Ethnic Russian Muslims Grapple With The Question: Who Is A Russian? – OpEd


Even as more and more Russians are concerned about reports that Russians are converting to Islam and that radical Islamists are recruiting Russians into their networks, the Russian Federation’s oldest organization for ethnic Russian Muslims is struggling with the question: who is a Russian?

While the leader of NORM, the National Organization of Russian Muslims, Kharun Sidorov, says that in principle any Muslim can join his group, he stresses that its primary membership is drawn from ethnic Russians, making the definition of just who those people are especially critical (

And while Sidorov’s group is relatively small – although he insists it is now growing rapidly – his comments on this issue provide an interesting counterpoint to the larger debate in Russian society concerning the relationship between ethnic Russians, cultural Russians and political ones.

According to Sidorov, NORM is “above all an organization of ethnic Russian Muslims, and therefore it is important to define who ethnic Russian Muslims are.” In his view, the term “russkiye” includes two means, a broad one that involves those with a cultural identification and a narrow one having to do with ethnogenesis.

“In the broad sense of this word,” Sidorov says, “a Russian [“russky”] for us is any individual who declares himself and recognizes himself as a bearer of Russian culture in at least one of its dimensions: mental, intellectual, or political. That is, he sees himself as a representative of Russian civilization.”

Such an individual need not be “ethnically Russian,” the NORM leader continues. Instead, he can be “an individual of any nationality.” Such people, he says, fall into “two groups”: “representatives of peoples who consider the Russian people an ally for their people” and “people who make a Russian choice on an individual basis.”

Thus, he says, NORM “recognizes the possibility but not the obligatory nature, that is, this is a voluntary right) of the presence of Russian Tatars, Russian Ingush, Russian Kabardinians, Russian Germans, Russian Jews and so on. All such groups and individuals fall under the broad meaning of the word ‘Russky.’”

At the same time, “in the narrow and strict sense, he says, “ethnic Russians are the representatives of the Russian ethnos (tribe or people).” And “like any other ethnos, the Russian one exists thinks to blood descent ties and represents a group of people with common ethnic qualities which they inherit from common ancestors and intend to transmit to their descendents.”

“Therefore,” the NORM leader says, “in order to be ethnic Russian (Russian by nationality) it is necessary to have in one’s veins Russian blood (to one or another degree) or to introduce one’s blood into the Russian, by unifying with the Russian people through marriage” and raising any children as Russians.

“Ethnic Russian (Great Russian) Muslims besides this tribal basis are unified by the characteristic for their young community version of Islam which is formed by the Malikit maskhab, the spiritual tradition of the Darkaviisk tariqat and the ashar akyd. An individual Muslim of Russian nationality may follow another maskhab or be in another tariqat.”

But, Sidorov says, “the basis of the education and practice of the community of ethnic Russian Muslims [at least in so far as they choose to be part of NORM] is precisely the tradition indicated above which is considered as ethno-forming for the sub-ethnos of [ethnic] Russian Muslims.”

And that means, he concludes, that “the basic phenomenon of ‘Russian Islam’ or ‘Russian Muslim community’ consists of ethnic Russian Muslims, even though part of them may include groups and individuals who have voluntarily connected themselves with Russian culture and/or civilization, even though they are not Russian in an ethnic sense.”

Sidorov’s definition thus means that Islam may have a dual role in the future of the Russian nation. On the one hand, it may serve as the basis for including people who are not ethnic Russian in the narrow sense into a broader Russian community. But on the other, it may help promote a new ethnic community, one that ultimately will split from the Russian nation.

Paul Goble

Paul Goble is a longtime specialist on ethnic and religious questions in Eurasia. Most recently, he was director of research and publications at the Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy. Earlier, he served as vice dean for the social sciences and humanities at Audentes University in Tallinn and a senior research associate at the EuroCollege of the University of Tartu in Estonia. He has served in various capacities in the U.S. State Department, the Central Intelligence Agency and the International Broadcasting Bureau as well as at the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Mr. Goble maintains the Window on Eurasia blog and can be contacted directly at [email protected] .

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