by Tahir Mustafa (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 53, No. 4, Dhu al-Qa'dah, 1444)
Using the platform of the International Economic Forum “Russia – Islamic World: Kazan Forum”, Moscow is forging ahead with developing strong trade and economic links with the Muslim world. The 14th annual Forum was held in Kazan, the capital of Tatarstan, one of the Muslim majority regions of Russia.
Attended by some 15,000 guests from 84 countries, the forum was held from May 18 to 27. Concurrently, a meeting of the Group of Strategic Vision Russia – Islamic World, was also held in Kazan. Both events occurred at a time when Russia’s policy is being reoriented away from Europe as a result of US-led sanctions. The Muslim world offers attractive opportunities for Moscow.
Addressing participants at the Group of Strategic Vision, Russian President Vladimir Putin said through a video link that the forum proves the crucial role of Russian Muslims in expanding the country’s international contacts. He highlighted the traditional ties based on mutual trust between Russia and Muslim countries which he said are actively developing and achieving tangible goals in trade and finance sectors.
“Russia is open to building close business and humanitarian cooperation with them. We are interested in strengthening, in finding new partners, in promoting agricultural and industrial cooperation and creating transport and logistics chains,” he said.
“I am sure that the activities of the Russian Islamic World Strategic Vision Group and the Kazan Economic Forum 2023 will continue to contribute to strengthening interaction between the business communities of Russia and Muslim countries, and will open up new opportunities for joint projects at the regional and interstate level,” Putin said.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov also addressed, via video link, the 14th International Economic Forum Russia – Islamic World: Kazan Forum. Then, in an interview published on the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs website on May 19 for the documentary film, The Road to the Islamic World, Lavrov spoke in glowing terms about Islam and Muslims. He said: “Islam in Russia is living through a renaissance and an unprecedented rise, as it continues to harmoniously coexist with other traditional religions.”
“Our joint work revealed largely overlapping assessments of the inter-civilizational and interreligious issues that are being discussed in our country and internationally,” he continued and emphasised that “We stand united in upholding spiritual and moral values, rejecting Islamophobia, Christianophobia or any other forms of religious intolerance.”
The Muslim population of Russia is estimated to be between 14 million (US State Department figure for 2017) and 25 million, according to the Grand Mufti of Russia, Sheikh Rawil Gaynetdin. The Muslim-majority regions of Russia include the republics of Tatarstan and Bashkortostan in the Volga Federal District, and in the North Caucasus, Chechnya, Dagestan, Ichkeria, Ingushetia and the Kabardin and Karachay peoples. Moscow and St Petersburg also have significant numbers of Muslims, most of them having migrated from the North Caucasus or Azerbaijan.
Russian leaders have in recent years taken practical steps to cultivate close relations with the Muslim world. True, economic and geostrategic interests have necessitated these changes but Russia’s engagement with the Muslim world is not a one-way street. There are mutual benefits for both sides.
For instance, Russia and Islamic Iran have a strategic cooperation agreement that was first signed in 2001 and has been renewed ever since. On May 17, 2023, the two countries signed an agreement to complete the 162-km Rasht to Astara rail link that is part of the International North-South Transit Corridor (INSTC). This important link will facilitate trade between Russia, Azerbaijan, Iran and India. The signing agreement was witnessed, via video link, by Putin and his Iranian counterpart President Ebrahim Raiesi. The latter hailed the agreement as an “important and strategic step in the direction of cooperation between Tehran and Moscow.”
In July 2022, during the tripartite summit in Tehran between Presidents Putin, Raiesi and Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, Russia signed a memorandum of understanding with Tehran to invest $40 billion to develop its oil and gas fields.
Russia has coordinated its oil production policy with Saudi Arabia to ensure proper pricing for producers. In the past, the US exploited Saudi Arabia by bullying it into keeping oil prices artificially low to benefit the west, to the detriment of the producers.
Russia has also helped Syria to fight off the western-backed mercenaries trying to overthrow the government of Bashar al Asad. Islamic Iran and Hizbullah have been other major backers of Syria whose sacrifices have paid off in defeating the conspiracy. Thus, Russia has offered tangible help to allies.
The Muslim presence in Russia also needs to be considered. Islam arrived in the North Caucasus with the Muslim conquest of Persia in the seventh century. As Islam moves north, it attracted adherents and gained so much strength that the Tatars, now converted to Islam, ruled over the Dutchy of Muscovy for nearly 200 years. Their capital was Kazan. Muslims were the only power to have ruled Russia.
Ivan the Third (aka Ivan the Great, and Prince of all Russia), who ruled from 1440 to 1505, ended Tatar rule over Moscow in 1480. It was his grandson, Ivan the Terrible (reign 1547–1575) who conquered Kazan in 1552 and Astrakhan in 1556, carrying out pogroms in both.
During Czarist rule when Russian forces occupied the Muslim lands of Central Asia, much suffering was inflicted on the people. The advent of Communism and an official ban on religion further intensified Muslim suffering. This was also true for the followers of Orthodox Christianity, the religion of the majority of the population.
With the disintegration of the Soviet Union and end of Communist rule at the end of 1991, religious restrictions started to ease somewhat. There were still periods of conflict. The two Chechen wars, 1994-1996 and 1999-2005 inflicted immense suffering and destruction, especially in Chechnya, Ingushetia and Dagestan. Grozny, Chechnya’s capital, was virtually flattened.
Since then, there has been a marked shift in Moscow’s policy towards Muslims. Unlike the west where anti-Muslim bias is widespread, in Russia this is not the case. According to a survey published in 2019 by the Pew Research Center, 76 percent of Russians had a favourable view of Muslims in their country. Only 19 percent had an unfavourable view.
Compare this to the attitude of people in Canada, one of the less hostile countries for immigrants. In 2017, a survey done for Radio Canada revealed that almost one in four Canadians would favour a ban on Muslim immigration, with the level of support for this ban rising to 32 per cent in Québec. Most respondents (51 per cent in Canada, 57 per cent in Québec) felt the presence of Muslims in their midst made them “somewhat” or “very worried” about security.
In many western countries, mosques are being targeted and permission to build new ones being refused In Russia, more than 8,000 mosques have opened in the last 20 years. Some of them are massive and architecturally very impressive, especially the Qolşärif Mosque in Kazan. The opening ceremony of the grand mosque in Moscow was jointly attended by Presidents Putin and Erdogan in September 2015.