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Moscow's new mosque: a political project?

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After years of delayed construction, a new mosque has finally opened in Moscow. The timing of its opening ceremony was significant – as was the guest list.

 

Nadezhda Kevorkova
19 October 2015

The opening of Moscow's newest mosque after a decade of reconstruction work on 23 September—the eve of the Muslim holiday of Kurban Bayram—was divisive and strongly criticised. For the Kremlin, though, it was a carefully choreographed event with far-reaching political goals.

Whatever the circumstances, for the majority of Muslims the event was a joyous one, offering hope for the future—if not strictly a resolution to the community's problems.

The wild world of reconstruction

Who doesn't know that Russia is the largest country on earth? There's no shortage of land here. Empty and abandoned plots proliferate in Moscow. Nevertheless, excluding the North Caucasus and Tatarstan, there is somehow not enough land for mosques in Russia, and every now and then a group of ‘concerned citizens' appear to protest against their construction.

In order to build the new mosque, Moscow's oldest surviving mosque (originally built in 1904) was destroyed, and the images of its destruction were a source of displeasure to Moscow's Muslims. Hopes that the reconstruction project would be completed evaporated with each passing day. Construction was frozen several times, and officials began to spread rumours about someone or other 'stealing all the money'.

In spring 2015, against a background of economic decline, reconstruction was resumed at record pace. Miraculously, the mosque was completed six months ahead of schedule. For anyone familiar with the way things work in Russia, it was clear that this was no ordinary occurrence.

Moscow – a city home to two million Muslims – has only four mosques.

Moscow—a city home to two million Muslims—has only four mosques. There is often not enough space for Friday prayers, and if there is, then the OMON (riot police) are liable to pay a visit. 

Twice a year, the media shows—in general, with a negative and worrying slant—how thousands of people pray on the streets, beneath rain, snow and scorching sun. The fact that there are only four mosques in the city where they can pray was pointed out only by CNN and the New York Times.

For the Kremlin, the international media coverage of the new mosque's opening was more important than any criticism. If post-Soviet ideology can largely be described as PR, then mosques are not to be feared in the world of politics.

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September 23, 2015. President Vladimir Putin, left, during the visit to the Moscow Cathedral Mosque after the ceremonial opening. Photo: Alexei Druzhinin via RIA (c)In London, for example, there are over 400 mosques. In New York and Paris – around 150. In no other metropolis is there a ban on constructing mosques, nor is there pressure put on Muslims for performing prayers. Planning permission for mosques is often refused on the supposed grounds of incessant and irreconcilable rivalries between various muftis, imams and adherents of 'traditional' and 'non-traditional' Islam.

It is striking that at a time when a new mosque was being opened in Moscow, an old mosque was being vandalised in the Dagestani village of Novy Kurush on the suspicion that 'Wahhabist' members of the mosque were involved in the killing of the local imam. Several people broke into the building, removing the carpets and books and burning them, before welding up the mosque's door. For millions of Muslims in Dagestan, this event was much more revealing than the celebrations in Moscow.

Moscow's new mosque cannot actually accommodate all potential worshippers, but its grand opening attended by Vladimir Putin seemed to many to signal a much more indulgent attitude towards the Muslim community. Nevertheless, no promises to open further mosques were made at the event.

Heeding the call

To hold the mosque's opening celebrations on the Islamic holy day of Arafah—when one and a half billion Muslims prepare for festival marking the end of the Hajj pilgrimage and many fast—was quite a risky move. It was difficult to expect that the leaders of Muslim states would travel to Moscow on such a day.

On the other hand, holding the festivities that day gave a convincing excuse to VIPs invited by Moscow, allowing them to avoid attending a celebration whose political messages were all too obvious.

The President of Iran was expected at the celebrations. He did not arrive.

On the eve of Putin's visit to the UN, against the background of Russia's intervention in Syria and its intention to form an alternative coalition against Islamic State, there were simply too many undercover intrigues to take the opening of Moscow's new mosque lightly.

The President of Iran was expected at the celebrations. He did not arrive.

It is nonetheless possible that experts on the region were able to explain to the Kremlin that should the Iranian leaders arrive, other guests would refuse to attend, given that Iran's position on the Syrian crisis is unacceptable to those who do not support Assad.

Invitations were also extended to the President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev and the head of the Spiritual Directorate of Muslims of the Caucasus. They also failed to appear in Moscow.

The leader of Bahrain did not arrive, and neither did the country's most influential religious figures.Eminent representatives of Jordan, Kuwait, Qatar and Saudi Arabia were not among the guests in attendance, and neither were the leaders of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

The presence of President of Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbayev at the opening ceremony was denied by his press service.

Among the figures in Moscow that day deemed newsworthy by international media were the presidents of the Palestinian Authority and Turkey.

Abbas in Moscow

The arrival of Mahmoud Abbas, the 80-year old president of the Palestinian Authority, had a special significance in light of the fact that Putin had that same day invited Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Moscow. A fact which lent a particular drama to the situation was the continuing and simmering scandal in Jerusalem, following an attack by Israeli settlers on the Al-Aqsa Mosque, with the support of the army.

While with Netanyahu the attack was not mentioned at all, Mahmoud Abbas dedicated his entire speech to the topic.

At the moment of his election after the death of Yasser Arafat in 2005, Abbas had visited Russia 13 times. He had studied in the Soviet Union, where he defended his dissertation.

His popularity among Palestinians is incomparable with the popularity of Yasser Arafat. He is regarded as somebody who negotiates with Israel while refusing to support armed resistance against the Israeli occupation, and unable to stop the arrest and murder of Palestinians by Egypt and Israel.

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Vadimir Putin and President of Palestine Mahmoud Abbas at the ceremonial opening of the Moscow Cathedral Mosque. Photo: Alexei Druzhinin via RIA (c)During his tenure, illegal Israeli settlements have grown, Palestinian territory is fading away, and the blockade of the Gaza Strip has intensified. That he consented to the creation of a sea channel along the Gaza border – controlled by Egypt – does not add to his political clout. This sea channel has been used by the Egyptian army to flood tunnels, Gaza's only connection to the outside world.

In contrast to the majority of Palestinians, Mahmoud Abbas sticks to his loyalty to Bashar Assad, yet maintains constant contact with western actors involved in the conflict in Syria. Thus Abbas's presence at the ceremony in Moscow was an important aspect of Moscow's unfolding designs on Syria.

Erdoğan in Moscow

The President of Turkey arrived for the mosque's opening ceremony as expected. Turkish building firms and craftsmen were highly involved in its construction and decoration, with much of the work undertaken without pay—for the glory of God.

Although relations between Moscow and Ankara are strained, such difficulties were not on public display. Moscow's plans for Syria are, in essence, directed against Erdoğan, who occupies positions which are completely irreconcilable with those of the Russian Federation.

The Syrian coalition which Russia hopes to assemble appears to be something of a paradox. Whenever it comes under discussion, it is said that it is being formed above all to destroy Islamic State.He remains an opponent of the Assad regime in Syria, the regime of Sisi in Egypt, the Israeli occupation in Palestine. He supports the Crimean Tatars and confronts the terrorist activities of Kurdish fighters.

The paradox lies in the fact that IS is not fighting against Assad, but at a critical moment struck other militia groups which by 2013 were close to putting significant pressure on government forces.

Similarly, IS is particularly active in fighting against the Kurds. Thus in spring 2015, Kurdish partisan brigades returned to active combat and to terrorist activities. In this sense, the usefulness of IS's activities to Turkey becomes obvious.

At the mosque's opening ceremony, Erdoğan did not say a word about the Syrian war. He spoke about what [apparently] worries Muslims most – the fate of the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the tragedy of the Syrian refugees. As is known, Putin and Erdoğan held a closed meeting in Moscow. The Kremlin's press service saw it necessary to announce the conclusion reached by both sides: approaches differ, and the situation is deteriorating.

In other words, Moscow's coalition – just like that of the west – will ultimately be directed against Erdoğan's Turkey, which at present remains one of the few refuges for Muslims fleeing war and repression.

Hence Erdoğan arrived at the opening of the mosque on Prospekt Mira, quoting Lev Tolstoy's words: 'though it seems to men that they live by care for themselves, in truth it is love alone by which they live'.

Such was the opening of the new mosque on Prospekt Mira (Peace Avenue)—with scant hope for peace.

Editor’s note: this article first appeared in Russian at KavPolit, a Russian website and news portal covering developments in the North and South Caucasus. We are grateful to KavPolit for their permission to translate and re-publish this article here.

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