Russia’s Medvedev calls on muftis to combat extremism

July 17, 2009

medvedevRussian President Dmitry Medvedev, battling a low-level Muslim insurgency in Russia’s south, has met Muslim leaders and asked them to spread a message of tolerance to combat Islamist extremism.

Medvedev met 12 muftis, Muslim spiritual leaders, from across the country on Wednesday in the pre-revolutionary Congregational Mosque in central Moscow, said by Muslims to be one of the oldest in European Russia.

(Photo: President Medvedev (L) and Chief Mufti Ravil Gaynutdin in Moscow, 15 July 2009/RIA Novosti)

Although the Kremlin has calmed the province of Chechnya by installing a strong local leader, violence has flared in other areas of the volatile, poverty-ridden North Caucasus. Killings of police and local officials are on the rise.

“It (extremism) destabilises the situation in our country and we are obliged to take all the necessary measures to neutralise it,” Medvedev told the muftis.

“In these conditions our crucial joint task is to spread the ideas of tolerance and acceptance of other faiths.”

It was the first time that a Russian president had visited the mosque, which was built in 1904. Medvedev said 57 of Russia’s 182 different ethnic groups identified themselves with Islam.

Russia is predominantly an Orthodox Christian nation but its vast territory is also home to around 20 million Muslims, many of them concentrated in the southern republics of Chechnya, Ingushetia and Dagestan.

Analysts say growing violence in these regions has highlighted the danger of the Kremlin’s policy of handing control to local elites to try to stem unrest.

“These regions have become increasingly explosive. I think there is a crying need to have at least some people at some level to take decisions, not yes-men,” said Maria Lipman, an analyst at Moscow’s Carnegie Centre think-tank.

RUSSIARavil Gaynutdin, the head Mufti of Russia, told Medvedev: “We Muslims in Russia want dialogue with the Russian Orthodox Church and we thank you for helping the Muslim brotherhood by visiting Dagestan and Ingushetia”.

The Kremlin has tried to co-opt Russia’s religious leaders into a shared vision of how the country should develop and in return expects loyalty to officialdom. Russia’s Supreme Mufti Talgat Tadzhutdin told Medvedev: “There is only one nation — Russian.”

(Photo: Qol Sharif mosque in Kazan, Tatarstan, 25 August 2005/Alexander Natruskin)

In Soviet times, religion was discouraged by the state though many, including Russia’s Muslim community, practiced underground.

In recent years the number of racist attacks on dark-skinned immigrants, most of them Muslims, has increased and rights groups say this is linked to the social turmoil that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Medvedev also visited the surroundings of the Congregational Mosque, where an enormous new Muslim temple is being built with private money, to be finished in 2010.

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