By Paul Goble
Muslims from 35 regions of the Russian Federation made the haj this year, a reflection of the spread of Islamic communities across that country and the increasing interest of Muslims outside of their traditional homelands to make the pilgrimage to Mecca that all the faithful who are able are required to make at least once in their lifetimes.
Ilyas Umakhanov, the deputy chairman of the Federation Council who heads the Russian government’s Haj Council, said this week that 20,628 Muslims from Russia had participated in the haj, of whom 12,500 were from the traditional leader, Daghestan, 2600 from Chechnya, 1500 from Ingushetia, and 1300 from Tatarstan (www.islamrf.ru/news/russia/rusnews/14587/).
According to Umakhanov, this year’s haj effort in Russia was marked for four “qualitative changes.” First, the number of those making their first haj increased by 20 to 25 percent,” the result of a concerted effort to meet the objections of many Muslims that officials allow some leaders to go again and again
Second, the share of Muslims going by air increased dramatically. In the past, most hajis form Russia went by land, the far cheaper alternative, but this year 11,000 or 55 percent flew, a reflection of both greater financial possibilities and Moscow’s interest in securing greater control, something it can do far more easily with flights than with buses and cars.
Third, at Moscow’s insistence, “the embassies of Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey were far more attentive to the organization of the pilgrimage” by Russian hajis this year than in the past, not only reducing the price of visas and allowing pilgrims a larger window for their visits but also working closely with the Russian haji tour firms.
And fourth – and this may be the most important change of all – Umakhanov reported that “75 percent of the quotas assigned to the various Muslim Spiritual Directorates (MSDs) [within Russian] were used by representatives of their own region.” That “allowed,” he said, “to attract Muslims to the haj from regions of Russia without a tradition of pilgrimate.”
In the past, the Russian Haj Council assigned quotas within the national quota set by the Saudi authorities to each of the MSDs, but the Muslim leaders of the North Caucasus used slots assigned to others either by sending their own people to those regions so they could be identified as such or by simply trading for them.
Those phenomena were reduced this year, although not eliminated – apparently one haji slot in four continued to be used by Muslims from regions that had already exhausted their quotas, in particular Daghestan, where the authorities had wanted to reduce the number of hajis to 8,000 or even fewer earlier this year.
Looking ahead, Umakhanov suggested there were three major problems that remained to be solved in addition to work with haj tour firms: a better distribution of slots among the regions, improved work with documents that hajis must carry, and efforts to secure more slots for the Russian Federation as a whole.
This year, as every year, the Saudis assigned national quotas based on one tenth of one percent of the number of Muslims in each country. For a decade, the Saudi authorities have based the Russian quota on an assumed number of 20,500,000 Muslims in that country and permitted Russia to send 20,500.
In fact, the Russians have in almost every year sent more. Vladimir Putin sought and received a larger quota of 25,500 by arguing that there was pent up demand for the haj among Russian Muslims who were not able to make the pilgrimage during Soviet times. Moscow made that argument again this year but was rejected.
And in most years over the last decade, the actual number of hajis has been 10,000 to 20,000 more than the quota because Muslims from Russia, typically travelling by land, have simply shown up in Saudi Arabia where the authorities have been loathe to turn them away despite what is a clear violation of the rule.
This year, as Umakhanov acknowledged, Moscow again busted the quota, by 128 officially and probably by more than that unofficially. (One reason that these numbers may be lower this year is the economy.) According to the head of the Russian haj body, “some 4,000 to 5,000” Muslims from Russia wanted to make the haj but could not secure a slot.
Consequently, Umakhanov said, Moscow will again seek an expansion of Russia’s haj quota from the Saudis and also seek to ensure that all those who want to go on the haj but have never done so in the past will be at tehfront of the line. “This work,” he said, “we will carry out.”