The special role of Russian Muslims in Russian-Saudi relations

Diana Galeeva

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Russian Muslims are now, as they have ever been, very important for strengthening relations between Russia and the Muslim world, and especially with Saudi Arabia, which, with the cities of Mecca and Medina, is its heart. Learning from the lessons and experiences of the past, Russian Muslims are proud of their cultural heritage but coexist in peace and tolerance with other religions and nationalities.

For centuries Russian Muslims have been establishing close cultural and economic relations between their own nations and the Islamic states, and have been important in actively maintaining their relationships with the Muslim world, especially Russian-Saudi relations.

The significance of the unprecedented visit of King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud to Russia, almost a century after the two countries established relations, should not be underestimated. A historic event for both countries, the visit is a sign of strengthening bilateral relations.

Rarely is it possible to see such a high level of involvement and presence of Russian political elites during an official visit. Among those present during King Salman’s visit were many with high-ranking positions in the federal and regional structures of the state, including the President of the Russian Federation, the Prime Minister and federal ministers, some of the leaders of constituent entities of Russia, and religious authorities.

The active involvement and presence of the heads of republics with large Muslim populations, such as the President of Tatarstan Republic, Rustam Minnikhanov, the head of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, and the head of the Ingushetia, Yunus-bek Yevkurov, is no coincidence.

For years these leaders worked hard to establish relations by making official visits to Saudi Arabia, where they met with the Kingdoms’ leadership, establishing economic ties, and indeed performing the mandatory religious duty of every Muslim, the hajj or umrah (‘small hajj’); some even being honored with an invitation to enter the holiest site of Islam, the Kaaba.

The fact that only a few Russians, among them abovementioned leaders of republics, have been permitted by the Saudi King – Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques – to be inside the Kaaba, demonstrates the personal impact and the special role of all Muslim Russians in general for building close relations with the Kingdom, contributing to the trust and respect that maintains relations between their own nations and Saudi Arabia.

Even though Russian population is predominantly Christian, Islam is the second most widely professed religion and the presence of Muslims in Russia strengthens cultural and religious ties with Saudi Arabia

Diana Galeeva

Between Islamic world and Russia 9th -12th century

The visit of the Saudi King to Moscow was a long time in the making, with various arrangements having been discussed in the years prior to its fruition in 2017. The idea only became a reality when the President of the Republic of Tatarstan, Rustam Minnikhanov, during an official visit to Riyadh in 2017, delivered an official invitation to King Salman to visit Russia. It is not surprising that such a special mission was completed by one of the heads of the republics with large Muslim populations.

As history demonstrates, religious similarities have encouraged the building of economic and cultural relations between Islamic countries, and, due to their geographical proximity and historical events, they learned to live in peaceful coexistence and tolerance with other nations and religions located in Russia, and contributed to Russia’s status in the international arena.

Within the limitations of this article, it would be impossible to examine the history of all the nations from which modern Russian Muslims descend, however, the development of the Kazan (Volga) Tatars is a particularly telling example of the progression described above.

The establishment of the nationhood of the Kazan (Volga) Tatars occurred during 9th -10th century, when the Bolgar tribes reached the Middle Volga. After the fall of the Empire of Khazars, Volga Bolgaria emerged as one of the dynamic, developing state of the tenth and eleventh centuries. Referring to Volga Bulgaria in the tenth century, the Encyclopedia of Islam calls the soaring urbanization in the territories ‘huge progress’, while, at the end of the tenth and beginning of eleventh century, there were more than 150 settlements in Volga Bulgaria.

In the twelfth century, the Arab traveler al-Dzavaliki stated: ‘In their constructions (of the Bolgars) one can discern recollections of the constructions of Rum (Constantinople). They are great people. Their city called Bolgar, it is a great city’. Most scholars identify the acceptance of Islam as the key reason for this spiritual, cultural and economic development.

The secretary of the Baghdad embassy, Ahmad ibn Fadlan, along with a whole suite of teachers and experts of Islam, educators, builders, and craftsmen, visited Volga Bulgaria on May 12th, in 922 AD. Acceptance of Islam had a great impact on urban development, crafts, agriculture and the growth of trade. Volga Bulgaria built diplomatic relations with Islamic states, along with active cultural exchange. V. Tatischev, who viewed the still lasting Bulgar ruins three hundred years ago states:

The existing ruins of the great Bulgar cities built of stone in a very artful manner and other Bulgar structures bear witness to the fact that people excelled in skills, crafts and trade. The old Arab coins found in the ground prove that they traded with Saracents [a reference to people who lived in Arabia Petraea. The term is associated with tribes of Arabia as well] and India, the sovereign monarchs of which had their names imprinted on the coins.

Moreover, Volga Bulgars built peaceful relations with their neighbors – Kievan Rus. Russian scholars emphasise the importance of the Russian-Bulgar treaty of 985, after which both Kievan Rus and Volga Bulgaria went through a long time of civil peace, and this treaty permitted both states to develop their culture and economy, while creating dynastic and international relationships with the rest of the world. A famous Russian historian N. Karamzin wrote about this event:

…Vladimir complied, and concluded peace with the Bolgars who solemnly promised to live in friendship with the Russians, affirming their oath with the following simple words: ‘Not even when a stone floats and hops sink in water will we break this treaty of ours.’ – If not with a tribute, the Great prince returned to his capital with much esteem and rich gifts.

The famous Tatar scholar, Buharaev, states that the importance of this treaty is in establishing the foundation for a century of state relations between Kievan Rus and the Volga Bulgaria. Giving an example of this, he states that when Vladimir wanted to choose the faith for his country in 986-987 AD, the first ambassadors to arrive were from Volga Bulgaria, who suggested Islam. According to annals, however, Vladimir refused to accept Islam, as it does not allow the drinking of alcohol.

13th – 16th century

Looking back, the peace treaty of 985 became prophetic as, after centuries of statehood developing one way, the states of Volga Bulgaria and Kievan Rus, learned painful lessons before starting to live in peaceful coexistence. In 1236, the Mongol invasion marked the end of the first completely independent stage of Volga Bulgaria, and it became a part of a new empire – the Golden Horde.

In the Middle Ages, both ancient Russian and Volga Bulgaria belonged to the Golden Horde. In the mid-1400s, with the forming of the Kazan khanate, Kazan became the political capital of the entire Middle Volga region, along with being a cultural, religious and trade hub. Due to the developing economy and the beneficial location of Kazan on the influx of the Kazanka and Volga rivers, Kazan was rapidly converted into a strong geopolitical opponent of Moscow.

The last phase of the independent statehood of Tatars lasted until 1532, when it was subdued by the Muscovite army of Ivan the Terrible. Kazan Tatars, along with other cultures and nations, officially went with the way of one Russian state. As the subjugator of Kazan, A. Kurbsky remarks: ‘Besides the Tatars, in that tsardom there are five other tongues: Mordovian, Chuvash, Cheremis, Udmurt or Arsk, and the fifth is Bashkir’.

As most academics conclude, the capture of Kazan turned Russia from a unitary state to a multinational state. By contrast, there is the fact that with the capture of Kazan, the five-centuries-old nationhood of Kazan Tatars came to an end.

20th century

The proclamation of ‘the parade of sovereignties’ in 1990s tested the peace that characterized the building of a multination state.

All Islamic Russian nations got their own unique development of sharing one path of statehood with the Russian state; however, the events of the late twentieth century demonstrated the painful consequences of playing on national feelings, and the importance of wise decision making in such situations.

Considering Tatarstan’s experience, progress was made only through painful negotiations with nationalists and the federal government, and in other parts of Russia, such as Chechnya, sadly, through wars.

The Russian Federation declared its state sovereignty in the still existing USSR on the 12th June, 1990. The Chairman of the Russian Federation, in August, 1990 when he visited Kazan, proclaimed: ‘The Tatar Republic is free to take as much sovereignty as it can possibly swallow’. Thus, the republic declared its sovereignty on August 30th, 1990 – as with Russia – in the context of the still-existent USSR. In 1999, commenting on these events and recalling his speech after the declaration was accepted, Mintimer Shaimiev, the first President of the Tatarstan Republic, stated:

I often ask myself: how did it happen that after almost ten years after the event, I still hold to every word I said then? The speech was so spontaneous, and I did not prepare myself for it beforehand. But then, looking back at my life, I realized – I was prepared. I knew the history of the Tatar people, its need for rights in the Russian Tsarist Empire and during the Soviet years, its colossal economic and spiritual potential, friendliness, industriousness, historical willingness to live in peace and friendship with others, its great aspiration for freedom.

In 1991 thousands of strong demonstrations were held within Tatarstan (in the capital, Kazan and the oil-rich city Almetyevsk) demanding national freedom and complete independence from Moscow. One of the strong separatist voices was the nationalist movement directed by the radical ‘Ittifak’ party. Ittifak, proclaiming: ‘Tatarstan for the Tatars’ demanded immediate independence. They believed that Russians should be denied citizenship, and that Tatar should be the republic’s sole language. They also declared territorial claims on Bashkiria, Ul’ianovsk oblasts and Perm.

Shaimiev, the first President of the Tatarstan Republic, and his government, despite all the difficulties were able to deal with the Moscow leadership and Tatarstan’s radical opposition. As Tatar academic Buharaev states: ‘Mintimer Shaimiev maintained his mainstream vision of the future for his nation, which was always rooted in the continuity of Tatar history’.

Due to wise vision of Shaimiev, Tatars – on the verge of violent confrontation between Russians and Tatars, Christians and Muslims – were able to continue the policy of peaceful coexistence. These events cemented the values of tolerance in the society such that representatives of different nationalities could respect each other for their uniqueness, and build strong friendships.

It is common to witness Christians congratulating Muslims with Eid, or participating in occasions related with Muslim traditions (such as Muslim weddings) and respecting Islamic obligations on such occasions (by wearing veils, for example). Likewise, Muslims may congratulate Christians at Easter, and paint eggs with their Christian friends.

Islam: the religion of union

Despite the fact that the Russian population is predominantly Christian, Islam is the second most widely professed religion in the state, and the presence of Muslims in Russia undoubtedly strengthens cultural and religious ties with Saudi Arabia.

The meeting between the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques and the Islamic leaders of Russia on October 7th was unique; it had never happened in such a format. Highlighting the significance of such a meeting between the King Salman and religious leaders, Sheikh Salah Megiev, the Mufti of Chechnya stated: ‘We, as Muslims of Russia, are proud of this visit and we look forward to opening a new horizon for the Muslims of Russia in cooperation with the Kingdom and the entire Islamic world’.

Indeed, it should be mentioned that despite the lack of particularly deep diplomatic ties between Russia and Saudi Arabia, for Russian Muslims, Saudi Arabia has always held a greatly respected and essential place in their religious lives, as the destination of the Hajj pilgrimage.

During the meeting, one topic of discussion was the increasing hajj pilgrimage quota to help to deepen bilateral relations between Russia and Saudi Arabia. Moreover, Saudi Arabia’s special place for Russian Muslims, which strengthen religious ties, related with the fact that they are mostly Sunni population.

Even if the Russian Federation aligns itself with Iran, due to the philosophical foundation in which the Iranian regime builds its sectarian policies, for Iran itself, religious ties with Muslim Russians are not possible. By contrast, Russian Muslims are not involved in such divisions. If asked which sect of Islam they represent, a Russian Muslim would rarely differentiate between Sunni or Shia. The most common answer would be ‘We are Muslims’.

The upcoming cooperation between Saudi Arabia and Muslim Russians can be related with the kingdom’s goals of transforming into an open society, and returning to ‘moderate Islam’.

A few weeks after the visit of King Salman to Russia, the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman stated: ‘We are simply reverting to what we followed – a moderate Islam, open to the world and all religions. 70 percent of the Saudis are younger than 30, honestly we won’t waste 30 years of our life combating extremist thoughts, we will destroy them now and immediately’. Russian Muslims can share their own experience on the grounds that they have a proven record of peaceful coexistence with other cultures.

The historical events mentioned above have massively affected the Russian Muslim population’s respect of others, setting the virtues of tolerance and peace at the heart of their capacity to coexist with those of different religions and more than 190 nationalities.

During the King Salman’s visit to Russia, Sheikh Salah Megiev mentioned that the King’s visit will increase relations between the religious institutions in Russia and Saudi Arabia for ‘a successful cooperation in spreading the tolerance and moderation of Islam, benefiting from the accumulated experience to promote the moderate religious discourse, which recognizes the principle of moderation and establishes the real concepts of Islam and fight extremism [sic]’.

The Russian Muslims’ experience can be referred to as an example of how Muslims can be brought together by respecting uniqueness and difference as a means to peaceful cooperation. Having a special status in the entire Islamic world, Saudi Arabia referring to moderate Islam and informed by the experiences of others, can become a unifying influence in the Islamic world by driving this vision of tolerance.

The economic advantages of religion

As was demonstrated in the section: ‘Russian Muslims: finding a place between the Islamic world and Russia’, an acceptance of Islam became key to the Volga (Kazan) Tatars’ spiritual, cultural and economic development. A shared religion also helps Russian Muslims today to be among the pioneers (compared with other constituent entities of the Russian Federation) establishing economic and diplomatic ties with the GCC states, and especially with Saudi Arabia.

In March 2017, the Head of the Chechen Republic, Ramzan Kadyrov, met with ambassadors of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain to discuss investment opportunities, including agriculture and tourism. The states are already involved in some projects in the territory of Chechnya. In November 2016, in his official visit to Saudi Arabia, Ramzan Kadyrov met with Mohamed bin Salman, where the Crown Prince accepted an invitation to visit Chechnya.

Moreover, during the official visit of the Tatarstan leader in February 2017, while meeting with the King, Minnikhanov presented the International Forum Kazan Summit, and invited the Saudi delegation to Kazan. During the meeting between the delegation of Tatarstan and the CEO of SALIC (Saudi Agricultural and Livestock Investment Company), Abdullah Aldubaikhi agreed to facilitate cooperation in agriculture and cattle breeding. Tatarstan expressed interested in deliveries of KAMAZ vehicles, helicopters, cargo, petrochemical products, fertilizers, oil and gas production equipment.

Saudi Arabia, declared their intention to work in the field of growing cereals and processing milk for export to the Kingdom. During the recent visit of King Salman, Minnikhanov presented the activity of group of Strategic Vision ‘Russia – Islamic World’, and suggested holding its next meeting in Saudi Arabia.

The King accepted this offer and gave corresponding instructions. In addition, the President of Tatarstan proposed holding a meeting of the joint Russian-Saudi intergovernmental commission on trade, economic, scientific and technical cooperation in Kazan, the capital of Tatarstan. Thus, historically and at present, republics with Islamic connections have advantages in building economic ties with Saudi Arabia, compared to other constituent entities of Russia.

The shared religion encourages special and warm relations that help to build trust and strengthen relations between Russian Muslims and the Kingdom, and as a result, between Saudi Arabia and Russia.
Diana Galeeva is a PhD Candidate at the School of Government and International Affairs at Durham University. Her PhD research focuses on theories of power, IR theory, small states, political islam and GCC politics. She was an intern at the the President of Tatarstan’s office - Department of corporation and Religious organizations (2012), Cabinet of Ministers of the Republic of Tatarstan, legal department (2011), and the Ministry of justice (2010). Diana received her M.A. in International Relations from Exeter university in the UK, and earned a degree in Governmental Law from Kazan Federal University (KFU). She speaks English, Russian, Tatar and studies Arabic and Turkish. She can be contacted on diana.galeeva@durham.ac.uk and @diana_galeeva.

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