Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Putin’s Discussion of ‘Traditional Islam’ Outmoded and ‘a Political Error,’ Malashenko Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, January 9 – President Vladimir Putin’s use of the Soviet-era term “traditional Islam” in opposition to “non-traditional” not only is outmoded but reflects a serious misunderstanding of the nature of Islam and thus constitutes a major “political error,” according to a leading Russian specialist on the Muslim world.

            In an interview posted on the portal this week, Aleksey Malashenko, a senior specialist at the Carnegie Moscow Center, says that at his press conference Putin used the dichotomy of traditional and non-traditional Islam, a division which specialists recognize no longer works (

            Among the expert community, the Moscow scholar continues, these terms are being redefined, but “apparently Putin does not have any advisors working on this question.”  And thus his use of increasingly out of date terms is “a political mistake,” especially because as president, Putin “could have proposed some new version or new paradigm.”

            Moreover, Malashenko argues, if Putin “drives Islam into the framework of traditionalism and non-traditionalism, as he did at the press conference, this [by itself] will have negative consequences.” It will encourage the struggle between them rather than promote consensus and agreement.

            “The term ‘struggle’ is inappropriate here,” the scholar says. “it is necessary to provide another system of coordinates. When speaking about terrorists, extremists and the like, one must never in any case confuse all this with theology.  One must not assert that Sufi Islam and the tariqatists are good or, just the reverse, are bad.” They are both Islam.

            “In general,” Malashenko says, “Wahhabism should be left in peace and one should deal with it as to [any] legitimate trend” within the faith.  One must start not from ideology but from practice” and one must make a political evaluation of the situation, one that takes all “nuances” into consideration.

            Unfortunately and “as usual,” he says, epithets have replaced analysis: “American imperialism is bad, Zionism also bad, and then we go on … We passed through all this already in Soviet times. So that the present official ideology in this regard in general has not proceeded very far.”

            Asked about the spread of Wahhabism beyond the North Caucasus to northern regions of Russia, Malashenko responded that this is “a complex process” that “in the first instance” reflects the movement of migrant workers seeking jobs. Because of where they come from, some are bearers of what Putin still calls “non-traditional” Islam.

            That should not surprise anyone given where these workers are coming from and it should not spark fears of some kind of conspiracy.  Instead, what is taking place is easily understood, and to try to block it is “unrealistic.”  One can only hope to oppose it by offering “some sort of alternative,” economic, social or religious.

            Radicalism has always been “a characteristic aspect of the entire Muslim world,” and because Russia has its own “enormous Muslim community,” Russia has been and will be affected by it.  “Therefore, to declare the Salafis enemies is stupid; it is necessary to start a dialogue with them,” something some officials in the North Caucasus appear to understand.

            Malashenko then makes an even more general point that is often ignored in recent discussions of Islam in Russia.  “The supporter of any theological or legal school in Islam or Islamic ideology” will always say that what he professes is “real Islam.”  But that is no different than the position of the adherents of other faiths.

            Focusing on these assertions is the source of many problems, Malashenko argues.  What is needed is the development of dialogue and its continuation “without the mediation of the [political] authorities.”  Such conversations will allow “the search for a common language” and for “a consensus” rather than an illusory effort to win a victory for any of the sides.

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