Russia: Russian Muslims oppose symbols

Gulf Daily News
According to some, despite Russia's secular status Christian symbolism is becoming ever more pervasive in official circles.
Nafigulla Ashirov looks at St George slaying the dragon and the surrounding crosses on Russia's official state emblem and sees an affront to his Islamic faith.
Despite Russia's secular status, he says, Christian symbolism is becoming ever more pervasive in official circles. "And of course, Muslims are indignant about this, and they are reacting to this," Ashirov, head of the Spiritual Board of Muslims of the Asian Part of Russia, said in an interview. Ashirov's demand that all religious symbols be removed from state life comes at a turbulent time in Russia - amid growing concerns about the rise of Islamic extremism as well as the spread of nationalism, xenophobia and racism directed toward non-Slavic Russians and foreigners.

At the same time, Islam is enjoying a moderate revival in Russia, particularly among young people who are rediscovering their Islamic heritage. Under a law passed in the years following the collapse of the officially atheist Soviet Union, four main faiths are recognised: Russian Orthodox Christian, Islam, Judaism and Buddhism. Muslims make up the second largest faith in Russia after Orthodox Christians, numbering an estimated 20 million or nearly 14 per cent of the population. Ashirov says that since Russia's post-Soviet Constitution stipulates that the state is officially secular, the state emblem - a double-headed eagle, with St George and the dragon in the middle and several crosses around - is illegal. For Geidar Dzhemal, chairman of the non-governmental Islamic Committee, "the two-headed eagle is an imperialistic, colonialist symbol ... that is offensive to Muslims."

While there have no been open protests against the state emblem, Ashirov's call has been echoed by Muslim leaders in several other regions including Karelia and Nizhny Novgorod. Ashirov said he has spoken with many of the millions of Muslims he says his organisation represents. Many chafe not only at the symbolism on the emblem, but at other state rules that offend Muslim sensibilities, such as women being forced to remove headscarves for passport photos, he said.

In the Caucasus region of Dagestan, Muslim police officers have ripped crosses from their uniforms, Russian media reported. And in central Tatarstan region, mainly Muslim Tatars complained about annual ceremonies commemorating a 13th century Russian battlefield victory over Tatar hordes - a victory held in high esteem by the Orthodox Church. The growing resentment of Russia's Muslims could create conflicts with the Russian Orthodox Church, which has assumed a prominent role in many aspects of Russian political and cultural life - from blessing naval ships to the church's head, Alexy II, appearing regularly in meetings with President Vladimir Putin and being featured in state-run newscasts. About two-thirds of Russia's 144m people are considered Orthodox Christians, though many do not attend church regularly.

The largest official body of Muslim leaders in Russia - the Council of Muftis - dismissed calls to change the state emblem. "The opinion of one religious leader does not at all mean that the other followers of Islam support it," Radik Amirov, spokesman for the council, said in the government newspaper Rossiiskaya Gazeta. The issue arose just days after the Council of Muftis threatened to withdraw from an inter-religious council following the publication of a book by the council's executive secretary that Muslims leaders said minimised estimates of Russia's Muslim population and overemphasized the number of Muslims converting to Christianity. Dzhemal said the book and the increased prevalence of religious symbols in state life are evidence of an unofficial state policy of discrimination against Muslims, conducted with the help of the Russian church.

© Gulf Daily News, 13 December 2005