Islam is rising in Russia with an estimated 30 million devotees representing up to 20 per cent of the population. Experts predict the figure to go up to more than 30 per cent within a few years as the birthrate among ethnic Russians drops, mortality rate rises and the Muslim population increases.
Millions of Muslims from the Caucasus and Central Asia have also settled in Russia since the break-up of the Soviet Union while ethnic Russians start to show more interest in Islam as a way of life and an escape from the commercial pop culture being encouraged by the West. Latest estimates put ethnic Russian Muslims at six per cent of the country’s entire Muslim population.
Most of the Muslims in Russia, though, are focused among the minority races living in the Black Sea and Caspian Sea areas. These include the Adyghes, Balkars, Nogais, Chechens, Circassians, Ingush, Kabardin, Karachay, and numerous Dagestani groups. Large populations of Muslim-dominated Tatars and Bashkirs can be found in the middle Volga Basin while you also find Muslims, mostly Tatars, in Perm Krai and Ulyanovsk, Samara, Nizhny Novgorod, Tyumen, and Leningrad Oblasts.
The Arabs first arrived in Russia during the eighth century, according to some reports after which Muslims settled in the Dagestan area. A series of conquests from the 16th to the 19th centuries meant the Russian Empire expanded to include Muslims from Dagestan, Chechnya and other areas.
Therefore, it is safe to say that the Muslim areas of what is now Russia were annexed by the federation during their expansionist years, which included the time of the Soviet Union, although its break-up resulted in many Muslim states winning independence. About 90 per cent of the Muslims inside Russia are Sunnis while the rest are mostly Shias. There is also a branch of Muslims who adhere to Sufi rituals.
Relations between current and past governments and the Muslims have been strained, at best. Russia is trying to prevent the spread of political Islam, the kind of which has caused conflict in Chechnya with the rise of Islamic nationalism in areas close to the central Asian republics.
This is why the Russian government supports the dictator-style leadership of those breakaway states, which marginalize Islam.
There are two major Islamic bodies in Russia that were created during the Stalin era – one responsible for European Russia and Siberia, the other for areas of the North Caucasus and Transcaspian regions. However, several Muslim groups have broken away from these two boards and formed their own “muftiates”.
Amid tensions in Chechnya, the Russian government is now trying to make conciliatory gestures to Muslims by offering them more freedoms. Pilgrimage to Makkah has increased since the end of the Soviet era, with a record 18,000 Russians performing the Haj in 2006.
In addition, more copies of the Quran are being printed while the number of mosques being built in Muslim-dominated cities and towns have increased. During the Soviet era, there were only around 500 mosques in Russia. That figure has risen to in excess of 5,000.
Still, more places of worship need to be built with Moscow boasting only four mosques to cater for its 2.5 million Muslims, the largest population of any European city.
Recently, Ramzan Kadyrov, Chechnya’s first Deputy Prime Minister, announced plans to build Europe’s largest mosque in the Chechen capital, Grozny, in an attempt to drive youngsters away from militancy and attract them to mainstream Islam.
The Nur All-Russia Muslim Public Movement is a political party that defends the rights Muslim and other minorities while Islamic schools, magazines and newspapers have sprouted up throughout the Muslims areas.