Fields of Gold: Planting a Church Among Central Asian Muslims

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Currently, Russia is second in the world in terms of its absolute volume of immigration, lagging only behind the US [55].

Russian immigration officials say most of the immigrants come from impoverished former Soviet republics in Central Asia such as Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. Russia has bilateral agreements on visa-free travel with these countries. Although immigrants from these majority Muslim states do not need visas to reside in Russia, they must obtain work permits before taking up employment. Some 75 percent of all immigrants in Russia hail from former Soviet republics, and many others come from countries with strong traditional ties to Moscow such as Vietnam and Afghanistan.

Some 45 percent of Russians support the nationalist slogan of "Russia for ethnic Russians," the poll found [57].

If migration continues to occur at its current pace, the number of Russian Muslims from Central Asia will outnumber the number of ethnic Russian Muslims, exceeding the combined populations of the Ural-Volga, Crimean Tartar and North Caucasus regions. Even today, in some Russian cities, Uzbeks, Tajiks and Kyrgyz make up a larger proportion of the mosque going community than indigenous Russian Muslims [58]. The government's policies toward migrants have been contradictory in the past.

Laws in loosened the requirements for immigration into Russia, while reforms in made immigration laws stricter. In , these more stringent policies were softened to allow more workers into Russia after Moscow realized the country was experiencing a population crisis. The demographic shift is changing the social landscape in Russia, where the ethnic Russian population has been the centrepiece of social policy for hundreds of years. The Kremlin is attempting to develop a way to incorporate a multi-ethnic and -religious population with a heavy emphasis on Islam into its new policies [59].

Islam has always been the second biggest religion in Russia, but it had never been as visible in Moscow as it is now. In July Moscow had only six Mosques, hence the necessity for worshippers to congregate in the street. However, attempts to build new ones are met with protests and rallies [61]. Despite of this opposition, in September , an elaborate ceremony marked the opening of a mosque that promises to be the grandest in Europe. Increased anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sentiment has accompanied demographic changes.

A poll in July said 65 percent of Russians believe immigrants and immigrant-related crime top terrorism and Western influence as the biggest security threat to their country. A January poll suggested that 55 percent of Russians reported feelings of enmity toward other ethnicities, and 63 percent believed that Russians should have more rights than other ethnicities.

The presence of large numbers of immigrants, many of whom speak Russian poorly, has stoked social unrest. Crime has played a large role in increasing tensions. In police investigators said immigrants were responsible for about 20 percent of all homicides in Moscow the previous year and just over 40 percent of all rapes. Relations are also tense in Moscow and other large cities between ethnic Russians and "internal migrants" from mainly Muslim republics such as Chechnya, in the volatile North Caucasus region. The Russian government has been struggling to devise a way to bring all Russian ethnicities under one national identity — much like the Soviets did under the concept of Soviet nationality.

With no actual plan on how to counter rising Russian nationalism at a time of demographic changes, it is unclear if the Kremlin can come up with an effective policy to implement [67]. The danger of growing anti-Islamic sentiment is that it threatens to push Russian Muslims further outside the mainstream and into the arms of radicals. Because of the Soviet legacy of religious repression, the majority of people living in Russia with Muslim backgrounds are largely secular -- attached to Islam mostly as part of their ethnic identity.

With interest in Islam surging, it also leaves them open to being influenced by extremist ideas. The Russian government faces several problems with tensions stemming from these demographic trends. But now that the Muslim populations have become larger and have moved from the borderlands into Russia's interior, the Kremlin is having more difficulties balancing the interests of all its constituencies. In the lead-up to the elections, Russia saw protests of more than , in the streets of Moscow calling for immigration reform and a cessation of government subsidization for the Russian Muslim republics.

Herald Magazine

But Russian President Vladimir Putin has opposed such a move. According to Levada Center surveys, 70 percent of Russians — the highest percentage seen in a decade — want stricter immigration rules. Notably, of those polled, Ukrainians, Belarusians and Moldovans were not considered non-Russians; xenophobic tendencies focused more on ethnicities that were largely Islamic. Overall, social tensions between ethnically Russian and non-Russian populations particularly Islamic are on the rise [71].

Rampant Islamophobia, however, shows up in much than more opinion polls and hate crime statistics.

Southeast Asia

The world of social media has been developing quickly in Russia over the last decade, and nationalist groups of all ideological persuasions are heavily involved in it [72]. Ethnic Russians fear their country is losing its traditional identity; Muslims are offended by widespread discrimination and a lack of respect for their faith. Most Muslims living in Russia are not immigrants, but the indigenous people of lands long ago seized by the expanding Russian empire.

And Islam is recognized as one of Russia's official religions, along with Orthodox Christianity, Judaism and Buddhism. But few nationalists make a distinction between immigrants from former Soviet countries and non-Slavic Russian citizens [73].

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Currently, there are no effective institutions for the integration of migrants from Central Asia into the Muslim space of the Russian Federation. Integration of migrants is a problem of enormous complexity, considering the low level of elementary political and administrative culture in the Muslim community, lack of a Russian all-Muslim ideological platform and lack of experience and appropriate personnel, as well as the existence of huge numbers of internal conflicts.


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There is also an increasingly common problem posed by those who are hostile to Muslim intents to build mosques in Russian cities. They also frequently try and suppress Islamic activity, including youth and migrant work, using federal power and administrative resources [74]. Drawing connections between labour migrants and the spread of Islamic radicalism are mainstream in the Russian media, and even at the level of institutions such as the Federal Service of Migration and law enforcement agencies [75]. The Russian government can no longer afford to exploit differences or ignore divisions.

It must now adjust its policies for managing social sentiment. As it does so, it will encounter a few dilemmas. One dilemma involves finding a way for ethnic Russians to differentiate indigenous Muslims from immigrant Muslims. Most Russians lump any non-ethnic Russians together, so a rise in Russian nationalism really means a rise in Russian ethnic nationalism.

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A second dilemma the Kremlin will encounter is the need for increased immigration when its population is in decline. As the population of ethnic Russians shrinks, there is a pressing need to augment the labour force, and immigrants are an effective way to do so. The problem for the Kremlin is that even if migrants fill low-skilled and low-paying jobs at a time when many ethnic Russians are rising to create a middle class, 53 percent of Russians do not see immigration as a solution to the country's demographic problems [76]. Though not without significant difficulties, Muslim migrants are integrating into Russian society.

In addition, their number has stabilized and even decreased over the last year to about 3. The question now is how to maintain this relative stability. A conflict could flare up from some seemingly trivial issue, an everyday event or a single episode. The spark could be the shortage of mosques in some cities and the crowding of worshippers during a religious holiday, or unnecessarily rough treatment at the hands of security forces, or an unmotivated ban on religious literature.

It could also be prompted by a terrorist attack perpetrated by a lone fanatic or a psychologically unstable person. All of this could easily provoke tension in an individual city or region, and could ignite simmering xenophobic sentiment across the country as a whole and tilt the scales [77]. Islam is one of the forms of expressing social demands in Muslim regions. This occurs not only in the North Caucasus but also in other regions with a large Muslim population.

Religious phobias will have a negative impact on inter-ethnic conflicts [78]. Islam in Russia: domestic and foreign influences. The Russian encounter with Islam dates back many centuries. In parts of Russia, Islam appeared on the scene before Christianity [80]. Russia's identity was forged during centuries-long confrontation, coexistence and cooperation with Muslim neighbours. The Muslims who now live in Russia are mostly the descendants of this historical legacy. Ethnic Tatars, Russia's third largest ethnic group after Slavic Russians and Ukrainians, have lived in Russia for centuries [83].

Muslim populations exist in all of the territorial divisions of the Russian Federation. Other parts of Russia, including large cities such as Moscow, Nizhniy Novgorod and St Petersburg, also have significant Muslim populations [84]. Sufi Islam was widespread among Russian Muslims, primarily the Naqshbandi order o tariqat and the Kadiritariqat, but while Sufi Islam remained strong in the northeast Caucasus, it declined drastically among Volga region Muslims.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union there was a religious revival, which began with Orthodoxy and later embraced Islam [88]. The rise of Islam was accompanied by a rise of nationalist sentiment.