Most years, residents of Moscow only realize that it’s the Muslim holiday of Eid-al-Fitr when state TV plays footage of live animals being sold out of trucks and sliced open in the streets. Or, on rare but highly publicized occasions, when unsuspecting residents find pools of ram blood in their parking lot or in the sandbox of their local playground.
SLATE (h/t Susan K) The city then spends the next few days in fits of xenophobia and existential woe. Inevitably they move on, forget about their Muslim neighbors for a while, and worry about something else. But for those days they hate them, openly and with foul words. (And rightly so). Moscow
The local government does not do much to ease that enmity, and in some ways official policy exacerbates it. Moscow has 2 million Muslim residents and up to 2 million more Muslim migrant workers. Because of what amounts to state discrimination, the city has permitted the existence of only four mosques, none of which can fit more than 10,000 people.
Nowhere in Moscow is the Muslim call to prayer allowed to disturb the non-Muslim population, so there is no chance that the city will provide public facilities for the Islamic faithful to perform animal sacrifice. The Muslims of Moscow are forced to practice their religion in the open air, which makes for awkward times.
In the past week, the latent tensions started to erupt once again, sparked this time by a man from the predominantly Muslim region of Dagestan who cracked open the skull of a police officer at a Moscow bazaar on July 27.
Police have responded with raids to “decriminalize” outdoor markets across the city, arresting around 3,000 migrant workers, many of them Muslims. A makeshift internment camp of tents and port-o-potties was even set up in the north of the Russian capital to house all of the detainees. Neo-Nazi groups in St. Petersburg have meanwhile taken the police raids as an excuse to launch their own attacks, using baseball bats to smash the fruit stands of migrant workers. They promise to do the same in Moscow.
Like most parts of the Russian heartland, Moscow has for years been particularly inhospitable for Salafism, a fundamentalist brand of Islam that wants to see the caliphates of the Middle Ages restored and sharia law adopted. It is the fastest-growing movement within the fastest-growing religion in the world. So Moscow’s problems are not entirely unique.
Similar tensions were evident in Switzerland in 2009 when a national referendum banned minarets in circumvention of the Swiss constitution. Those tensions came to life in New York City in 2011 during the loud scrap over Park 51, the Islamic community center near Ground Zero. Civic clashes like these are going on in many places where Muslims and non-Muslims live side by side.
What’s strange about the picture in Moscow is how the state has chosen to deal with it. On March 1, Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin reiterated in a live radio interview that there are no plans to build any more mosques in his city, because practicing Muslims are not really Muscovites anyway. “These are far from citizens and not even residents of Moscow,” he told Echo Moskvy. “They are gastarbeiters,” he said, using the German word for “guest worker” that carries a pejorative sting.
“Among Moscow residents only 10 percent [are Muslim], and building mosques for anybody who wants them from all over the country would be going overboard.” The biggest mosque in Moscow, on the Avenue of Peace, is being reconstructed he pointed out, but not expanded. “There are enough problems with that place as it is.”
The problems mostly stem from the fact that the mosque is far too small, and on Eid and other holidays, worshippers swarm the surrounding neighborhood by the hundreds of thousands.
A heavy rain had fallen on a recent Friday when I went there to hear the service, and because of the lack of space people were forced to lay down prayer rugs on the wet asphalt, many over puddles. (In the winter they do this in the snow, ice, and slush, shivering as they bow toward Mecca.) The police presence was heavy that Friday, with two full trucks of riot troops parked at the curb.
At the end of the service, a police officer noticed that one of the worshippers had a pistol tucked into his jeans. The man was questioned by a plainclothes officer, who was so embarrassed that a firearm had slipped through the police pat-downs and metal detectors that he simply gave the young man his gun back and began reprimanding the cops who had failed to spot it.
Others gathered to watch this rare moment of leniency in the city’s no-tolerance policy. On May 31, Sobyanin had again been asked to comment on the city’s Muslims. He said: “People who don’t speak Russian well, who have a totally different culture, are better off living in another country. That is why we don’t welcome their adaptation in Moscow.”
To the American liberal ear, this may sound like the kind of bigotry that would force a politician to resign, or at least apologize for “misspeaking.” But American ears are tuned to a different wavelength, one where the word tolerance (tolerantnost) does not make people cringe the way it does in Russia. Russia never had a civil rights movement. It had 200 years of sporadic warfare with the Muslims of the North Caucasus, a strip of highlands it conquered in the 19th century and still fights wars to control, most recently in Chechnya in the 1990s.
These wars play out today through a full-scale insurgency in the North Caucasus as well as terrorist attacks across Russia; the most recent one in Moscow—a suicide bombing at Domodedovo Airport in 2011—killed at least 37 people and was traced back to Dagestan. Combine that with cultural irritants like the rams of Kurban Bayram and it should not be surprising that distrust, if not outright hatred, of Muslims tends to be the default position among Muscovites. (Russians sometimes call this bytovoy racism, meaning racism that is “commonplace” or “household,” a qualifier that makes it seem almost quaint.)
The problem, of course, is that Moscow’s Muslims have no safe enclave, nowhere to retreat. And as long as they have to come to their nation’s capital to find work or to study, Muslims—and especially Salafis—will be forced to practice their religion at underground mosques. These are usually called “prayer rooms,” and although no official count is possible there are estimated to be hundreds of them around the city.
More radical interpretations of Islam are common there, and a lot of them lean toward Salafism, which is effectively banned in Russia. Down in the North Caucasus, a few Salafi mosques have been allowed, mostly to ease the surveillance efforts of the Russian security services, who find it convenient to have Salafis congregate in places where they can be easily watched. (Not that this surveillance always prevents terrorism: The biggest Salafi mosque in Russia is on Kotrova Street in Makhachkala, the capital of Dagestan. That is where Chechen Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the suspected bomber of the Boston Marathon, went for services last year, when he spent six months in Dagestan visiting family and meeting with local Islamists.)