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Russian Islam goes its own way


By Leonid Ragozin, Moscow

"If people wear tight jeans or skirts and speak slang, it does not mean they have veered from the path of true Islam."

Shamil Alyautdinov often says things you do not quite expect from an imam.  

But 70 years of communism have bulldozed most religious and ethnic traditions in Russia, so do not be surprised when you hear him saying it is all right that most Muslims do not even attend the mosque.

"It is not obligatory," Mr Alyautdinov adds. "Life is very fast these days, so people don't have time to go to mosque."


The 31-year-old imam of the Moscow Memorial mosque, who graduated from a regular secondary school in the Russian capital's suburbia but studied Islamic theology in Egypt, finds new methods of reaching his flock, suitable for the new era.

Muslims from all around the country send him e-mails with questions on various aspects of everyday life and worship. His answers have already formed several books.


The most voluminous of them all - reflecting the readers' main area of interest - is the one called He And She and dedicated, as the name suggests, to relations between men and women.

Another bestseller sold across the country includes some of Mr Alyautdinov's texts, although the imam strongly objects to its "provocative" name: Love And Sex In Islam.


The book praised in the foreword by leading Muslim clerics, theologians, activists and even the Iranian cultural attache, covers such issues as sex change, masturbation, anal and oral sex - and many others - from the Islamic perspective.


But in a country that has one of the world's highest divorce and abortion rates, these two issues top Russian Muslims' agenda, along with cross-religious marriage and premarital sex.


Beliefs reassessed


The country's Muslim community is extremely diverse - from Volga Tatars and Bashkirs to the ethnic mishmash of the North Caucasus. But unlike Muslim minorities in Western Europe, most Russian Muslims represent native people of what is now Russia, who inhabited their land for over a millennium.

They spent centuries adapting to the official dominance of Orthodox Christianity in tsarist times and then underwent the communist experiment aimed at rooting out religion and melting all ethnic groups into one great Soviet nation.


The country's Muslim community makes up more than 10% of the total population. Demographers predict that by 2020 one out of five Russians will be Muslim. But the question is: How Muslim will they be?


The end of communism found many Muslims dispersed among the non-Muslim population and living a lifestyle nearly indistinguishable from their fellow citizens of Russia. In the 1990s, millions of them turned back to their roots, but many soon grew disappointed with mainstream Islam and called for reforms.

Rafail Khakimov, who heads the Institute of Tatar History, coined the term "Euroislam". Its main feature, he says, is a "critical attitude to everything that happens around us instead of blindly following the principles established in the Middle Ages".


"The traditions of the Islamic world were shaped between the 10th and 12th centuries and preserved ever since but the liberal Islam which started developing two centuries ago is open to all experiences existing in the world," he says.


'Room for everything'


Being an advisor to the president of Tatarstan, Mr Khakimov is one of those who shape the official ideology of this predominantly Muslim republic inside Russia which enjoys a high degree of autonomy.


"Europe is the point of reference for Tatarstan's elite, including the leadership," he asserts.

Mainstream clerics believe Islam does not need either a "euro" prefix or any other.

"Islam is a universal religion that answers all the questions an individual or society as a whole may face," says Nafigulla Ashirov, the chief mufti of the Asian part of Russia.


He says Islam gives enough room for diversity, for instance as regards what people want to wear: European-style clothes do not contradict the Koran.


"But this is not modernisation - it is what Islam allows anyway," Mr Ashirov says.


Some Tatar clerics add that the Hanafite theological school, dominant in Tatar Islam, is pluralistic and critical enough to answer the challenges of the epoch. Mr Khakimov, however, blames them for being out of touch with ordinary Muslims:


"Tatarstan has thousands of mosques, so why are they locked? Because many imams studied abroad, for example in Saudi Arabia. But the situation in Russia is completely different from that of the Arabian peninsula."


Euroislamists and mainstream clerics might disagree, but there is no feeling of enmity between them.


However, there is another Muslim reformist movement whose existence worries them both.


The militants


The leader of the Islamic committee of Russia, Geydar Dzhemal, who claims to be close to Salafism - a purist teaching dominant in Saudi Arabia - advocates Islamic guerrilla resistance against the "barbaric" authorities.


"Many young people who were provoked by the security forces, tortured and humiliated went off into the forests and mountains and most certainly perished there, but refused to kiss the boots of the new Mongols," he says.


Dismissing the leaders of Chechen separatists as failed role models, he praises the people of Andijan - an Uzbek town whose residents last May staged a revolt brutally suppressed by the government.

The popularity of such ideas largely depends on the Russian authorities' ability not to alienate Muslims like they did in the most notorious example of Chechnya.


But it also depends on how carefully Russian Muslim leaders strike a balance between tradition and the urge for change.

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