearly 80,000 people dead. Russian forces were withdrawn under a 1996 peace agreement, under which Chechnya was granted substantial autonomy, but not full independence. Fighting erupted again in 1999 and Russian planes and missiles relentlessly bombarded Grozny. The city was devastated and laid to waste.

The republic of Ingushetia, which has a fairly large concentration of Muslims, has been relatively peaceful until recent times. Unlike Chechnya and Dagestan, it never demanded independence nor supported the Chechen fighters. But the reign of terror let loose by the Russian authorities have disturbed the peace in the republic. Ingushetia now has a network of Muslim guerrilla fighters.

The vast majority of Muslims in Russia continue to live in an atmosphere of fear, insecurity and repression. In a dramatic move, Russia invaded and annexed Crimea on 18 March 2014. The illegal annexation of Crimea has rekindled the dreadful memories of the 1944 deportation among the Crimean Tatars. It is significant to note that the Muslim-dominated republics of the Russian Federation have witnessed an Islamic revival in recent years. This is reflected in the construction of new mosques and Islamic schools and in the increasing popularity of Islamic literature. A quarter century ago Tatarstan's capital Kazan had some 20 mosques. Now there are around 1,300. In 2000 Russia's first Islamic university was opened in Kazan. An increasing number of Muslim women now wear the Islamic veil.

A new, sprawling mosque in Chechnya’s capital Grozny, built in the classical Ottoman style, opened in October 2008. The mosque—described by the authorities as the largest in Europe—can accommodate about 10,000 worshippers. The number of Muslims going on the Hajj pilgrimage has significantly increased in recent years. Nearly 26,000 Muslims from Russia went on the Hajj pilgrimage in 2012. The state airline, Aeroflot, flies Hajj pilgrims at discounted fares.

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