By Paul Goble
Just over half of all Daghestani university students would prefer to live in a theocratic Islamic state, and almost a third of them are ready to take to the streets to protest if the existing Russian state imposes laws that “contradict their faith,” according to a new study.
That study, by Sergey Murtuzaliyev (“The North Caucasus in Search of Identity and the National Identity of Russia,” in The Russian Caucasus: Problems, Searches, Decisions (1915, pp. 406-417, in Russian) available at kavkazoved.info/news/2015/11/29/severnyj-kavkaz-v-pole-poiska-identichnosti-i-nacionalnoj-idei-rossii.html), reflects the coming together of three factors.
First, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, people in the North Caucasus like those elsewhere in the Russian Federation have been trying to find a new national identity or national idea and have been trying on many things for size, including some ideas introduced by people from abroad.
Second, and not surprisingly, many of them are looking to religion, seeing it as a definer of their national cultures — even if they did not begin as believers and even if as a result of Soviet anti-religious efforts, they did not know much about their faith and thus had to depend on various sources to decide what they meant.
And third, many of them who viewed religion as a national marker have been affected by the pretensions of the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church to define how the state will behave toward the population have turned to Muslim leaders as a way of defending their own national identities.
Twice in the last century, the peoples of Russia have lost their sense of identity, first after 1917 and then after 1991. Over the last two decades, they have been struggling to come up with one; and many have turned to religion as a basis for this, Russians to Orthodoxy and the traditionally Muslim nations to Islam.
Murtuzaliyev suggests this is natural given that many Russians view Orthodoxy as a cultural marker rather than a matter of faith just as many traditionally Muslim peoples view Islam in much the same way. But the problem arises, he argues, because religious leaders are not prepared to sit still for that and because the actions of the dominant faith generate a backlash.
As new Muslim leaders have emerged in the post-Soviet Caucasus, they have argued that identity isn’t enough: people must believe. And in this, they have had an unexpected and unintended ally: the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church which thinks the same thing and is prepared to use the power of the state to impose its views.
Indeed, by pushing for religious instruction in the schools, the Russian Orthodox Church has laid the foundation for a genuine “clash of civilizations” inside of the Russian Federation because “the ethnic Orthodox” and “the ethnic Muslims” move from that status to that of sincere believers.
And Muslims, having the experience of faith “imposed” by the Russian Orthodox, are thus ever more willing to listen to Muslim leaders, including Salafite ones who say that it is entirely proper for Muslims to “impose” their faith and by means of the same structures and organizations.
As a result, he continues, “national feelings have begun to combine with confessional ones, creating a common psychological platform in the spiritual world and in the decisions and actions of the individual.”
Murtuzaliyev concludes with a warning: “In poly-ethnic and multi-confessional Russia which is seeking a national ideal by striving to the achievement of an all-Russian civic identity requires well-thought-out and significantly more precise mechanisms than those practiced and proposed by the Russian Orthodox Church.”
What is needed, he says, is “an approach which considers the entire spectrum of the regional characteristics of the North Caucasus. The peoples [of that region] and other subjects of Russia must not experience the syndrome of imposed confession and ethnicity.” Otherwise there will be troubles ahead.