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Russia Challenged by Coming Muslim Majority, Expert Says

(Washington, DC-- March 6, 2006) A Muslim majority will exist in Russia "within our lifetime," according to Russia expert Paul Goble, and the rise of this majority will have a profound effect on the country's foreign policy. Goble, Vice Dean of Social Sciences and Humanities at Concordia-Audentes University in Tallinn, Estonia told a RFE/RL audience last week that this reality is a "wake-up call" for the Russian Federation, one that may engender a desire by the Russian government to expand its borders towards Ukraine and other neighboring western countries, in an effort to increase its non-Muslim population.

Goble said that the explosive growth of Islam in Russia coincided with the decline of the Soviet Union. Since 1989, Russia's Muslim population has increased by 40 percent to about 25 million self-identified Muslims. Furthermore, Goble said that between 2.5 and 3 million Muslims currently live in Moscow, most of whom migrated there from the North Caucasus region -- giving Moscow the largest Muslim population of any European city. Goble reviewed the history of Islam in the region, noting that the numbe of mosques in Russia has grown from 300 in 1991 to more than 8,000 today. In 1991, 40 people made the Hajj to Mecca, as compared to 13,500 in 2006. By the year 2010, Goble added, 40 percent of Russian military conscripts will be Muslims.

Goble identified three kinds of Islam in Russia: Although converted to Islam in the 8th century, Tatarstan by the 19th century had evolved a modernist tradition that was all but "destroyed by the Soviets;" Islamic fundamentalism that developed in the North Caucasus; and radical Islam, centered in Dagestan. Of the 13,500 Russian Muslims who traveled to Mecca on the Hajj this year, 9,000 came from Dagestan. The Dagestan region, according to Goble, is the most radical Islamic area in Russia, because the peoples of Dagestan were converted by Arab missionaries in 770 A.D. By contrast, the people of Chechnya converted to Islam only in the 19th century.

As a result of the growth of Russia's Muslim population, Goble said a "rising tide" of anti-Muslim prejudice has intensified, characterized by open "racism." The prejudice, he said, became pervasive when Muslims began to participate during the latter part of theSoviet Union as traders in open markets. Attacks on Muslims are rarely prosecuted, said Goble, and public opinion surveys reveal that "70 percent of ethnic Russians express such xenophobic attitudes as 'Russia for Russians'." Goble said there are voices in Russia that are willing to "embrace Islam" and recognize Russia as a "Eurasian country," but the predominant view in the Russian Orthodox Church is to "contain Islam" in much the same way as Czarist Russia or the Soviet Union did, through the creation of a clerical hierarchy controlled by state organs in Moscow. Goble cautioned that, if Russian officials decide to de-register Muslim groups in an effort to control their activities, the groups will "go underground" and "radicalize people who are not yet radicalized."

Archived audio of this briefing can be heard in RealAudio and Windows Media formats.