Islam is the second largest religion in Russia after Russian Orthodoxy. There are believed to be around 20 million Muslims in Russia. A census in 2002 counted 14.5 million while Russian Muslim leaders claim there are 23 million. The number of Muslims is increasing, in part because their birthrate is higher.

There are also an additional 3 million to 4 million migrants from former Soviet states. Of these about 2 million are Azeris from Azerbaijan, 1 million are Kazakhs and several hundred thousand are Uzbeks, Tajiks and Kyrgyz. In 1996 the Muslim population of Russia was estimated at 19 percent of all citizens professing belief in a religion.

Under the tsars, the Muslim clergy was brought within Russian bureaucratic structure and given salaries. Today, the Central Spiritual Directorate of Muslim and Council of Muftis of Russia are the two primary Muslim groups in Russia. The former is based on Bashkortostan and is led by Talgat Tadzhuiddon, who was a member of the Soviet religious bureaucracy. The latter is a post-Soviet group that claims the allegiance of the majority of Russia’s Muslim groups.

Muslim Groups in Russia

Major Islamic communities are concentrated among the minority nationalities residing between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea: the Adyghs, Balkars, Bashkirs, Chechens, Cherkess, Ingush, Kabardins, Karachay, and numerous Dagestani nationalities. In the middle Volga Basin are large populations of Tatars, Udmurts, and Chuvash, most of whom are Muslims. Many Muslims also reside in Ul'yanovsk, Samara, Nizhniy Novgorod, Moscow, Perm', and Leningrad oblasts. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Many of the indigenous Russian Muslims are Tatars and Bashkirs of the Volga region and Chechens and Ingush in the Caucasus. There are a handful of Muslims that are ethnic Russians and Ukrainians and Belorussians, mostly young and educated.

Virtually all the Muslims in Russia adhere to the Sunni branch of Islam except for some Shiites in Dagestan. In a few areas, notably Chechnya, there is a tradition of Sufism, a mystical variety of Islam that stresses the individual's search for union with God. Sufi rituals, practiced to give the Chechens spiritual strength to resist foreign oppression, became legendary among Russian troops fighting the Chechens during tsarist times. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Islam in the Soviet Era

In the 1980s, Islam was the second most widespread religion in the Soviet Union; in that period, the number of Soviet citizens identifying themselves as Muslims generally totaled between 45 and 50 million. The majority of the Muslims resided in the Central Asian republics of the Soviet Union, which now are independent countries. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Islam in the Soviet era was fairly secularized. The Friday pay of prayer was a work day and few women wore veils or head coverings. In the Soviet-era, one Tatar told National Geographic, "I only heard the Koran read at funerals. Only the old men know it. Only a handful of Muslim were allowed to make the haj. In Muslim areas the slogan was; "There is no God, and Lenin is his prophet.

Islam was repressed and made Communist-friendly in the Soviet era. Mosques and “madrassas” (Muslim schools) were closed down, turned into museums or run by puppet imams and muftis. The number of mosques dropped from 34,000 in the former Soviet Union before 1917 to 400 afterwards,

Under Stalin, Muslim leaded were deported and sent to labor camps. The KGB watched over Islamic organizations. In his 1985 analysis “Mystics and Commissars”, S. Enders Wimbush wrote: “Members of Sufi brotherhoods were hunted as ‘criminals’...They were accused of immutable hostility towards the Soviet regime or economic sabotage, ‘banditsim,’ ‘terrorism,’ and ‘armed rebellion.’

"When I was a kid, everything about religion was kept quiet" one Dagestan resident told the Los Angeles Times, "You'd say things like, 'have you washed yet today?' to your sister when you were really talking about praying." The Tatars had tried to rally Muslim groups in the Soviet Union against Moscow with little success.

Muslims and the Russian Government

The struggle to delineate the respective powers of the federal and local governments in Russia also has influenced Russian relations with the Islamic community. The Russian Federation inherited two of the four spiritual boards, or muftiates, created during the Stalinist era to supervise the religious activities of Islamic groups in various parts of the Soviet Union; the other two are located in Tashkent and Baku. One of the two Russian boards has jurisdiction in European Russia and Siberia, and the other is responsible for the Muslim enclaves of the North Caucasus and Transcaspian regions. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

There is much evidence of official conciliation toward Islam in Russia in the 1990s. The number of Muslims allowed to make pilgrimages to Mecca increased sharply after the virtual embargo of the Soviet era ended in 1990. Copies of the Quran (Koran) are readily available, and many mosques are being built in regions with large Muslim populations. *

In 1995 the newly established Union of Muslims of Russia, led by Imam Khatyb Mukaddas of Tatarstan, began organizing a movement aimed at improving interethnic understanding and ending Russians' lingering conception of Islam as an extremist religion. The Union of Muslims of Russia is the direct successor to the pre-World War I Union of Muslims, which had its own faction in the Russian Duma. The post-communist union has formed a political party, the Nur All-Russia Muslim Public Movement, which acts in close coordination with Muslim clergy to defend the political, economic, and cultural rights of Muslims and other minorities. *

The Islamic Cultural Center of Russia, which includes a medrese (religious school), opened in Moscow in 1991. The Ash-Shafii Islamic Institute in Dagestan is the only such research institution in Russia. In the 1990s, the number of Islamic publications has increased. Among them are two magazines in Russian, Ekho Kavkaza and Islamskiy vestnik , and the Russian-language newspaper Islamskiye novosti , which is published in Makhachkala, Dagestan. *

Distrust Between Muslims and the Russian Government

Relations between the Russian government and Muslim elements of the population have been marked by mistrust and suspicion. In 1992, for example, Sheikh Ravil Gainurtdin, the imam of the Moscow mosque, complained that "our country [Russia] still retains the ideology of the tsarist empire, which believed that the Orthodox faith alone should be a privileged religion, that is, the state religion." The Russian government, for its part, fears the rise of political Islam of the violent sort that Russians witnessed in the 1980s firsthand in Afghanistan and secondhand in Iran. Government fears were fueled by a 1992 conference held in Saratov by the Tajikistan-based Islamic Renaissance Party. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Representatives attended from several newly independent Central Asian republics, from Azerbaijan, and from several autonomous jurisdictions of Russia, including the secessionist-minded autonomous republics of Tatarstan and Bashkortostan. The meeting's pan-Islamic complexion created concern in Moscow about the possible spread of radical Islam into Russia from the new Muslim states along the periphery of the former Soviet Union. For that reason, the Russian government has provided extensive military and political support to secular leaders of the five Central Asian republics, all of whom are publicly opposed to political Islam. By the mid-1990s, the putative Islamic threat was a standard justification for radical nationalist insistence that Russia regain control of its "near abroad". *

In 1992 several Muslim associations withdrew from the Caucasus muftiate and attempted to establish their own spiritual boards. Later that year, Tatarstan and Bashkortostan withdrew recognition from the muftiate for European Russia and Siberia and created their own muftiate. *

Revival of Islam in Russia

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Islam experienced revival in southern Russia and the Northern Caucasus. The number of mosques in Russia increased from around 500 in the Soviet era to around 5,000 around 2000. Prayer beads, women with headcoverings and men with long beards became more common sights in areas inhabited by Muslims. Many of the religious leaders were poorly trained and seemed more interested in politics than religion.

Money from the Middle East, particularly Saudi Arabia, has financed the building of mosques and helped Russian Muslims to become better organized. In 2001, the mainstream Islamic Refakh movement announced it was going to form a new party: the Prosperity Party. Some Muslim ethnic groups have been among the most resistant minorities to becoming part of unfied Russia. Leaders in Dagestan have urged people to join together in a "single spiritual space."

Extremist forms of Islam areg grouped together and referred to as Wahhabism in Russia. Wahhabis have been accused of stirring up trouble in Dagestan and being behind bloody clashes between rival Muslim groups there. Chechens are accused of following Wahhabism. Muslims accused of having Wahabbi sympathies have had he mosques raided and religious material, including Korans, confiscated. Rival Muslim groups accuse each other of being Wahhabis as a way of undermining them.

Discrimination Against Muslims

Anti-Muslim feelings were stoked by the war in Chechnya and terrorist attacks by Chechen fighters in the 1990s and early 2000s. Muslims that live in places where they are a minority are harassed, humiliated and talked about by non-Muslims in muffled whispers.

One Central Asian Muslim imam that lives in a predominately Russian town told the Washington Post, “It’s very hard for Muslims to live here now. In Russia, we have this problem—we are always looking for an enemy. It used to be the Jews, now they have all gone to Israel. So the politicians see the Muslims—we are poor, we have no power. Instead of Jews, they attack Muslims. They incite the crowd. ‘Beat the Muslims!’ We are the new Jews.”

In a poll released in July 2005 by the Pew Research Group, 84 percent of those surveyed said that they were concerned about the rise of Muslim extremism in their country and 72 percent said that they felt that Muslim immigrants wish to remain distinct from their society.

In the earyly 2000s, Russian newspaper ran pictures of local Muslim leaders next to pictures of Osama bin Laden. Hate crimes and attacks are directed at Muslims. Putin has called for tolerance and stated that Islam is a peaceful religion but at same time he has characterized the war in Chechnya as battle between Christians and Muslims and has said, “If you are a Christian you are in danger.”

Racism Against People from the Caucasus

Prejudice towards dark-skinned from the Caucasus and southern Russia is common. Regarded as criminals and often referred to as "blacks" or “chernozhopy” (“black asses”), they include people from Dagestan, Chechnya, Ingushetia, Azerbaijan, Armenia and other regions in the Caucasus Mountains. Both Muslims and Christians are discriminated against although Muslims get the worst of it in part because there are more of them.

Hundreds of thousands of "dark skinned" people from the Caucasus live in Moscow, many without permits. They are objects of discrimination and abuse and are often the targets of round-ups of "illegal" residents without residence permits. In one two week campaign in the early 2000s, 9,000 people, most from the Caucasus, were forcibly deported and another 10,000 left of their own. One migrant from the south told Newsweek, "When the police see our dark skin, they stop us and fine us for not having a residence permit."

People from the Caucasus are shunned by landlords and milked for extra high bribes by authorities and officials. They are blamed by nationalist groups for taking jobs away from ethnic Russians, dominating markets, harassing women and not paying taxes. A leader of a nationalist group told the Washington Post, “They don’t wash themselves, they don’t clean up, they sleep 10 to 15 in a small room. They bring their dirty culture here.”

Police routinely stop people suspected as being from the Caucasus on the streets and extract a bride even when all their papers are in order. Dark-skinned men with beards are particularly suspected. They are shouted down in the streets with the call, “Eh, Shamil!,” a reference to the 19th century Chechen leader Shamil Basayev.

Chechens are arguably the most hated people in Russia. Animosity towards them has been extrapolated to other peoples of the Caucasus, even Christians, who are also reviled. Harassment and attacks of people from the Caucasus increased after terrorist attacks involving Chechens.

Attacks on People from the Caucasus

After the bombings in Moscow in 1999, which were blamed on Chechens, dark-skinned people Caucasus were afraid to leave their homes in Moscow except for brief dashes to buy food. Numerous callers to radio talk shows said all people from the Caucasus should be deported from Moscow. Graffiti in Moscow reads "Kill the blacks."

Chechen and Azerbaijani street traders have had their goods and money seized and their kiosks bulldozed by Russian authorities. A Chechen refugee went to Red Square to meet his girlfriend and was slapped and stabbed through the heart by a Russian nationalist.

On Hitler's birthday (April 21), 2001, 300 young hoodlums ransacked stalls at a Moscow market, belonging mostly to people from Caucasus region and Central Asia, killing three people—a Tajik, Azerbaijani and an Indian. On the same day an 18-year-old Chechen was stabbed to death by skinheads outside the Kremlin.

One skinhead who claimed his girlfriend was killed in the bombing of the Moscow apartments in 1999, which were blamed on Chechens, told the Washington Post, “The Dark ones, I hate them. I don’t consider them human. It doesn’t just burn me up, it drives me crazy. I look around and if I don’t see any obstacles, I’ll go beat up this guy and maybe even kill him and I’ll have as much joy as if I bought a car.”

Image Sources:

Text Sources: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures: Russia and Eurasia, China”, edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond (C.K. Hall & Company, Boston); New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated May 2016

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