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Russia and Islam: The end of peaceful coexistence?

Until recently traditional Muslims and Salafists lived harmoniously side-by-side in Tatarstan. No longer.


For years Tatarstan was held up as a model of stability and tranquillity as the Muslim-majority republics of the Russian north Caucasus became embroiled in a separatist conflict that spawned a still-continuing civil war along religious lines. More than half of Tatarstan’s 4m people are Sunni Muslims who have long enjoyed friendly relations with the rest of Russia. Kazan, the regional capital on the Volga river 450 miles (724km) east of Moscow, is a prosperous and attractive city.

That sense of calm has changed since July, when assassins shot dead a prominent Islamic leader, Valiulla Yakupov, and nearly killed Tatarstan’s chief mufti, Ildus Faizov, with a bomb detonated under his car. The exact motive remains unclear but many in Kazan seem to think it is related to the public campaign of both men to combat the rising influence of Salafism, a fundamentalist form of Islam.

In Soviet times, Islam in Tatarstan was largely a means of ethnic identification and had something of a “folk” character, says Akhmet Yarlykapov of the Russian Academy of Sciences. Yet in recent years Salafism, which has gained followers throughout the Muslim world, has made inroads in Tatarstan, especially among the young. Migrants from the republics of the north Caucasus and the post-Soviet countries of Central Asia have also spread more conservative interpretations of Islam.

Estimates of the number of Salafists in Tatarstan vary. A local mufti, Farid Salman, says the public figure of 3,000 is probably far too low. The older generation and those in official religious structures are wary of the Salafist groups, seeing them as imports and gateways to radicalisation. After he came to office in early 2011, Mr Faizov started to remove conservative imams and banned religious textbooks from Saudi Arabia, whereas his predecessor had largely left the Salafists alone. Read more… [2]

As published in www.economist.com [3] on September 1, 2012 (Print Edition).