Protected and Controlled: Islam and “Desecularisation from Above” in Russia

Kaarina Aitamurto. Europe-Asia Studies. Volume 68, Issue 1. January 2016.

This essay examines two recent Russian public debates related to Islam: the building of new mosques in Moscow and the terrorist action against Charlie Hebdo. It is argued that these cases exemplify two contradictory attitudes towards Islamic religiosity: a strong protection of ‘traditional religions’, but also tightening control and the wish to keep non-Orthodox religiosity outside the public space. The opposition to new mosques reveals an attitude towards Islam as something alien, but the protection of religious sensitivities, including Islamic ones, finds much support. These two examples reflect the simultaneous projects of the desecularisation and secularisation of Russian society.

The growing role of the Russian Orthodox Church in contemporary Russia has given rise to the idea that Russian society is being desecularised from above. At the same time, several scholars and human rights organisations have pointed to the increasing authoritarian control and even oppression of minority religions in Russia. As the second biggest religion in Russia, Islam is enjoying some of the benefits of desecularisation, such as relatively wide protection from ‘blasphemy’. Nevertheless, Islamic organisations also are increasingly facing prejudices and obstacles to securing permission to build new mosques or even to receive official registration.

In order to approach the paradox of simultaneous protection against offence and restrictions on the activity of Islamic organisation, I have selected two case studies which illustrate these contradictory tendencies and attitudes towards Islam: the public debates on the building of new mosques in Moscow between 2007 and 2014, and the reactions to the terrorist actions against Charlie Hebdo in 2015. While the opposition towards new mosques reflects a secularist project to restrain the public visibility of religion, the wide disapproval of the caricatures of Mohammed in Charlie Hebdo supports desecularist politics in favour of granting privileges to religious sensitivities. The aim of the analysis is to examine the way in which the mainstream media address the limits and conditions within which Islam is allowed to enter the public sphere. The material of the study consists of newspaper articles on the topics and readers’ comments on the websites of the analysed media.

The essay argues that the policies of simultaneous desecularisation and authoritarian control of religiosity are seldom questioned in the media. Muslims are regarded as a traditional minority which deserves recognition in Russian society. However, the public visibility of Islam or Muslim identity is also seen as something that should be controlled. Despite the seeming contradictions between the wills to both protect and control Islamic religiosity, these tendencies reflect an underlying assumption about Islam, or religiosity in general, as something potentially controversial. Even the demands to not offend the feelings of Muslims can thus be interpreted as a call to make a taboo out of the traditional religions; to lift them above societal discussions. On the basis of the readers’ comments on these media debates, public opinion seems to concur with the media and the authorities. The most significant difference between the media articles and readers’ comments is that, in the latter, the ethno-nationalist understanding of Russian identity overpowers the forms of nationalism which favour the idea of Russia as a multi-confessional empire. In both types of material, a growing migrantophobia intensifies the demands to restrict the public visibility of Islam.

Even though the growing Islamophobia makes Islam a special case, the attitudes towards it reflect wider societal discussions about the role of religion in Russian society. On the one hand, the political elite seems willing to increase the impact of (certain) religious organisations in society. Admittedly, this mainly concerns the Russian Orthodox Church, and this begs the question as to whether we can talk about desecularisation from above or simply about the increased weight of one organisation, the Russian Orthodox Church. However, at least on the level of rhetoric, the multi-confessional nature of Russian society is acknowledged, and minority religions are also included in societal projects. A good example here is President Putin’s repeated emphasis on the role of all of the ‘traditional religions’ (Gerlach, p. 133). On the other hand, the urge to limit the manifestations of religiosity in the public space through strict controls testifies to the commitment to secularist policies. For example, in October 2014, President Putin signed a law, according to which religious meetings in public places apart from their cultic premises require permission from the local authorities. Thereby, the debates on Muslim religiosity can be used as a case study in examining the tendencies of secularisation and desecularisation in Russian society.

The Interplay of Secularisation and Desecularisation in Russia

For a long time, sociological debates about religion and modernisation revolved around the question of secularisation. Until the 1980s, the paradigmatic assumption was that modernity produces secularisation and that secularisation is one of the thrusts of modernisation. However, the rise of Evangelical Christianity in the United States and the Iranian revolution cast doubt on the linear, inevitable secularisation of modern societies. Even more serious challenges to secularisation theory were the statistics around the world which proved that religiosity was not declining globally. As Grace Davie suggested, it began to seem that in terms of religiosity, Europe was not the precursory society of global development, as was believed for a long time, but an exceptional case (Stark; Berger et al., pp. 141-42).

The connection between modernisation and secularisation was also challenged by the notion that religiosity showed no signs of declining in such a highly modernised country as the United States. Even the remaining proponents of the secularisation thesis supplemented the theory with caveats. Steve Bruce admitted that while religiosity in a wide sense might not be disappearing, the secularisation thesis was still valid concerning religious institutions and traditional forms of religiosity. He argued that the growth of various cultic forms of spirituality is symptomatic of the ultimate secularist constellation of modern society. In contrast, traditional religiosity and established churches are eroded by modernisation, because ‘the church requires either cultural homogeneity or an elite sufficiently powerful to disregard diversity’ (Bruce, p. 223). A similar argument was made by Peter Berger, who also suggested that individualisation and pluralisation of religiosity are the main consequences of the development of modernisation, which widens the available choices and the liberty to choose them for individuals (Thuswaldner).

The concept of desecularisation was introduced in an anthology by Peter Berger, which argued that instead of becoming more and more secular, the world was witnessing an unforeseen resurgence of religiosity. Theoretically, the anthology was somewhat incoherent, and Berger did not provide a particularly eloquent methodological apparatus for the further use of the concept. One of the reasons for the loose usage of the concept is that, as noted by Vyacheslav Karpov, just as there are many different forms of secularisation, desecularisation may also take various, even unrelated forms. Karpov built on Jose Casanova’s well-known categorisation of three forms of secularisation: the differentiation of religion from other societal institutions; the decline of religiosity among people; and the privatisation and consent marginalisation of religion. Accordingly, Karpov suggested three unintegrated processes of desecularisation: ‘a rapprochement between formerly secularized institutions and religious norms’; ‘a resurgence of religious beliefs and practices’; and ‘a return of religion to the public sphere’ (Karpov, pp. 239-40).

Despite the fact that the number of people who identify as Orthodox Christians is very high and continuously growing in Russia, the religiousness of many people remains on a rather superficial level, as proven by the significantly lower percentage of people who identify as believers or even believe in God. The main explanation for this is that being an Orthodox Christian is regularly understood as being part of an ethnic identity rather than a religious conviction. Low church attendance suggests that Russia is closer to the Northern European model of ‘vicarious religiosity’, in which people acknowledge churches as important institutions and carriers of the tradition, but are not willing to engage in their activities. Due to the low level of religious activity, the weakness of the tradition of civil society and the restrictions on grass-roots religious organisations, Karpov argued that there is no pressure from below for the desecularisation of the Russian society. Instead, desecularisation from above has strengthened in Russian society (Karpov).

The strengthening of the political influence of the Russian Orthodox Church has taken place rather rapidly. In 2011, an eminent scholar of Russian Orthodox Christianity, Irina Papkova, argued that the Church has mostly been unable to have its demands for the political elite fulfilled and that its influence on the political elite has been overestimated (Papkova). In a fascinatingly reflexive article, Papkova has admitted that, in a few years, the situation has altered significantly. In the second decade of the twenty-first century, the Russian Orthodox Church has gained a new foothold in the areas of education, the army, the prison system and even the social services. While Papkova traced the turning point in the political influence of the Russian Orthodox Church to the inaugurations of President Medvedev in 2008 and Patriarch Kirill in 2009, Yablokov has proposed that the civic unrest in 2011 led the political elite to resort to Orthodox Christian identity as a unifying idea which could also be used for juxtaposing and separating ‘us’ from ‘them’.

In their analysis of the introduction of religious teaching to Russian schools, Lisovskaya and Karpov  made it clear that the desecularisation policies in Russia are made under the strong dominance of the alliance between the state and the Russian Orthodox Church. They noted that due to the favouring of the Russian Orthodox Church, desecularisation in Russia is weakening the position of Muslim organisations. In consequence, these are struggling for recognition not only with appeals for their own position, but also by referring to the ideal of the secular nature of the state and human rights (Lisovskaya & Karpov, p. 299).

By its Constitution, Russia is a secular state which guarantees religious freedom. However, in public discussions there is a widespread misconception that the law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Association, 1997 provides a special position to Islam, Judaism and Buddhism as the ‘traditional religions’ of the country. Moreover, this idea guides both political debates on religious issues and the policies of the authorities (Fagan, pp. 121-22). In practice, while the public role of the Russian Orthodox Church has dramatically grown in recent years, the minority religions increasingly face restrictions.

Among the ‘traditional religions’, Islam is especially interesting for several reasons. As the representatives of the second largest confession of the country, Russian Muslims have been more active than the representatives of other minority religions in obtaining a more equal role besides Orthodox Christianity, principally secured by the Constitution. In comparison with Orthodox Christians in Russia, Muslims do not have a similar strong organisation, but instead are divided between several. Next to the influential Islamic organisations, which are engaged in cooperation with the state and enjoy its recognition, there are also Muslim communities and individuals, which from the viewpoint of the officials seem to fall rather into the category of ‘non-traditional’ religiosity. Thereby, Islam provides an outlook on policies concerning both high-level and semi-legal religious institutions.

Islam in Post-Soviet Russia

The post-Soviet religious liberation launched a massive revival of Islam in Russia. In a little over 20 years, Russian Muslims have managed to multiply the number of mosques and prayer houses and to develop Islamic religious education. Several studies have shown that Russian Muslims are religiously somewhat more observant than their Orthodox Christian compatriots. There are numerous Islamic newspapers and journals and the annual Halal exhibition in Moscow has grown into a large-scale event. Islam is regularly recognised by the political elite of the country as an integral part of Russia and Muslim leaders are regularly invited to official state events. The Islamic organisations have also benefitted from such reforms as the introduction of religious education into schools and religious personnel into the army and the prison system, although to a much smaller extent and usually only locally. The widened protection of religious sensitivities also involves Muslims.

In addition to the revival of religiosity, the post-Soviet liberation has also instigated an organisational restructuring among Russian Muslims. In Soviet times, the Islamic clergy, as the majority of the spiritual leaders in the officially registered religious organisations, was forced to cooperate with the state and the KGB. Two institutions provided higher Islamic learning: the Mir-I’Arab Madrasa in Bukhara and the Baraq-Khan Madrasa in Tashkent, but ‘official Islamic education within the USSR was still minimal, and limited to a small circle’ (Kemper et al. 2010, p. 13). Thereby, because of the restrictions imposed by the Soviet regime, the majority of imams had a relatively poor religious education. Not surprisingly, restoring and developing native Islamic education and study is often presented by Russian Muslim leaders as one of the most crucial challenges for the umma (Malashenko, pp. 20-1).

At the end of the 1980s, a number of ‘young imams’, many of whom had received education abroad, challenged the old leaders and the corruption of the old institution. The new liberty to found religious organisations opened the doors for internal power struggles within the umma. In consequence, Russian Muslims are divided into numerous local muftiates and some larger umbrella organisations, of which the most notable are the Spiritual Board of Muslims of the Russian Federation (Dukhovnoe Upravlenie Musul’man Rossiiskoi Federatsii—DUMERF) and the Central Spiritual Board of Muslims of Russia (Tsentral’noe Dukhovnoe Upravlenie Musul’man Rossii—TsDUM). These organisations are engaged in rivalry for the position of the leading Muslim organisation in Russia, but so far, the political elite of the country has refused to openly express any preference between them. Regarding the Russian Orthodox Church, the TsDUM has been more willing to acknowledge the Orthodox Church’s leading or even dominant position among the religious organisations in Russia, whereas the DUMERF has been more active in putting forward the interests of the Muslim community (Verkhovsky).

In the 1990s, the religious politics of Russia was characterised by liberalism, informed by the wish to make a clean break with the Soviet period. However, in accordance with the general nationalist and conservative turn in Russian politics, a change in religious politics began to take place in the second half of the 1990s. The pressure to keep religion controlled and away from the public sphere originated from the panic over new and foreign forms of religiosity which emerged as early as the 1990s in discussions about ‘totalitarian sects’. Since the introduction of the new Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations, 1997, religious policies have been tightened by numerous new regulations. Moreover, local authorities often apply the laws concerning other religions than Orthodox Christianity very strictly. For example, several religious communities, including Islamic ones, regularly face difficulties in obtaining official registration.

A serious challenge to religious freedom in Russia has arisen with the new laws against extremist activity. As a part of its anti-extremist policies, the Russian Ministry of Justice introduced a new federal list of banned material in 2007. The list, which contains literary publications, but also music, films and websites, has continuously expanded, containing over 2,900 items in August 2015. The list has been criticised by several human rights organisations and activists. In addition to explicitly political materials, the list contains a substantial number of religious items. The reason for this can be found in the wording of the law on Combatting Extremist Activity which attaches to the definition of extremism such controversial attributes as the ‘propaganda of exclusivity’. Given that religious texts often claim to have a monopoly on truth over other religions, the law gives officials much room for manoeuvre. Another formulation bans the ‘incitement of religious discord’, which may also be understood in a very vague way as concerning the promoting of any divisions between adherents of different faiths. The critics argue that on a local level, the anti-extremist laws and the list of extremist material are often misused for political motives and to persecute members of minority religions, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses or Muslims (Fagan; Verkhovsky).

Islamic literature is indeed one of the largest groups of religious publications on the list of banned extremist materials. Many verdicts have been criticised by Russian Muslim activists, even though the most prominent Muslim leaders have been rather compliant with the state policy. One of the most scandalous decisions on the banning of Islamic literature was the verdict of the Lenin District Court in Orenburg in March 2012. The court banned 68 Islamic publications, including such standard classical texts as Imam an-Nawawi’s Garden of the Righteous (an-Nawawi), written in the fourteenth century and The Life of the Prophet Muhammad by Ibn Hisham from the ninth century (Hisham). In February 2015, after a long struggle by numerous Muslim organisations and human rights activists, the verdict concerning 50 of these books was overruled. Even though the Lenin District Court of Orenburg has a notorious reputation for banning religious literature on obscure grounds, similarly astonishing verdicts have been reached in other parts of Russia as well. For example, in 2013 a court in Novorossiisk banned a translation of the Quran by El’mir Kuliev, although the verdict was overruled later that year (Kuliev).

The bans on Islamic literature reflect the growing suspicion towards Islam in Russian society. Discussions about the threat of aggressive, radical Islam had begun to intensify by the time of the second Chechen war and such terrorist attacks as the Beslan tragedy. As in the West, the debate on the threat of Islamic radicalism has mixed with Islamophobic rhetoric, which presents it as an inherently aggressive and alien religion. The fear of radical Islam finds support in media reports of police raids and court verdicts on extremist or terrorist Islamic communities. However, as noted above, such verdicts can be based on very light grounds, and they can be politically motivated and based on fabricated evidence (International Federation for Human Rights).

The Islamophobic rhetoric is also nourished by migrantophobia. The ‘cultural criticism’ of Islam is regularly used to construct racist stereotypes of migrants in both Western Europe and Russia. A typical example of an Islamophobic publication is the bestseller Mechet Parizhskoi Bogomateri by Elena Chudinova (Chudinova). The novel is a dystopia of France in 2048. In the story, France is seized by Muslim migrants, who have turned Notre Dame into a mosque and persecute the few remaining Catholics of the city. The novel reflects a perception of Western Europe as being ‘seized’ by Muslims and migrants which is quite common in Russia. In the Russian media, the portrayals of the social problems of such European countries as France, Germany, the United Kingdom or Sweden are regularly represented as being caused by Muslim migrants and the failure of multiculturalism or, as it is often referred to, as the ‘politics of tolerance’.

The growing dominance of the Russian Orthodox Church pushes Muslim organisations to the societal margins. On the other hand, the growing fear of radical Islam and the stereotypes of Islam as an intolerant religion lessen the amount of people willing to defend the rights of Muslims. This tendency is especially evident in the first of the case studies discussed in this essay, the debates on building new mosques in Moscow. The urge to keep Islamic religiosity outside of the public space also informs public discussion about hijabs. For example, in February 2015, as a response to the appeal of a Muslim family from Mordovia, the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation declared the ban of the hijab in a local school to be legal.

The Material and the Method of the Study

The material analysed in this essay was gathered from the websites of some popular media publications and comprises selected articles with readers’ comments. The articles about the building of mosques in Moscow were gathered from the Integrum database using search words such as ‘novaya mechet Moskva‘ and ‘storitelstvo mechet’ Moskva‘ between September 2007 and September 2014. I selected around 50 relevant articles, predominantly from the most well-known newspapers or local publications. In order to also discuss the reception of these articles and the way their readers interpret them and react to them, I analysed the comments left by readers of some articles which discussed the ideas of new mosques on the webpages of Komsomolskaya Pravda (636 comments), Izvestiya (114 comments), Argumenty i Fakty (355 comments), Novaya Gazeta (14 comments on each of two articles) and Ekho Moskvy (269 comments on one article and 139 comments on another). These readers’ comments should not be taken as representative of public opinion in an unbiased way. On these platforms, the people who are tempted to comment on such issues as Islam may be people who are already orientated towards anti-Islamic or xenophobic activity. Moreover, some people are tempted to make provocative comments under the protection of anonymity. However, the number of comments allows the analysis to detect the points and opinions which recur most frequently. Though being a small fraction of all of the debates on Islam in contemporary Russian society, this material gives preliminary suggestions about the attitudes in the media and their readers and the hypotheses, formed on the basis of analysis, can be tested in further study.

The articles and readers’ comments about the terrorist action against the journalists of Charlie Hebdo in January 2015 were gathered from the news portals (28 comments on one article, 22 comments on a second article and 60 comments on a third article), (80 comments), as well as the websites of the newspapers Izvestiya (36 comments on one article and 44 comments on another), Vedomosti (25 comments), Argumenty i Fakty (seven comments), Komsomolskaya Pravda (80 comments on one article, 11 comments on another article and 78 comments on a third article), Novaya Gazeta (80 comments on each of two articles) and the radio station Ekho Moskvy (186 comments on one article, 117 on a second article and 99 comments on a third article). In addition, the analysis draws on some blogs by societal thinkers and Muslim sites. Given that many of the sites included articles which had quite diverging viewpoints, I included articles from most of these news portals. Of the numerous news articles, I selected the reports with the most analytical content. In addition to the discussion of the actual tragedy, several articles in the material address a Russian debate instigated by Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s call to publish the cartoons in Russia.

First, the content analysis identifies the main arguments that are made in this discussion and the ways in which they meet and compete with each other. Next, the main discourses are addressed as frames within which the debate is conducted. These discourses may be seen as discursive frames that pinpoint the ultimate nature of the issue and demarcate the relevant arguments in addressing it (Knott et al). For example, in many texts, the discussions about new mosques are placed in the framework of social problems connected with migrants. Even counter-arguments are also often made within the set frames of the discourse, by, for example, claiming that new mosques would relieve the social problems attached to migrants. However, the framing that is used by the other party can also be refuted. For example, Muslims may claim that the discussion about migrants concerning the construction of new mosques is irrelevant because the new mosques are targeted to native Muslim residents and constructed to secure their rights.

Occasionally the same values can be evoked for different purposes. For example, the people who propose to exclude Muslims from human rights may base their arguments on the alleged anti-human rights project of Islam. Thus, this denial is grounded on the importance of securing future human rights. The importance of preserving the Russian tradition is presented as an argument for ‘gathering and driving [Muslims] away’ and in a sarcastic question, ‘have the Muslims now become “non-native” [people] in Moscow?’. Thereby, special emphasis is paid to the varying divisions into ‘us’ and ‘them’, the categories of inclusion and exclusion.

For example, the building of mosques in Moscow attracted the following comments. On the protests against building a mosque in Mitiono, Moscow, Roman Silant’ev, former executive secretary of the Interreligious Council of Russia, remarked: ‘It is better to build big mosques for daily prayer somewhere outside the Moscow Automobile Ring Road, in former industrial areas, away from residential areas, in order not to create this kind of protest’. According to the Mayor of Moscow, Sergei Sobyanin:

It appears that the majority of Muslims who pray [in the mosques of Moscow] are not at all citizens and inhabitants of Moscow, many of them are not even citizens of Russia. They are guestarbeiters. Only 10% are inhabitants of Moscow and I think that building mosques for all the people from the country wishing this is too much (perebor).

Muslim minorities have a long history in Moscow, and even in Soviet times, the Central Mosque, located next to the Olympic stadium, remained open. Tatars have traditionally composed the largest ethnic group within the Muslims of Moscow, and until recently, religious sermons in mosques were often delivered in Tatar language. Nowadays, the newer minorities have outnumbered the Tatar community, but the leaders of the most significant communities are still Tatars. Russian Muslims represent several different religious traditions and this diversity also poses challenges for the umma (Oparin & Safanov).

According to various estimates, there are up to two million Muslims in Moscow. Therefore it is not surprising that the four existing mosques in Moscow are completely inadequate for accommodating prayers on Fridays, let alone during the religious festivals. During the two biggest annual festivals, Kurban Bayram and Uraza Bayram, media and internet blogs fill with pictures of the surroundings of the Central Mosque with streets blocked by praying people. Nevertheless, the local authorities have been reluctant to grant land or permissions to build new mosques. Two plans to build new mosques were cancelled due to opposition in the name of the local residents; in 2010 this took place in the city district of Tekstilshchikov and in 2012 in Mitino.

Although mosques seem to attract particularly strong opposition from local residents, it should be noted that other cultic buildings, including Orthodox churches, have also been opposed in Moscow. For example, in 2015 the construction of an Orthodox Christian church in Trofyanka Park aroused much local resistance and the case was submitted to the courts. This opposition was mostly based on a wish to keep the park intact and, therefore, the discussion was in many ways different from the opposition towards new mosques. However, the claim that the public space should be secular also emerged in these debates.

There are several small Islamic prayer-rooms, but many of these function unofficially and are vulnerable to being closed by the authorities. Even officially registered smaller organisations often experience the suspicious attitudes of the authorities. For example, in April 2013, one of the biggest official prayer-rooms, Darul Arqam, was raided by the police in search of people engaged in extremist activity and its activity was terminated (Shuster). The raid was reported on the First Channel television, where it was stated that the place was ‘often visited by people who later adopted the position of extreme radicalism and joined the bandit groups in Northern Caucasus’ (Romanova). However, the head of Darul Arqam, Dr Magomedbasir Gasanov, who also teaches at the Islamic University of Moscow, argued that the organisation has consistently stated its commitment to moderate Islam and condemnation of all kinds of radicalism. After the terrorist actions in the Moscow metro in 2010, Darul Arquam even organised a meeting called ‘Islam against terrorism’ with Orthodox Christian youth organisations.

After his re-election in 2013, Mayor Sergey Sobyanin announced that no new mosques would be built in Moscow, because the existing ones sufficed for the registered inhabitants of the city. His cynical denial of the problem translated the general hostility towards migrant workers. In the mayoral election in 2013, the ‘migrant issue’ was used by virtually all of the candidates, who appealed to voters with promises of stricter policies. It seems safe to say that the theme was inspired by the pressure from below, which reflects the strengthening of migrantophobic and Islamophobic attitudes in Russian society. Similar debates and difficulties in opening new mosques have been reported from many other Russian cities as well.

In the majority of the analysed newspapers which addressed plans or requests to build new mosques, the tone was seemingly neutral. They regularly mentioned the disproportionate number of Muslims and mosques in Moscow and portrayed the numbers of people who are praying on streets and pavements every week. The rights of the believers were not necessarily explicitly mentioned, but the unsatisfactory nature of the situation became evident. In this respect, the need for new mosques was recognised, but this statement was usually supplemented with explanations of why this aim was difficult, if not impossible to attain.

The most often mentioned obstacle for new mosques was the resistance of local residents. This argument has also been the standard answer of the Orthodox leaders, who have said that they support the construction of new mosques as long as they are accepted by the local population. The concern over the feelings and the rights of local residents being heard drew on democratic underpinnings, but there was no discussion on the level of democracy in such cases as Mitino and Tekstilshchikov, or critical reflection on the justification of the ‘not in my backyard’ attitudes.

Most of the newspaper articles presented it as a given that new mosques arouse the resistance of the surrounding residents, thereby giving additional legitimisation to this. Revealingly, there was no discussion about the ways in which the city could help in decreasing such tensions and prejudices, even though some European studies have noted that the influence of the authorities can be crucial in these matters (Landman & Wessels). The theme of popular resistance to mosques reveals a framing of Muslims and Islam as intimately linked to social problems. However, in some (although relatively few) articles, it was argued that building new mosques was the only remedy against such problems as people’s annoyance at the massive crowds of Muslims or the integration of migrants into Russian society (Belanovskii).

The social problems which were connected to mosques were disturbances to traffic and an increase in noise, and the presence of migrants and proponents of terrorism in the area. The ‘noise’ usually referred to an inevitable outcome of large crowds of people, but some articles mentioned the Muslim calls for prayer, adhan, even though these are not announced out loud in Moscow. An argument about traffic jams was used by commentators, who stated that new mosques should be built in the outskirts of Moscow. A typical example is an article which explained the opposition towards the new mosque in Mitino as instigated by the local people, who had seen pictures of the crowds around the Central Mosque on holidays. In some articles, the massive gatherings at large religious festivals were insinuated to be more of a demonstration of power than a religious observance. The newspaper Itogi quotes a well-known Israeli right-wing journalist and activist, presenting him as a famous scholar of political sciences, Avigdor Eskin, according to whom 100,000 people around the mosque during Kurban Bayram is seen by ‘many inhabitants of Moscow as a demonstration of power by Islamists’ (Sanin). Also Deacon Andrei Kuraev has suggested that the celebration of Kurban Bayram in Moscow is ‘not so much a religious event as a political demonstration’ (Kuraev). An article in the journal Argumenty i Fakty poses a rhetorical question about whether the mass gatherings around the central Mosque were rather, ‘a flashmob, a previously planned action, the aim of which is not to pray’, and in the newspaper Russkii Vestnik, a well-known scholar of Islam, whom many Russian Muslims accuse of Islamophobia, Roman Silant’ev, suggests that ‘someone’ is transporting people to the central mosque to celebrate Kurban Bayram, ‘possibly in order to pressure the political power’.

Quite often, the arguments about ‘crowds’ revealed that the reason for the opposition is not so much the number of the people, but who they are. The pictures in some articles featured people with non-Slavic and non-Tatar features. Regularly, the problems were articulated as being caused by the increase of migrants. Some journalists mentioned that the existing mosques are able to accommodate all of the ‘native Muslims’ of the city, but did not ponder the fact that the shortage of mosques also affects the older minority or the citizens of the Russian Federation. The tendency to interpret the need for new mosques as part of the problems with migrants lumped together all mosque-goers as poorly educated and integrated people, far from the desired cutting edge professional migrants. The headline of one article summed up the point: ‘The Muslims of Moscow are not the most educated representatives of Islam’.

Migrantophobic attitudes informed several articles. For example, some journalists suggested that new mosques in Russia might promote similar problems to those that Western Europe was allegedly facing. A couple of articles also referred to the popular ‘scientific truth’, according to which after the proportion of migrants exceeds 10% or 15% of the population, inter-ethnic conflicts will inevitably occur (Kots; Aleksandrov et al; on this claim, see Shnirelman).

Typically, the negative portrayals of migrants and their culture masked hostility towards Islam, even though the religion as such was not attacked openly. However, some articles mentioned that building mosques might invite radical Islamists to given areas. The Muslims ‘preaching jihad against the infidels’ around Russian mosques was even mentioned by Patriarch Kirill as one of the reasons for why people oppose new ones.

In the representatives of the liberal media, Ekho Moskvy and Novaya Gazeta, the articles, as well as the comments of the readers, were more liberal or humanistic concerning the rights of the Muslims. However, as in other newspapers, the majority of the readers’ comments did not support new mosques and some people made similar aggressive comments as on other websites. For example, one commentator wrote: ‘Stadiums should be provided [for Muslim prayers]—to follow the example of Pinochet’. The opponents of the political lines of these media also wrote in these forums. Nevertheless, some such aggressive comments aimed to justify their stance by drawing on liberal values, referring to Islam as a threat to individual freedoms or secularity.

All of the arguments concerning the construction of new mosques that were presented in the newspaper articles also figured in the comments of the readers. The difference was that they were typically taken further and the commentators did not feel the need for implicitness. For example, the connection between the question of mosques and migrants was reduced to a short message: ‘Moscow needs more mosques—Moscow needs fewer migrants’. A regular claim, expressed in various forms, was that if Muslims wished to practise their religion, they should move to Muslim countries or the Muslim areas of the Russian Federation. The shortage of mosques was even presented as a desirable state of affairs, because it was mentioned to ensure that Muslims do not feel ‘too much at home’ or ‘too comfortable’ in Russia. The point of reference was equally migrants in general terms and Muslim migrants in particular. Some commentators demanded that the state should more determinedly attract Slavic migrants instead of Muslims. In a couple of comments, such ethnicities as people from Vietnam or the Philippines were argued to have a ‘softer mentality’ in contrast to the ‘aggressive Muslims’ and, therefore, to be more suitable for integration. In addition to aggressiveness, the mosque-goers were regularly dismissed as ‘primitive’, even though it was not always clear whether the point of reference was some ethnic culture or Islam in general. Some commentators were more explicit in their arguments about the ‘medieval’ nature of Islam on, for example, the veiling of women.

The issue of integration figured in the material in several ways. An intriguing fact is that attendance at the biggest Islamic public festivals was occasionally regarded as proof of poor integration; religiosity or Muslim identity was conceived as a mark of an inadequate adjustment to the ‘local culture’. Some discussants argued that according to ‘proper Islam’ there is no need to go to a mosque at such festivals as Kurban Bayram and Uraza Bayram, thus doing so was deemed a sign of religious illiteracy. This claim reflected the assumption that these festivals are used by Muslims to simply make an aggressive assertion of their presence.

In newspaper articles, the migration politics of the country was occasionally named as the cause of the problems with mosques. In public forums, the outrage was more directly targeted against the authorities or the political elite. The accusations ranged from analyses of the way in which migrants are used by the economic elite of the country to conspiracy theories about plans to replace the Slavic population of the country with Muslims and revelations that Putin is in fact a Muslim. These sentiments also manifested themselves in suggestions to build the new mosques in the Kremlin or such elite residential areas as ‘Rublevka’.

The biggest difference between the published newspaper articles and the readers’ comments was that while as a rule the mainstream newspapers did not attack Islam as such or question its role as one of the traditional religions of Russia, a substantial portion of the internet commentators did not practise such self-censorship. Almost all of the discussions that were analysed contained sub-debates (with obscure references to Islamic texts or statements by Islamic leaders) on whether Islam is an inherently intolerant and militant religion. The underlying assumption of these arguments was that due to this nature of Islam, citizens’ rights and freedom of religion should not apply to Muslims and Islamic organisations.

In the opposition against new mosques, a common argument was an explicit resistance to the increase in the public visibility of Islam. In these comments, Islam was presented as alien to ‘our’ culture, and Muslims as distinct from ‘us’. Interestingly, there were two very different grounds for this argument. One group of commentators based their arguments on the secular nature of the Russian state and criticised the growing visibility of all religions in Russia, including Orthodox Christianity. In addition to addressing the construction of religious buildings, some posts focused on proving the harmful nature of all religions. Soviet ideology was present in the quotations of Marx’s famous statement about ‘opium for the people’, and nostalgia for the atheism of the Soviet Union was openly expressed.

The more common stance was the claim that Russia is an Orthodox Christian country and this should be reflected in the urban spaces of Moscow. Some commentators even argued that mosques were an insult to the Orthodox residents of the city. The discourse on national identity juxtaposed the current Russia with ancient civilisations which had fallen due to the waves of migration of other ethnicities. Many readers’ comments used the word ‘Moskvabad’ or ‘Moskobad’ as a reference to the threat of Islamisation of Moscow and Russia.

As in the published articles, Western Europe was seen as providing a warning in many readers’ comments. References to other cities or countries were also manifested in a myriad of other ways. Comparisons were made to support the construction of mosques, for example by showing that other cities had larger numbers of mosques with fewer Muslims than Moscow and by referring to the number of Christian churches in, for example, Kazan. In opposing the new mosques, one of the most frequent themes was to compare Russia with such cities as the Vatican or Mecca, claiming that mosques should be built in Moscow only after an Orthodox church has been opened in Mecca. The aim of such comments was probably to point out the ‘intolerant nature’ of Islam, but curiously, the logic of the argument actually leads to the idealisation of a theocratic society. The portrayal of Russia as an Orthodox Christian country was made in several ways, as, for example, by quoting the proverb, ‘Don’t go into somebody else’s monastery with your own set of rules’ (chuzhoi monastyr’ so svoim ustavom ne khodyat’). One commentator wrote: ‘We are happy to have guests, but only the kind of guests, who stay only for a short time and respect their hosts, including their way of life and religion’. Implicitly, these comments exclude all Muslims as outsiders, or ‘guests’ in Russian society.

Only in the minority of comments were Muslims included in ‘us’. These comments can be divided into two very different perceptions of the ‘Russian tradition’. In their support for new mosques, some participants referred to—and took pride in—the multicultural history of Moscow and its current international nature. Another mode of argumentation was based on the idea of the importance of the ‘traditional religions’ of Russia, which was juxtaposed with either ‘foreign religiosity’ or cosmopolitan alienation of tradition. In most of the discussions, some commentators, introducing themselves as Christians, expressed their support for Muslims in this matter.

Occasionally, the difference between the ‘native Muslims of the city’ and the migrants was made both by Muslims and non-Muslims. In the texts written by the latter, this division often had a normative character. The Tatar minority was presented as the model of Muslimness, as opposed to the newer migrants. Some Muslims participated in the discussions by referring to the long history of Muslims in Moscow and the Russian tradition of the peaceful coexistence of religions. However, often these arguments were refuted at some point by claims that seeing differences between ‘moderate’ and ‘radical’ or ‘traditional’ and ‘foreign’ Islam was futile due to the underlying intolerant nature of this religion.

Charlie Hebdo

In Russian society, overt attention to the activity of Charlie Hebdo is harmful for the friendly coexistence of the multinational family of nations of Russia. … The more we see that kind of caricature on the pages of various media, the more tense interethnic and interconfessional relations become. Publishing offensive caricatures continues the all-European provocation, which is aimed at fuelling a new world war. We must exclude Russia from the passengers of the new all-European ‘Titanic’, which proceeds with full steam towards a deathly iceberg of separating from faith and God. (Vitaly Milonov, Member of the Legislative Assembly of Saint Petersburg)

Why provoke Muslims? That kind of caricatures offends all believers. (Yaroslav Nilov, Head of the State Duma committee on public associations and religious organisations)

In Russia, the reactions to the terrorist attack against the magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris somewhat differed from those in Europe. Even though high-level politicians sent their condolences to the French people and condemned the terrorist action, there was significantly less condemnation of the attack against freedom of speech both within the speeches of Russian politicians and in the news coverage of the issue. Revealingly, two newspaper articles suggested that in Russia the debates about the incident mostly focused on the question as to whether the cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo brought the attack on themselves (Vinokurova; Vorsobin). In this case, the liberal media differed more noticeably from the rest of the mainstream publications than in the coverage of the shortage of mosques in Moscow. In comparison to other publications, Novaya Gazeta and Ekho Moskvy were less prone to criticise the cartoons and more often interpreted the incident as an attack against freedom of expression.

Indeed, the terrorist attack created yet another controversy between the liberal opposition and the political elite. Soon after the incident, Mikhail Khodorkovsky made a public call to publish the caricatures of Prophet Mohammed from Charlie Hebdo in Russia. While such representatives of democratic (or national-democratic) opposition as Aleksei Naval’nyi set out to defend Khodorkovsky, he received harsh criticism from many prominent politicians. In the end, state officials appeared to be more inclined to take a censorious line. The Federal Service for the Supervision of Communications, Information Technology, and Mass Media made an official announcement in which it warned the Russian media of the legal consequences of publishing these pictures and stated, ‘[T]he publication in the Russian media of such caricatures goes against ethical and moral norms, worked out over centuries, in which people of different nations and religions lived in a shared territory’.

This recommendation was in line with earlier politics and verdicts concerning offences against the religions in Russia. Despite the fact that new religions or religious movements can be labelled as extremist, quasi-religious or totalitarian sects, the ‘official’ religions enjoy strong protection in Russian society in this respect. The protection of religious sensitivities refers to collective rights, in contrast to the rights of individuals. In fact, this protection of some collective sensibilities is frequently used in violations of the rights of individuals and freedom of expression, including religious expression.

Even though the public discussions about offences against religious sensitivities usually refer to Orthodox Christianity, Islam is also included in this protection. For example, in Russia the scandalous Islamophobic American film the Innocence of Muslims, which featured the Prophet Mohammed as a homosexual and a child molester, was placed in the list of banned publications in 2012. Not surprisingly, in the case of Charlie Hebdo, the comments and condolences of the Russian Orthodox Church were also relatively restrained and rife with clauses on the unacceptability of offending religious feelings. One exception was the popular theologian and writer, Deacon Andrei Kuraev, who publicly criticised both the leaders of the Russian Orthodox Church and the Orthodox Christian internet community for their reactions to the attack (Kuraev).

On the basis of recent polls, it seems that the majority of Russian society supported the strong protection of religious sensitivities. In a survey carried out by the Levada Centre, 59% of respondents thought that the reason for the terrorist attack against Charlie Hebdo was the provocative caricatures of Mohammed, which ‘offended the feelings of believers’. Moreover, 72% disapproved of the publication of such caricatures, because they offend Muslims. In August 2015, the Russian Public Opinion Research Centre published a survey according to which 67% agreed that artistic works should not offend religious feelings, whereas only 28% supported full artistic freedom.

In the analysed articles which addressed Charlie Hebdo, the terrorist action was unanimously condemned. However, surprisingly often, the incident was presented as an inevitable, although regrettable, outcome of French or European politics. Three grounds for this argument were the submissiveness of European societies to the aggression of Islamic migrants; European secularism and tolerance, which allows the offending of people; or even the aggressive foreign politics of France and the Western world in general. Curiously, all of these arguments were mixed in varying combinations. While the published articles seldom explicitly explained the attack as caused by the foreign politics of France, the readers’ comments were more blatant: ‘Those same French tolerantly bombed Tripoli and killed the grandchildren of Gaddafi. Why are we now surprised at the Muslims’ dislike of French people?’. There were several similar comments and, in a curious way, their writers seemed to present themselves (or even Russia) as the defender of Muslims, mistreated by the West. The stance reflects the heritage of the Soviet rhetoric and indeed, the same claims could be found on the webpage of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation.

However, instead of world politics, a more typical frame of interpretation focused on values, especially concerning tradition. An article by Evgeny Kholmogorov from Izvestiya on 8 January began with portrayals of news of Christmas-time Russia with beautiful ‘Byzantine church services with happy faces’. These were then juxtaposed with images of ‘them’ (u nikh): the news on the ISIS executioners, demonstrations against Islamisation in Germany and the terrorist action in Paris. According to Kholmogorov, the difference illustrated the division into two distinct worldviews: one that has not abandoned ‘traditional values’ and one which has done this and is wavering between ‘hysterical tolerance’ and ‘obscurant, barbaric fanaticism’.

It is necessary to understand that in the conflict over the control of the intellectual sphere of Western Europe, the conflicting parties are not Islam and Christianity or Islam and atheism, but two postmodern sects. One says that there is not and cannot be anything in the world, not any values or sacred that could not be submitted to the postmodern ridicule, to blasphemous caricatures. … Another one answers that the carnival will end where Islam begins, and if this does not please you, you will die, with noise and publicity. (Kholmogorov)

Kholmogorov’s point is that the root of the problem is the ‘deathly tolerance’ of Europe, which has allowed too much room for manoeuvre for radical migrant Muslims and the alienation of the country’s own tradition and values. Thus, Islamic terrorism is not necessarily linked to Islam as a religion as such, but to some new, ‘postmodern’ ideology. Most of the articles suggest there is a difference between ‘proper Islam’ and ‘radical Islam’, which is not necessarily considered a religious phenomenon. Occasionally, the ‘proper’, moderate Islam was exemplified with references to Russian Islam.

Like Kholmogorov, many authors represented Russia as a safe haven of traditional values and the peaceful coexistence of religions. The same theme recurred in the readers’ comments. Interestingly, in similar way as in the debates about the mosques, moderate Islam was connected to private, invisible religiosity. Thus, the peaceful coexistence of religions was implied to be based on keeping the differences away from the public space. For example, one of the readers’ comments referred to the old myth of the Soviet times as an era when people allegedly did not even know the nationality of their neighbours as an example of the Russian tradition of tolerance.

One of the reasons for the relatively limited amount of sympathy towards the French people was that the incident took place at a time when the relationships between Russia and the EU were extremely strained because of the war in Ukraine. Therefore, some readers’ comments, such as ‘Je suis Donbass‘, which referred to the slogan ‘Je suis Charlie‘ used globally to express sympathy for the victims of the attack, revealed a reluctance to sympathise with France on the basis of its alleged indifference to the Ukrainian and Russian victims.

Whereas the analyses of the terrorist action in Paris were occasionally, at least implicitly, critical of Islam, the following discussion on Khodorkovsky’s proposition to publish the caricatures of Mohammed in the Russian media focused more on the defence of Muslim sensibilities. In these articles and in the comments by the readers, the dominant opinion seemed to be that the suggestion was a typical attempt by Russian liberals to cause discord among Russians and to operate in favour of the West and against Russia. Thereby, in these discussions, the dividing line between ‘us’ and ‘them’ was not set between Orthodox Christians and Muslims, or even between Russians and migrants, but between Russians and the supporters of Western liberalism.

Several articles and readers made a connection between the Charlie Hebdo and the Pussy Riot case, despite the obvious irony of comparing the Russian authorities with Muslim terrorists. Some commentators criticised both the conviction of the members of Pussy Riot and the massacre of the Parisian journalists, others approved the first while condemning the second, but in surprisingly many writings, these were both presented as examples of violations of religious feelings which deserved to be punished.

Even though the debates over Charlie Hebdo, and especially Khodorkovsky’s suggestion to publish the caricature, seemed to bring the (conservative) Orthodox Christians and Muslims in Russia closer together, the story contains a sub-chapter, which again reveals the limits of the public display of non-Orthodox activity. Soon after the incident, a group of Muslim activists appealed for permission to organise a demonstration against the violations of religious feelings. A march with the same aim was organised by Orthodox Christians after the Pussy Riot case. In Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov organised a massive march against the caricatures of Charlie Hebdo; in Moscow, the march, which referred to religious sensitivities in general, was not given permission by Mayor Sobyanin. He explained the reason was that the organisers ‘do not represent the Muslims of Moscow’ and were suspected of ‘wishing to organise some provocation in the city’. Indeed, at the beginning of 2014, the same group of activists, who do not belong to the dominant TsDUM or DUMERF, were denied permission for a march against Islamophobia and racism. These decisions reveal that not only a hierarchy of religion but also a hierarchy of religious actors guides the policies of the authorities.


Both on the federal and the local level, the Russian authorities prefer the established Muslim organisations, while the newer, independent and grass-roots communities often face discrimination (Curanovic, p. 533; Braginskaia). The sharp division into ‘approved’ official religiosity and occasionally heavily sanctioned ‘unofficial’ activity is especially evident concerning Islam (Aitamurto). However, even ‘official’ Islam is beginning to feel the effects of Islamophobia and the vulnerable position of all minority religions of Russia, as evidenced in the difficulties in building new mosques. Despite the protests of the Muslim community, the discussions about the threat of radical Islam have apparently made the general public prone to approve measures against it more easily than previously.

The negotiations about mosques reflect the wider societal redefinition of the identity of Russia and the tendency to understand it more straightforwardly as a predominantly ethnically Russian and Orthodox Christian country in contrast to the Russian imperial and Soviet traditions of multi-ethnicity. Even when the authors pay lip service to the Russian tradition of the coexistence of different faiths, it seems that the kind of Islam that is seen as constructive to Russian society remains in the margins and mostly outside the public space. The case of mosques shows that there are strict limits on what are considered to be appropriate ways and occasions for Muslim identities to enter public spaces. Moreover, framing new mosques as part of the migration issue further advances the image of Islam as the ‘other’ in contrast to ‘us’, the Russian tradition.

In comparison to the theme of new mosques, a very different kind of picture of the attitudes towards Muslims in Russia has emerged from the debates about the Charlie Hebdo attack. Whereas France was regularly presented as providing a warning of the outcomes of a poor immigration policy and simultaneous overt liberalism and tolerance of radicalism, both the journalists and readers congratulated Russian society for being less prone to interfaith conflicts. In contrast to Europe, newspapers often take pride in the fact that Islam has been a part of Russian society for such a long time, thereby presenting the coexistence of confessions as a positive matter instead of a potential cause of problems, as in the debates about the mosques. In addition, in the discussions about Charlie Hebdo, the issue was more often framed in the context of religious sensitivities and blasphemy, instead of freedom of expression or even the threat of radical Islam. The idea that religions need protection and special privileges was widely shared. Here both the media and public opinion seemed to support the project of desecularisation in the sense of ‘a rapprochement between formerly secularized institutions and religious norms’ (Karpov, pp. 239-40).

Despite the differences in the debates about these two topics, a common feature in both discussions is a certain suspicious (non-Orthodox Christian) attitude towards religiosity and, in particular, its presentation in public spaces. However, there are some notable differences. In Western Europe, suspicions about Islam are based on the concern that it is assumed illiberal sides may threaten European liberal values, such as the individual freedom to choose one’s identity and the freedom of speech. Similar claims also appeared in Russian media and especially in the readers’ comments. However, yet more often, conservative religiosity is understood as a stabilising force in society, whereas religious pluralism and its uncontrolled manifestations are regarded as potentially subversive of the status quo.

Earlier (Aitamurto) it has been noted that while modernisation has been a catchword repeated in Russian public discussions as something Russia should strive towards, what is appreciated in religions is their capacity to sustain traditional values in Russian society. However, on closer inspection, the seeming paradox appears quite logical. According to Vladimir Gel’man, the Russian political elite promotes a ‘narrow’ form of modernisation, which includes, for example, more efficient governance, the development of economy and industry, but not necessarily an increase in pluralism and individual freedom (Gel’man, pp. 104-14). The two case studies analysed in this essay suggest that in the mainstream media and even within the Russian audience, the conservative control of religiosity and identity politics exhibits such an understanding.

The Charlie Hebdo case shows that ‘desecularisation from above’, in the sense of allowing privileges and protection to traditional religiosity, enjoys wide support in Russian society. However, it also reveals the very narrow nature of this ‘desecularisation’. The case can be interpreted as a protection of religious sensitivities, but also as muzzling societal discussion about religion. In both debates, and especially in the readers’ comments, giving too much liberty to Islamic religiosity was seen as a potentially dangerous politics. Anti-Islamic feelings were especially prominent in the discussions about new mosques, but they also divulged a quite secularist ethos; a demand that all religions should not be too visible in the public space. Juxtaposing the two case studies discussed in this essay provides further evidence that in addition to the ‘desecularisation’ from above, there are also ‘secularisation’ projects emerging from below.