TARTU, Estonia, May 12 (UPI) -- Closer ties between regional governments in the Russian Federation and Muslim Spiritual Directorates are undermining the authority of both the governments and the official Muslim leadership in many parts of the country.
The situation is particularly acute, however, in Kabardino-Balkaria where links between the state and the MSD are so close many ordinary Muslims now denounce what they call "government Islam" and look elsewhere for spiritual leadership, says an April 27 BBC report (portal-credo.ru/site/print.php?act=news&id=33012).
Putting the adjective "government" before a religion is increasingly common in the Russian Federation. Many Russian nationalists routinely do so before the noun Orthodoxy. Indeed, the Kreml.org Web site this month began discussions about "government Orthodoxy" (For the first article in this series, see kreml.org/opinions/85634884).
In the name of fighting terrorism, Kabardino-Balkaria has sought to impose tighter control over the Muslim communities on its territory. And in the name of gaining support in its campaign to prevent the spread of Muslim ideas from outside their area, mullahs and imams at the Kabardino-Balkaria MSD have been willing to cooperate.
That has proved a questionable bargain for both. The officially registered mullahs are losing out to unofficial ones. Many Muslims think the authorities suspect anyone who reads the Koran, observes fasts, avoids alcohol and attempts to live by the norms of Islam as being a Wahhabi (portal-credo.ru/site/print.php?act=comment&id=717).
At the same time, the government has been less than supportive of Islam as such. Although some 122 mosques continue to operate officially across the republic, the government has closed down all but one in the capital, Nalchik.
That remaining mosque, which the BBC reports local Muslims derisively label "the Euromosque," attracts few believers. It is quite small and too closely associated with government officials whom many believers view with suspicion.
The lack of mosques in the capital has forced many Muslims to pray either in the open, in their homes, or in offices. That recently became an issue for a group of female students at the university who reported they were harassed by authorities for organizing a Koran study group in an auditorium because a mosque nearby had been closed.
Indeed, discussions about this case continue to reverberate through the Russian media. The head of the local students' organization suggested their report was overblown (portal-credo.ru/site/print.php?act=news&id=33001), and a former mufti in the region remarked the supposed incident may not have taken place at all.
Shafiq-khadzhi Pshikhachev, who now heads the International Islamic Mission, said last week there were so many contradictions in the stories the young Muslim women told about what had happened that "doubts arise" as to whether anything at all took place (islam.ru/press/rus/2005-05-03/?single=8114).
Pshikhachev's main argument against the students' report of harassment, however, was that none of them turned to the local MSD for help. But to the extent the MSD is discredited in the eyes of Muslims, doubts also arise if they would have thought that helpful.
This cooperation between the state and the MSD has created a deceptive calm in Kabardino-Balkaria, one that resembles the Baghdad Harun al-Rashid sought to investigate by disguising himself in order to pass among the population and learn what they really thought (portal-credo.ru/site/print.php?act=commentjaid=717 ).
That calm may not last forever. As one local Muslim told the BBC, "We are not against the state. But the authorities are putting ever greater pressure on us, the supporters of the shariat."
Eventually, he continued, that will lead to an explosion of anger, a situation whose dimensions he said he was "afraid even to think about."
But he concluded: "All the same, our patience is not going to last forever."
(Paul Goble teaches at the EuroCollege of the University of Tartu in Estonia.)