It is much written and told about Islam in Europe and North America, about experience of its followers and their intensive development at the present stage. There is much less information about Russia. Moreover, there are very few attempts to compare the development processes of its Muslim minority with what is happening in other regions of the world.
Russia in terms of relationships with internal Muslim community (which, according to a statement by Russian President Vladimir Putin, reaches about 20 million people) should be compared not with Europe, as is often done, but rather with Asia, to be more precise, with Asian states in which live significant Islamic minorities. This is the first. Secondly, the experience of neighborhood of Muslims and other religions in Russia cannot be considered fundamentally unique. Yes, it is interesting but not unique, no matter what is told by the Russian officials in this regard. In general, it is the same experience as that of non-Muslim Asian countries with significant indigenous Muslim population.
Some of these states of this type (call them nominally "Asian") even once were themselves Muslim. The history of their relationships with the followers of Islam knows a lot, almost everything: war and friendship, hatred and integration, apathy and desire to know each other. Today they, including Russia, are trying to build its policy towards Islam.
Then the differences begin. As for Russia, in the future it may fall out of the number of "Asian" colleagues. The only question is where it will appear.
“Asian” type of Muslim minorities
Experience of European, and generally Western, Muslim minorities, despite its short history, today appears much more studied than similar processes in Asia. The reason is clear: what is happening in the “world center” excites experts much more than other.
Nevertheless, it is certainly extremely important to know also how Islam existed and exists in such countries as China, India, Thailand, Philippines, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Vietnam to some extent. In the same type, with some exceptions, should be classified the following European countries: Bulgaria, Greece, Serbia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Ukraine, Poland, Belarus, Romania and Lithuania.
It is very important for comprehensive understanding of situation with Muslim minority in Russia. In respect of Islam Moscow has much in common with these countries; that makes to put it with them in one number of "Asian" type of approach towards Muslim minorities.
1. As in Russia, China, India, etc. Islam is the traditional, historically-rooted religion. Muslims from these countries are indigenous to the land of the living, not migrants or their descendants, as in Europe (and in general in the West). Islam there totals many centuries, but nowhere enjoys de facto equal rights and status in comparison with confession or ideology to which majority belongs.
2. In all these countries Muslim minorities has problems with the state of different intensity rates (discrimination, defeat in the religious and political rights, separatism, extremism, silencing of the historical role and contribution, etc.).
3. There is everywhere the "hidden history" of Islam. I.e. Islam and Muslims played in history of the states much more important positive role, than that for which their state and society with their dominating culture and historical and political mythology are ready to give them credit. Hence follows the problem of ban of Muslims from influence on major state processes and caused by it alienation of Muslim masses from the states whose citizens they are.
4. In each of these countries the problem of Muslim minorities has dual character. On the one hand, there is in general a loyal and more or less integrated community, and, on the other hand, there is a part of the followers of Islam who are in harsh conflict with their state, including armed.
This is very important and remarkable. For example, in Russia there are, on the one hand, the community of Muslims of the Volga-Urals, on the other, the destabilized North Caucasus (Chechnya, Dagestan and others.). Similarly, Hui of China, who quite entered in the Chinese statehood and the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. The same is true of India ‒ Kashmir and more than hundreds of millions of Muslims living in other regions of the country. Thailand and the Philippines: long-term armed conflict in the South, which coexists with the presence of Muslims in the center of the country. Moreover, among them there are very high-ranking officials, including military.
And everywhere the religious factor in itself is not key. There is a problem of political and territorial separatism of one part of Muslims and disagreement with such position of another part of their co-religionists. These conflicts are deeply rooted in history, and not always resistance went and goes under slogans of Islam.
5. In all these states Muslims are some kind of "younger brothers" who de facto do not have equal status with the majority (de jure this is quite allowed). Such political status is caused in many respects by the fact that in past their ancestors suffered historical defeat and found themselves in subordinate position.
Having similarities with Asian counterparts, Russia stands out among them may be with rather quite good in comparison with other conditions for Islam and its adherents. The Russian Federation is, roughly speaking, the best state of "Asian" type of relationship with Muslim minorities.
Changes of nature of the Russian population, the events of the last 15-20 years relate also directly Muslims. Large-scale migration processes threaten that the country in terms of Islam will turn from the best "Asian" into the most problematic "European" (let us call this type of relationship with a Muslim minority so). I.e., Islam in Russia with a growing number of Muslims who come from former colonies of the Russian Empire increasingly resembles "European" type, where the overwhelming majority of followers of Islam are migrants or their descendants of the second or at best third generation.
The centuries-old "Asian" identity of Islam in Russia before our eyes promptly changes. It is a serious challenge first of all for indigenous Muslims of the country.
Currently, Russia takes the second place in the world in terms of absolute volume of immigration, coming second only to the USA. According to official data, during 1992 — 2010 8,4 million immigrants arrived in the country; the informal statistics is more realistic – 15-18 million people, that is 10,5-12,7% of the population. According to data for 2012, 91% of all migration gain fall on the CIS countries, thereof 63,5% are representatives of mainly Muslim states (Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan).
As known Russian researcher of Islam Alexey Malashenko aptly remarks, if in the 80th years of the last century a Muslim was associated by the main part of the population of the country with crafty but in general very close "Tatar neighbor", from the middle of the 90th a Muslim is already the extremely hostile, but still clear "Chechen (wider – Caucasian) the fighter". Today it is the illiterate and torn-off labor migrant from Central Asia. Visitants from strange and far Asian world (reminding many inhabitants of Afghan and Pakistani Talibs) is a face of Islam for huge number of modern Russians.
In this sense, Russia reminds Europe, where a problem of Islam and migration are one and the same. With one, however, difference – in Russia the situation is much worse since it is not ready to such turn of events and what is even worse does not want to seriously prepare yet. The officials, including authorized by the Kremlin for work with the Islamic population, pretend that nothing occurs or that someone other is guilty of problems and, respectively, he must solve all problems.
According to Russian sociologists, under present development of migration processes the indigenous Muslim people of Russia – communities of the Volga-Urals and the North Caucasus – in 20-30 years will themselves become minorities in relation to the Central Asian majority. It is a long-term trend, which is hardly impossible to change.
Even today in some Russian cities among mosquegoers the Uzbeks, Tajiks and Kyrgyz make up generally larger part than indigenous Russian Muslims. The authorities and the heads of the official Muslim structures in many regions of the country tried so hard to restrain the activity and claims of Caucasians (which are considered to be not quite loyal citizens) for first part in Islamic communities outside the North Caucasus, as a result, Russia has suddenly faced with a reality - its Muslim minority becomes such, which it never has been.
I think, it is already possible to say firmly that in the XXI century Russia will be not that country of "Asian and Muslim" type, which it has always been in the history. Russians are becoming "Europeans", though not by those indicators (pluralistic democracy, competitive economy, independent court and media) which many would like.
Abdullah Rinat Mukhametov, PhD, political analyst, Deputy Director of the «Altair Foundation» (Moscow, Russia)