Russia / Mideast

How Russia's Muslims view Trump's anti-Islam stance

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Article Summary
Russia is home to 20 million Muslims, yet many officials and citizens are withholding judgment — at least publicly — on the US ban to keep out people from seven Muslim-majority countries.

US President Donald Trump has sparked fury across the world, especially among Muslims, with his recent attempt to prevent nationals of seven predominately Muslim countries from entering the United States.

The countries affected are Iraq, Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen.

Trump’s executive order, signed Jan. 27, has been on hold under a temporary restraining order issued Feb. 3, but three federal judges are set to hear the government’s appeal of the hold at 6 p.m. ET Feb. 7. 

Most Middle Eastern, Muslim-majority countries, as well as European leaders, condemn the action and consider it an anti-Islam ban. Iraq’s Foreign Ministry expressed its “regret and astonishment” over the ban. The Foreign Affairs Ministry of Iran called the order "insulting" and a "gift to extremists.”

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Even the UK, a close US ally, described the ban as "divisive and wrong,” as British Foreign Minister Boris Johnson tweeted. The ban recalls Trump's anti-Islam comments made during his election campaign, and fueled speculation that he will try to take even more strict measures against Muslims and Muslim-majority countries.

There are more than 20 million Muslims living in Russia, constituting about 15% of the country’s total population. Islam is the second-largest religion there, after Orthodox Christianity. Most Russian Muslims live in the seven republics of the Russian Federation: Bashkortostan and Tatarstan in the Volga-Urals region; and Chechnya, Ingushetia, Dagestan, Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachay-Cherkessia in the Northern Caucasus. There are also huge Muslim diasporas in big cities in Moscow and St. Petersburg. 

Despite Russia’s significant Muslim population, it hasn't condemned the ban and prefers not to comment on it.

“It is not our business,” Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told reporters.

There also haven’t been any official comments on the ban made by Muslim official representatives in Russia or the authorities of predominantly Muslim-populated regions of Russia.

Chechen Republic leader Ramzan Kadyrov, who likes to express his views on the range of political and world issues via social media, also remained surprisingly silent — though he had been quick to congratulate Trump on his victory in the November 2016 presidential election. He also shared his views on the first telephone conversation between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin, saying on Instagram, “The conversation opens a new page in Russian-American relations. The results of the talks are not only important for the both countries but for the whole international society as well.”

Al-Monitor contacted the administrations of some of Russia’s Muslim-populated regions and representatives of Islamic organizations for comment on the situation. The most common response was, “We have no authority to comment on that issue.”

However, a source in one of the most influential Islamic organizations in Russia agreed to express his views on condition of strict anonymity.

"Without any doubt, any anti-Muslim ban concerns us and we are closely following the situation. But no one will make official statements on that, especially if they contain condemnation,” he told Al-Monitor.

Iskander Gilyazov, a historian and Tatar social activist, told Al-Monitor, “Why hasn’t Russia condemned the ban? I think it's part of a political game.”

Gilyazov, a professor at Kazan University, added, ”It’s a reflection of the euphoria that prevails here [in the federal government] after Trump's victory.” According to Gilyazov, Russian Muslim authorities have taken a cautious position and prefer to wait for Trump’s next moves before reaching conclusions. 

Another expert told Al-Monitor, “Russian Muslims, as well as the majority of Russians, are tired of sanctions and isolation from the world. They believe that with a new administration in the White House their lives will get better. That’s why Russian Muslims don’t rush to comment on Trump’s policy,” said Rais Suleymanov, a specialist on Islam and an expert at the Institute of National Strategy.

He said Russian Muslims also don’t feel too much sympathy for Muslim immigrants.

“It’s necessary to keep in mind that Russian Muslims are not immigrants in Russia and, more than that, they feel all the negative consequences of immigration, especially from Central Asia,” Suleymanov explained. 

Vusal Kerimov, a Moscow-based political expert and a representative of Moscow's Talysh diaspora, suggested it isn’t surprising that there has been no official reaction from Muslim representatives. "Why should there be? Any criticism would be controversial to the Kremlin's official line. That is why Muslim social activists preferred not to touch the American election at all. Peskov said, ‘It's not our business.’ I fully understand this position,” Kerimov told Al-Monitor.

Russian Muslims who spoke with Al-Monitor reacted negatively to Trump's ban and anti-Islam rhetoric, but those who agreed to comment on the record about the situation don’t think it will affect them or lead to the rise of Islamophobia in Russia. Gilyazov, the professor, concurred.

“I personally condemn Trump's anti-Muslim stance. But I understand that it is a result of prevailing Islamophobia in Western countries and an expression of the political incorrectness of the new American leader,” Gilyazov said.

Journalist Nasima Bokova also believes “the ban and anti-Islam stance won't impact Muslims in Russia or worldwide.”

“Russia has its own story with its Muslim population, which has been a natural part of its culture and history for many centuries,” Bokova, former editor in chief of magazine Musulmanka (Muslim Woman), told Al-Monitor. She also believes there is no threat to American Muslims. "American society is tolerant enough. I used to live there and saw with my own eyes that most Americans are not Islamophobic at all.”

While there are still some concerns that Trump's anti-Islam stance will lead to the rise of Islamophobia in the world, there is a strong possibility it might have quite a different effect.

“The recent ban and Trump's anti-Islam rhetoric could lead to the rise of anti-Western and anti-Christian sentiments among Muslims. Some extremist elements could probably benefit from the situation — some of them could take revenge on the USA and American citizens and this wave could spread around the world. As a result, people will say that Trump was right,” Kerimov, the Moscow political expert, told Al-Monitor.

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Found in: diaspora, moscow, vladimir putin, caucusus, extremists, muslims, donald trump

Yekaterina Chulkovskaya is a Russian journalist writing on the Middle East, as well as politics and social issues in Russia’s Muslim regions. She is a columnist for Russian Forbes, a freelance writer for the online newspaper Meduza and a former editor for Turkish edition of Russia Beyond the Hеadlines. She holds a master’s degree in international relations from Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO-University).

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