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Why are Russians Converting to Islam?


June 7, 2009...11:20 am


The conversion of historically Orthodox Christian ethnic Russians to Islam is one of the most politically sensitive issues in the Russian Federation, with journalists and commentators frequently offering wildly different numbers and explanations for a trend many find a matter of deep concern.


Now, Andrey Ignatyev, a specialist on the sociology of religion at the Russian State Humanitarian University, seeks to answer the question “why do ethnic Russians convert to Islam?” without the exaggerations and apocalyptic language in which such religious shifts are usually cast.


In a heavily footnoted article posted, Ignatyev argues that most earlier discussions of this issue have failed because they have offered a single explanation of what is an enormously complicated social phenomenon. In fact, people have extraordinarily varied reasons for converting. For his part, Ignatyev offers four.


First, the Moscow sociologist says, the largest number of converts are those who convert because of marriage, a group which includes both those who accept Islam before they marry and those who become Muslims once they enter into a marriage with one of the faithful. “As a rule,” these are women, and the groom’s parents make conversion a precondition of marriage.


Although such women elicit “particular hatred from Islamophobes like the members of the Movement Against Illegal Immigration,” Ignatyev says, most of them know “very little” about their new faith and seldom show up in any mosque after their formal conversation, although a few of them do over time become active Muslims.


Second, he continues, there are Russians are attracted by the mysticism of Sufism, a pattern found around the world where such “god-seeking” often leads people to “convert” to various forms of Hinduism or Buddhism. But generally, Ignatyev says, such people “show no interest in communion with ethnic Muslims or strive to be part of a Muslim milieu.


Indeed, there is some question as to just how much these people deserve to be called Muslims. He gives as an example a Russian who having joined a Sufi order “gave a promise to accept Islam,” even though that was “not required,” and who said that “in the Moscow section of the order, ‘there are Muslims but no Eastern peoples.’”


Third, Ignatyev says, there are those who “consciousness accept Islam as a religion in its concretely historical, ethnographic and cultural manifestation.” They are “more serious than the neophytes of the first and second groups,” and some of them study languages of Muslim nationalities and even travel abroad for instruction in Islam.


Most of these people associate themselves with one of the historical divisions of Islam such as the Hanafi rite of Sunni Islam, the Salafites, or the Twelver Shiia and are devoutly religious, publicly thanking Allah that he has brought them to the true faith. And many of them choose to live according to the shariat or adat.


And fourth, Ignatyev says, is “the most surprising group” of converts of all, a group that he calls “white Muslims” on the basis of an analogy with Louis Farrakhan’s “Black Muslims” in the United States. “Representatives of this group,” he continues, “combine Islam either with Russian nationalism, neo-paganism and racism or with left-radical doctrines.”


Many of the relatively small number of people in this group were part of NORM, the National Organization of Russian Muslims, which viewed Islam as “a path to the rebirth of the Russian nation” or as “a means to the world-wide liberation of the oppressed” but which had little interest in historically Muslim groups.


In fact, oftentimes such “White Muslims,” Ignatyev continues, have been openly hostile to Muslims from abroad, with some of them taking the side of ethnic Russians over Muslim immigrants in the case of conflicts like the one that broke out two years ago in the Karelian city of Kondopoga, despite sharp criticism from traditional Muslim leaders of their position.


Ignatyev does not offer any numbers for these groups – they probably amount in total to fewer than 50,000 – but he does sharply criticize those like the writer Elena Chudinova and the Orthodox activist Roman Silantyev who have written alarmist tracts about “Russian Muslims” and the threat they supposedly represent to Russia’s future.


According to the sociologist of religion, there is no reason for that: “If there are Orthodox Arabs or Japanese, then why cannot Russian Muslims exist as well?” More than that, he says, this trend is likely to grow in a world of “global transformations in which what was “impossible in the past” is now “an everyday phenomenon.”


“The processes which are taking place in the contemporary world and which are connected with the rapid development of many countries in Asia and the increase of migration flows are leading to a notable heightening of the eastern factor in the life of Russia,” Ignatyev says, something one need not fear if one understands its nature.

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