Saturday, September 6, 2008

Predicting a Majority-Muslim Russia

Predicting a Majority-Muslim Russia

by Daniel Pipes
Sat, 6 Aug 2005

updated Sun, 6 Jan 2008

"Russia's Turning Muslim, Says Mufti" is the startling headline in the Times of London today. Ravil Gaynutdin, head of the Council of Muftis of Russia, announced that Russia's population of 144 million contains 23 million ethnic Muslims – and not, as the census indicates, 14.5 million, or, as the Orthodox Church estimates, nearer to 20 million. An estimated 3-4 million Muslims are migrants from former Soviet regions, including 2 million Azeris, 1 million Kazakhs, and several hundred thousand Uzbeks, Tajiks and Kyrgyz.

Plus, Russians of Orthodox background are converting to Islam. (For one important case, see the story of Viacheslav Sergeevich Polosin.) The Orthodox church claims 80 million adherents, but observers say the real number is about half that, and falling.

And more: while the Orthodox population is in demographic decline, the Muslim population is surging. Although the total Russian population dropped by 400,000 in the first half of 2005, it increased in 15 regions, such as the Muslim republics of Chechnya, Dagestan and Ingushetia. The birth rate is 1.8 children per woman in Dagestan, versus 1.3 for Russia as a whole. Male life expectancy is 68 in Dagestan, versus 58 for Russia.

The Times observes that this growth in the Muslim population "has raised fears among Orthodox Church leaders and nationalists that Russia could eventually become a Muslim-majority nation." Aleksei Malashenko, an expert on Islam, does not expect Russia to become "a Muslim society in several years, although maybe in half a century we'll see something surprising." (August 6, 2005)

Feb. 28, 2006 update: Paul Goble, an expert on minorities in the former Soviet Union, agrees with the mufti.

Within most of our lifetimes the Russian Federation, assuming it stays within current borders, will be a Muslim country. That is it will have a Muslim majority and even before that the growing number of people of Muslim background in Russia will have a profound impact on Russian foreign policy. The assumption in Western Europe or the United States that Moscow is part of the European concert of powers is no longer valid. … The Muslim growth rate, since 1989, is between 40 and 50 percent, depending on ethnic groups. Most of that is in the Caucuses or from immigration from Central Asia or Azerbaijan.

Goble notes the exponential growth in Islam since the demise of the Soviet Union: Russia had about 300 mosques in 1991 and now there are at least 8,000, about half of which were built with money from abroad, especially from Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia. There were no Islamic religious schools in 1991 and today there are between 50 and 60, teaching as many as 50,000 students. The number of Russians going on the hajj each year, has jumped from 40 in 1991 to 13,500 in 2005. He quotes a Russian commentator predicting that within the next several decades there will be a mosque on Red Square.

June 7, 2006 update: In an article titled, "Russia faces demographic disaster," BBC analyst Steven Eke focuses on the general problem of the country's population declining by at least 700,000 people annually (for example, the slow depopulation of the northern and eastern regions and the emergence of uninhabited "ghost villages"). He also interviews a Russian demographer, Viktor Perevedentsev, who dismisses the prospect of a Muslim majority:

Mr Perevedentsev dismisses the notion that Russia could become a majority Muslim nation, and says this is a spectre being deliberately whipped up by politicians with little understanding of demography. He acknowledges that there are very high birth-rates among these population groups, but insists they merely reflect an earlier stage of development and will ultimately fall. In 50 years' time, he says, Muslims will still be a small part of Russia's overall population.

Comment: Perevedentsev is, of course, correct that the Muslim birthrate will eventually come down. But, as Mark Steyn points out, "demographics is a game of last man standing. The groups that succumb to demographic apathy last will have a huge advantage." We do not know at this time how long it will be until the Russian Muslim birthrate tumbles, and what the percentage of Muslims in Russia will be at that time. In short, Muslims could be a majority in Russia.

Nov. 19, 2006 update: Goble makes an even more dramatic statement to Michael Mainville of the San Francisco Chronicle: "Russia is going through a religious transformation that will be of even greater consequence for the international community than the collapse of the Soviet Union." Mainville updates some statistics in "Russia has a Muslim dilemma: Ethnic Russians hostile to Muslims"

Russia's overall population is dropping at a rate of 700,000 people a year, largely due to the short life spans and low birth rates of ethnic Russians. The country's 2002 census shows that the national fertility rate is 1.5 children per woman, far below the 2.1 children per woman needed to maintain the country's population of about 143 million. The rate in Moscow is even lower, at 1.1 children per woman.

But Russia's Muslims are bucking that trend. The fertility rate for Tatars living in Moscow, for example, is six children per woman, Goble said, while the Chechen and Ingush communities are averaging 10 children per woman. And hundreds of thousands of Muslims from Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan have been flocking to Russia in search of work. Since 1989, Russia's Muslim population has increased by 40 percent to about 25 million. By 2015, Muslims will make up a majority of Russia's conscript army, and by 2020 a fifth of the population. "If nothing changes, in 30 years people of Muslim descent will definitely outnumber ethnic Russians," Goble said.

The political implications of this shift are, of course, far-reaching: "For many ethnic Russians, the prospect of becoming a minority in their country is unthinkable, and nationalist sentiments are on the rise.… Attacks on mosques have been increasing." The authorities have responded:

Russian authorities have begun to crack down. This fall, four Russian regions introduced mandatory classes in Orthodox Christianity in all schools. On Wednesday, [Nov. 15,] the Russian Cabinet announced a new law that will ban foreigners, most of them Muslims, from working in retail stalls and markets, starting next year. Thursday, the director of the Federal Migration Service, Konstantin Romodanovsky, said foreigners should not be allowed to create "ethnic enclaves" in which they outnumber "native Russians" in any district or region of the country.… In recent years, Russia has expelled dozens of foreigners accused of preaching radical Islam on its territory.

The media is also encouraging hostility:

On Russian television, Muslims are most often portrayed as either criminals or religious radicals waging a holy war against Christians. One of Russia's bestselling novels last year, The Mosque of Notre Dame de Paris, depicted a mid-21st century Europe where Islam was the state religion and Christians were forced to live in ghettos.

And Goble draws an interesting policy conclusion: Western governments need to encourage the Russians to integrate Muslims and not discriminate against them because "When Muslims are in the majority in Russia, they'll remember whether we spoke out for their rights or failed to."

Dec. 3, 2006 update: Michael Mainville, now writing for the Toronto Star, provides more interesting information in "Islam thrives as Russia's population falls."

  • Moscow is estimated to have a Muslim population of 2.5 million - the largest of any European city other than Istanbul.
  • Muslims make up about 25 million of Russia's total population of about 143 million, or some 17.5 percent of the population. (That makes the Muslim percentage in Russia just a bit below of the Muslim percentage in Israel.)
  • If current trends continue, more than half of Russia's population will be Muslim by mid-century.
  • A bestselling novel in 2005, The Mosque of Notre Dame de Paris, depicts a mid-twenty-first century Europe where Islam is the state religion and Christians are restricted to living in ghettos.

Demographic tends have heightened tensions between the ethnic Russian population and Muslims, with several manifestations.

  • The Russian media has become overtly anti-Muslim. The television often portrays them as criminals or religious fanatics waging jihad against Christians.
  • Extreme Russian nationalist groups, such as Alexander Belov's "Movement against Illegal Immigration," are gaining influence. Belov states that "Russia is historically a Slavic, Orthodox Christian land and we need to make sure it stays that way." He wants Orthodox Christianity made Russia's official religion and the state to convert Muslims. Muslims, whether with Russian citizenship or immigrants, should be restricted from living in "traditional Russian lands."
  • Responding to such sentiments, four Russian regions recently introduced mandatory instruction in Orthodox Christianity in all schools. And on Nov. 15, "the Russian cabinet announced a new law that will ban foreigners from working in retails stalls and markets next year. The law doesn't specifically target Muslims, but the vast majority of people working in Russia's markets are either Muslim immigrants or from traditionally Muslim parts of Russia."
  • Inter-ethnic violence on the rise. "Attacks on mosques are not uncommon," writes Mainville, "and in September an imam in the southern city of Kislovodsk was shot dead outside his home. During days of rioting in August, angry mobs chased Chechens and other migrants from the Caucasus region out of the northwestern town of Kondopoga."

Russia's overall fertility rate is 1.3 children per woman and its population is dropping by 700,000 people a year. But these numbers hide a vast gulf between ethnic Russians, who have an even lower birth rate and larger population drop, and the Muslim population, which has increased by 40 per cent since 1989. Paul Goble again provides a striking sound-byte. "Russia is going through a religious transformation that will be of even greater consequence for the international community than the collapse of the Soviet Union." The implications of that statement deserve careful consideration.

Dec. 4, 2006 update: Another indication of Islam's progress among Russians concerns former-Russian-spy-turned-dissident Alexander Litvinenko, who died of Polonium-210 poisoning in London on November 23. He converted to Islam on his deathbed, according to Akhmed Zakayev, a Chechen Islamist who lived next door to Litvinenko: "He was read to from the Koran the day before he died and had told his wife and family that he wanted to be buried in accordance with Muslim tradition." His father Walter confirmed this development in an interview: Alexander, born an Orthodox Christian told him, "I want to be buried according to Muslim tradition."

Dec. 21, 2006 update: Joseph A. D'Agostino, a demographer at the Population Research Institute, writes in "Motherless Russia - Muslims and Chinese Vie For Huge Assets of Dying Nation":

Some think that France will be the first European country in modern times to be taken over by Muslims due to her very large, violent immigrant population and effeminate native populace. Others point to the Netherlands, from which native Dutch people are beginning to flee in the face of hostile Islamism among the immigrants in that densely-populated nation. But Russia—a huge nation with vast natural resources, thousands of nuclear warheads, and until recently a global superpower—may be the first to go under. This seems possible even though Russia suffers little from the suicidal tolerance and multiculturalism that afflicts Western Europeans. …

In 2015, less than ten years from now, Muslims could make up a majority of the Russian military. Military service is compulsory for young Russian men, though only 10% actually serve due to college deferments, bribes to escape duty, and the like. Given the famously brutal Russian military, perhaps avoiding military service is forgivable. But will the generals be able to avoid having a Muslim military if most young men who haven't fled Russia are Muslim? Will such a military operate effectively given the fury that many domestic Muslims feel toward the Russian military's tactics in the Muslim region of Chechnya? What if other Muslim regions of Russia—some of which contain huge oil reserves—rebel against Moscow? Will Muslim soldiers fight and kill to keep them part of the Russian motherland? …

With birthrates, death rates, and emigration rates the way they are now, it is highly plausible that Russia could be majority Muslim by 2040.

Apr. 10, 2007 update: Russian Islam specialist Roman Silantyev offers a dissenting view to the above, according to an interview he did with Interfax. "The most widespread estimation of 20 million Muslims is unrealistic," he says, calling this "the most serious myth" about Islam in today's Russia. While he has seen estimates varying between 5 and 50 million Muslims in Russia, the number of ethnic Muslims is about 14.5 million, while surveys find only 7 to 9 million people who adhere to the Islamic faith.

Silantyev also dismisses as myth the idea of mass conversions of ethnic Russian to Islam. "Less than 3,000 ethnic Russian have converted to Islam" during the past fifteen years, he says. In contrast, over that same period, almost 2 million ethic Muslims have become Orthodox Christians. In 70 percent of marriages between a Muslim and a Christian, for example, the Muslim spouse converts to Christianity.

July 29, 2007 update: Staving off demographic decline has become a Russian government obsession, as suggested by Edward Lucas's report, "Sex for the motherland: Russian youths encouraged to procreate at camp." From the article's opening:

Remember the mammoths, say the clean-cut organisers at the youth camp's mass wedding. "They became extinct because they did not have enough sex. That must not happen to Russia". Obediently, couples move to a special section of dormitory tents arranged in a heart-shape and called the Love Oasis, where they can start procreating for the motherland.

With its relentlessly upbeat tone, bizarre ideas and tight control, it sounds like a weird indoctrination session for a phoney religious cult. But this organisation - known as Nashi, meaning "Ours" – is a youth movement run by Vladimir Putin's Kremlin that has become a central part of Russian political life. Nashi's annual camp, 200 miles outside Moscow, is attended by 10,000 uniformed youngsters and involves two weeks of lectures and physical fitness.

Attendance is monitored via compulsory electronic badges and anyone who misses three events is expelled. So are drinkers; alcohol is banned. But sex is encouraged, and condoms are nowhere on sale. Bizarrely, young women are encouraged to hand in thongs and other skimpy underwear - supposedly a cause of sterility - and given more wholesome and substantial undergarments.

Twenty-five couples marry at the start of the camp's first week and ten more at the start of the second. These mass weddings, the ultimate expression of devotion to the motherland, are legal and conducted by a civil official.

Russians at a youth camp, preparing to procreate.

Dec. 18, 2007 update: "Muslim Russia" is a term coming into vogue among Russia's increasingly confident Muslims, reports Paul Goble, thereby frightening the country's non-Muslims.

Until recently, Daniyal Isayev writes in a commentary on the portal, the Muslims of Russia, like most analysts who discuss their community, typically spoke "about ‘Islam and Russia,' ‘Islam in Russia,' and even ‘[non-ethnic] Russian Islam." But they "never" referred to "'Muslim Russia.'" Now, he writes, ever more of the faithful there are doing just that, a reflection of "how much is changing both in the world and in Russia itself"—and "especially in the consciousness, self-conception and position of Muslims" living in that country (

This shift does not represent a split in Russian society, the Muslim commentator insists, but rather represents an affirmation that Islam is "an inalienable part of Russia" and that "Russia as a state and civilization could not exist without Islam and the Muslims." The Islamic community emerged "on the territory of contemporary Russia not only centuries earlier than in many other regions of the world which today are considered traditionally Islamic but centuries before the appearance of the [ethnic] Russian people and [ethnic] Russian and [non-ethnic] Russian statehood."

"Muslim Russia," he writes, "is Derbent, Kazan, Astrakhan, Ufa, Tyumen, Orenburg and so on. Today, this is also Moscow and St. Petersburg. [It] is the creativity of Pushkin, Lermontov, and Tolstoy, … an enormous territory and peoples of Northern Eurasia who were drawn together by the Golden Horde." Moreover, "Muslim Russia is [also] the victories on the fronts of the First and Second World Wars, gold medals at the Olympics and scientific achievements of recent years." And the future of Muslim Russia, Isayev suggests, is certain to be even richer and more beneficial to the country.

Goble then quotes from four Russian nationalist writers expressing dismay at the surge of Islam in their country. Goble concludes that "these two sets of attitudes, the increasingly self-confident Muslim one, on the one hand, and the increasingly defensive ethnic Russian one, on the other, points to more conflicts ahead," unless both sides pull back and reflect on the dangers that could result.

Related Topics: Converts to Islam, Demographics, Russia/Soviet Union

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