The Islamic regions of Russia can be divided, geographically and in the way the that the faith is co-opted by the authorities, into the North Caucasian and Volga-Ural regions. In the former, the predominant strategy is suppression, while in the latter, the chosen approach puts security first.
The Volga-Ural Islamic regions of Russia include Tatarstan and Bashkortostan. The experience of Tatarstan, a “rich” Russified republic with a relatively weak Islamic tradition, is perhaps the best example of the co-option of Islam by the authorities. Control over religion is established both at the level of Islamic institutions and in the shaping of religious knowledge.
Unlike the North Caucasus, for example, Tatarstan saw the construction of a system of filters and control over Islamic education, and repression on religious grounds is rare. However, this region has not entirely managed to avoid problems arising in the country’s other Islamic republics.
As in other areas, a significant number of students in the madrasas are low performers who either do not want to take exams or are unable to enter a secular college (which is difficult and expensive.) As a result, madrasas often put discipline above teaching. These institutions enjoy a fair amount of independence, are far from fully controlled by the state and their educational quality depends largely on individual teachers.
University applicants are accepted only if they have the appropriate recommendations (and pledges regarding further employment) from either their muftiate — the spiritual administrative district for Muslims — or the specialized law enforcement units working with them. In this way, Islamic universities are largely insulated from conflict and contribute to the control over young people in the Muslim regions of Russia. In order to enter the Academy, an applicant must not only have a connection with these structures but must also have demonstrated loyalty to them.
An important task of the Bolgar Islamic Academy, an educational institution in Tatarstan established with the support of President Vladimir Putin, is to reduce the outflow of young people abroad and to create a quality alternative to foreign, primarily Middle Eastern, Islamic education.
At the same time, the experience of the Middle East is recognized as an important element of the educational system, and professors from abroad are actively recruited to teach. The introduction of alien, including radical, ideas is avoided through a system of preliminary checks on teachers, as well as the constant recording of lectures and seminars. In addition, a mechanism has been established for students to monitor their classes and inform the Academy’s leadership about any deviations from the orthodoxy.
Mosques and Islamic educational institutions in Kazan, the capital of Tatarstan, are much more “secular” than in other regions. For example, the clothing expectations for women and tourists are more relaxed than in the republics of the North Caucasus, and staff is more willing to engage in dialogue (though this is not necessarily the case in more rural areas.)
Remote and closed Islamic settlements, far from the federal and regional centers, pose a recruitment challenge for the authorities. While there is a demand for faith leaders and Islamic education, young imams, educated in Kazan or other big cities, want to stay in large settlements.
Those who do go are allocated to the post, regardless of their preference, meaning communities can end up with imams who are “weak” in terms of education and acquired knowledge. This trend is seen across rural areas of Tatarstan, where there are many imams who were themselves low-performing students and could not find other options; local Muslims of course notice this.
It’s a specific feature of “secular” co-opted Islam in Russia that the regional authorities construct a system of filters and control over Islamic education, but at the grassroots level, dissatisfaction with such interference is growing. This discontent will only accumulate and in the medium term may have destabilizing consequences.
Alisa R. Shishkina is a former Future Russia Fellow with the Democratic Resilience Program at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA).
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.