Islam thrives as Russia's population falls
CROWDED MOSQUES - Worried local authorities won't allow Muslims to build
more places of worship
MICHAEL MAINVILLE Dec. 3, 2006. 01:00 AM
SPECIAL TO THE TORONTO STAR, MOSCOW
Moscow-A steady stream of devout Muslims pours into the Sobornaya Mosque on
a cold, grey Friday afternoon. The Arabic call to prayer echoes
incongruously among Soviet-era apartment buildings and monolithic relics of
Moscow's 1980 Olympics.
As usual, the mosque's blue walls cannot contain the hundreds of people
looking to pray.
"I'm sorry, it's full," a bearded man in a white skullcap repeats again and
again to worshippers showing up at the doors.
Soon, the courtyard outside the mosque is crammed with men removing their
hats and shoes to pray. Some lay down elaborate prayer mats of finely woven
silk; others settle for tattered newspapers. When the men kneel in the
direction of Mecca, their foreheads press against hard concrete.
Attending the prayers with his 8-year-old son, Zabir Valeev can hardly hide
his frustration at having to pray under these conditions. The two come to
the Sobornaya Mosque nearly every Friday and are often forced to pray
"We shouldn't have to stand out here in the cold," says Valeev, 32. "What
does it show to my son that there is no place in Moscow for us to pray?"
The Sobornaya Mosque is one of only four mosques in Moscow serving a Muslim
population of 2.5 million ? the largest of any European city. Crammed amid
the grey monoliths of Moscow's 1980 Olympics complex, it was the only
Islamic house of worship allowed to function during the Soviet period,
usually empty due to religious repression.
Today, like Moscow's other mosques, it overflows with worshippers on Fridays
and holy days. Muslim leaders have been trying to get permission from the
city to expand the mosque, and to build many more, but their attempts have
"In the Soviet period, people were forbidden from practising their
religions. Now, they are embracing their faith again," says Ildar
Alyautdinov, an imam at the Sobornaya Mosque. "But to have only four mosques
in Moscow, obviously that's not enough .... We deserve more respect."
Russia is in the midst of startling transformation. Islamic faith is
thriving across the country. If current trends continue, experts say, more
than half of Russia's population will be Muslim by mid-century.
Few expect it will be an easy transition. Tensions are already high between
the country's ethnic Russian population and the
diverse group of nationalities that make up the Muslim community.
Inter-ethnic violence is on the rise and extreme nationalist groups are
A backlash is already underway. Attacks on mosques are not uncommon and in
September an imam in the southern city of Kislovodsk was shot dead outside
his home. During days of rioting in August, angry mobs chased Chechens and
other migrants from the Caucasus region out of the northwestern town of
Spurring on the mob was Alexander Belov, charismatic head of the Movement
Against Illegal Immigration, an increasingly powerful lobby group that has
staged dozens of rallies in recent months. In an interview at a Czech
restaurant in central Moscow, Belov railed against what he called the
growing "Islamification" of Russia.
"Russia is historically a Slavic, Orthodox Christian land and we need to
make sure it stays that way," he said, adding that Orthodox Christianity
should be enshrined as Russia's official religion and efforts made to
convert Muslims. Islam is currently recognized as one of Russia's official
religions, along with Orthodox Christianity, Judaism and Buddhism.
Like many nationalists, Belov makes no distinction between Muslim immigrants
and Russian citizens of Islamic faith. He says
Muslims, no matter what their citizenship, should be restricted from living
in "traditional Russian lands."
Muslim leaders say the Russian media is fuelling antagonism. Many Russians
associate Islam with religious extremists from Chechnya who have carried out
dozens of bombings and other attacks against civilians. On Russian
television, Muslims are most often portrayed as either criminals or
religious radicals waging a holy war against Christians. One of Russia's
bestselling novels last year, The Mosque of Notre Dame de Paris, depicts a
mid-21st century Europe where Islam is the state religion and Christians are
forced to live in ghettos.
"I worry all the time about my children," says Timur, a 44-year-old Moscow
businessman, after prayers at the Sobornaya Mosque. "I worry that they'll be
attacked on the streets or in the subway. My wife is afraid every time they
leave the house."
After Friday prayers at the mosque, many worshippers linger, chatting in
small groups or browsing amid stalls selling prayer mats, skullcaps and
tasbih, the traditional Muslim prayer beads. The languages spoken reflect
the incredible diversity of Russia's Muslim population. The Turkic sounds of
Tatar and Azeri mix with the guttural tones of Chechen and the Persian
rhythm of Tajik.
Some here are newly arrived immigrants from the former Soviet states of
Central Asia; others are from Muslim-majority regions that remained part of
Russia after the Soviet collapse.
Russia's Muslim communities boast far higher birth rates than those of the
country's Christian Orthodox, ethnic Slavs. Russia's overall population is
dropping at a rate of 700,000 people a year, largely due to the short life
spans and low birth rates of ethnic Russians.
According to the CIA World Factbook estimate, Russia's overall fertility
rate is 1.28 children per woman, far below what is needed to maintain the
country's population of about 143 million.
Muslim Russians, meanwhile, are bucking the trend, with some communities
averaging as many as 10 children per woman.
The Central Asian states that traditionally send large numbers of immigrant
workers to Russia also have much higher birth rates.
Since 1989, Russia's Muslim population has increased by 40 per cent to about
25 million. By 2015, Muslims could make up a majority of Russia's conscript
army and they could account for one-fifth of the country's population by
If trends continue for the next 30 years, people of Muslim descent will
outnumber ethnic Russians, says Paul Goble, an expert on Islam in Russia and
research associate at the University of Tartu in Estonia.
"Russia is going through a religious transformation that will be of even
greater consequence for the international community than the collapse of the
The country's Muslim leaders look on the population spurt, and media
coverage, with apprehension.
"The image of Muslims presented in the media is very distorted," says Rusham
Abbyasov, a spokesman for the Council of Muftis. "When people hear the
phrase Allahu akbar ("God is great" in Arabic) they immediately think of
people shooting at them or blowing themselves up."
Sensing the nationalist mood, Russian authorities have begun to crack down.
Four Russian regions recently introduced mandatory classes in Orthodox
Christianity in all schools. On Nov. 15, the Russian cabinet announced a new
law that will ban foreigners from working in retails stalls and markets next
year. The law doesn't specifically target Muslims, but the vast majority of
people working in Russia's markets are either Muslim immigrants or from
traditionally Muslim parts of Russia.
Goble says the growing anti-Islamic sentiment 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 secular, attached to Islam
mostly as part of their ethnic identity. But with interest in Islam surging,
Goble says, these people are open to being influenced by extremist idea.
"People who know they are Muslims but don't know exactly what that means
could be radicalized, especially if they feel excluded from Russian society.
It's a real threat."
At the Sobornaya Mosque, there are already some signs of the dangers ahead.
One bearded young man, who refuses to give even his first name, anticipates
a day when large chunks of Russia can be broken off into Islamic states.
"It's only a matter of time," he says.
Michael Mainville is the Star's freelance correspondent in Russia.