"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 The assumption in Western Europe or the United States that Moscow is part of the European concert of powers is no longer valid.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.
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 Islam.ru 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 (http://www.islam.ru/pressclub/analitika/bumora/?print_page).
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.
July 21, 2008 update: The English-language version of Pravda carries an item today titled "Islam to become Russia's predominant religion by 2050?" which then answers this question in the affirmative: "Islam is likely to become the primary religion in the Russian Federation by 2050 due to the high birth rate in Muslim republics."
Aug. 17, 2008 update: Hugh Fitzgerald asks in "The Muslim population of Russia, and the future" if American officials are thinking about the implications of a majority-Muslim Russia? Do American officials emphasize to their Russian counterparts
that common ground should be found against a common threat—that of the worldwide Jihad? Will they not explain to the Russians that whatever the Russian government does to deal with a potential Muslim threat will get no quarrel from us? And it should get no quarrel from us, because we are, or should be, much more fearful of a Russian military under Muslim control—by 2040, 2050? -- than of one under the control of the Russians themselves. After all, the Russians are rational actors, though they are far too given to conspiracy theories about the West and especially about America.
He suspects they do not discuss such matters because neither side is much worried about them:
the Russians should be worried far more than they seem to be about demographic changes, and about the possibility of Muslims taking over parts of the military in a decade or two or three. They appear as heedless of this problem as the American government. ... The Russians are not factoring in the renewed appeal of Islam for some Muslims in Russia, especially in the Caucasus but also in Moscow itself, and the effect of Saudi-financed mosques and propaganda all over the place. The effects of the long-ago anti-religious campaign in the Soviet Union, and the crushing of the revolt by Central Asian Muslims who were opposed to this policy in the 1930s, are held by some Russians even today to represent a permanent end to the internal Muslim threat. They are wrong. And they are betting a lot, far too much, on that notion.
Jan. 12, 2009 update: Paul Goble provides an update on some of the advances of Islam in Russia:
- "Muslim leaders in Russia's northern capital are drawing up plans to open an Islamic studies program at the Smolny Institute from where Lenin in 1917 directed the Russian revolution."
- The opening of the first Muslim shopping center.
- The opening of the first Islamic financial center.
- The opening of the first Muslim medical facility.
Feb. 1, 2009 update: The Tundra Tabloid website points out a 2008 English-language publication of the Finnish Ministry of Defence, Russia of Challenges, described as the product of an effort to draw "an all-round picture of the factors affecting stability in Russia as well as possible destabilizing developments which could alter the security situation close to the Finnish borders."
One and a half pages (on pp. 49-50) are dedicated to the issue of "Islam in Russia." The section begins with the assertion that "Islam and Muslims in Russia pose a serious challenge to Russia's internal stability and domestic policy." The report breaks no demographic ground (it notes predictions cited in this weblog entry about a majority of military recruits being Muslim in 2015, 20 percent of the population being Muslim in 2020, and the possibility of majority of it being Muslim in 2050) but it does unprecedentedly draw out the implications of these facts:
Looking at the statistics it becomes perfectly clear that Russian Muslims are going to play an important role in the future. This will not affect domestic policy only, but will also have an effect on foreign policy.
Disappointingly, the ministry report does not then speculate about the nature of that impact, much less its implications for Finland.
Apr. 29, 2009 update: Anatoly Karlin argues against the possibility of a Muslim-majority Russia. He sums up his view:
forecasts of Russia's impending demographic doom, in which the Crescent replaces the Cross on its national gerb and ethnic centrifugal forces tear apart its Federation, are completely unrealistic. Though rhetorical hyperbole dismisses it as a dying nation with "European birth rates and African death rates," the reality is that it is already fast recovering from the extended transition shock of the post-Soviet collapse. Instead, it is likely that the next few decades will see stagnant or slow population growth as Russian fertility patterns converge to that of France or Canada, with any shortfalls between births and deaths filled in by immigration; and after 2030, the world system faces a series of discontinuities that rend apart any predictive enterprise.
As a personal aside, Karlin calls me in this piece an "alarmist analyst" who raises the specter of Russia's transformation into a majority Muslim nation within the next 50 years and he links to this blog. But a glance at this entry makes clear that I am making available what others are saying, including those who say Russia will stay majority Christian, and do not express my own views on the topic (for the simple reason that I know too little to do so).
June 24, 2009 update: Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev addressed a meeting of the Arab League in Cairo that "Islam is an inalienable part of Russian history and culture, given that more than 20 million Russian citizens are among the faithful. Consequently, he said, "Russia does not need to seek friendship with the Muslim world: Our country is an organic part of this world." Comment: Strong words but probably he was egged on by Obama's speech in the same city just twenty days earlier.
July 15, 2009 update: More from Medvedev, this time while visiting the Central Mosque in Moscow, where he stressed the importance of Islam in the Russia. "Russia is a multi-national and multi-confessional country. Russian Muslims have enough respect and influence. Muslim foundations are making an important contribution to promoting peace in society, providing spiritual and moral education for many people, as well as fighting extremism and xenophobia. There are 182 ethnic groups living in Russia, and 57 of them claim Islam as their main religion. This figure speaks for itself." He also promised the government would continue to assist with funding organizations to train imams and teachers.
Aug. 30, 2011 update: A sense of the Muslim numbers and solidarity can be seen from the Eid al-Fitr prayers on the streets of Moscow recently. Here is one picture from a page devoted to this topic.
Muslims praying for Eid al-Fitr in Moscow.
Oct. 7, 2013 update: Ilan Berman writes in the Washington Times that Russia is undergoing a transformation in its ethnic and religious composition:
Today, Russia's roughly 21 million Muslims are still a distinct minority. Comparatively robust birthrates have put Muslims on track to account for a fifth of the country's population by the end of this decade, and possibly a majority by midcentury. Such a demographic revolution will fundamentally change Russia's character.
He sees anti-Muslim prejudices coming back to haunt Christian Russians:
That is not a problem, per se. In recent years, though, the Kremlin has discriminated against its Muslim minority and ignored (even abetted) the rise of corrosive xenophobia among its citizens. This has bred resentment and alienation among Russia's Muslims — sentiments that radical Islamic groups have been all too eager to exploit. The result is an increasingly restive Muslim minority that has little connection to — or love for — the Russian state.
Oct. 21, 2013 update: I turn the above facts and quotes into an article today at "Muslim Russia?"
May 29, 2014 update: Relatedly, Vladimir Putin has started to present Russian moral values as similar to Muslim ones, Paul J. Saunders focuses today on statements Putin made on Sep. 20, 2013, about the Russian identity.
Putin has increasingly emphasized Russians' shared moral values and to connect Russia's "traditional" values to those in the Middle Eastern, Asian and other non-Western societies. "We can see how many of the Euro-Atlantic countries are actually rejecting their roots, including the Christian values that constitute the basis of Western civilization ... and people are aggressively trying to export this model all over the world. I am convinced that this opens a direct path to degradation and primitivism, resulting in a profound demographic and moral crisis. ... We consider it natural and right to defend these values." While clearly identifying Russia as a largely Christian country, Putin is attempting to establish a dividing line between the shared values of believers in many religious traditions and those of the decadent secular West. ...
Putin is attempting to exploit huge differences in social values between the West and predominantly Muslim countries in the Middle East and North Africa to make Western values into a liability rather than an asset for Western governments. If consistently implemented over time, this may become Russia's most significant effort to date to develop a soft power strategy to combat Western influence in the Middle East and elsewhere in the Islamic world.
On the surface, this approach appears to have many strengths. Many in the Middle East — in both government and society — are indeed disturbed by the encroachment of liberal Western social mores that has accompanied globalization. ... Nevertheless, Russia will face many challenges in pursuing such an approach. Most immediately, extensive public opinion polling on these issues — particularly by the Pew Research Center — demonstrates clearly that Russian public attitudes are not as similar to attitudes in the Middle East as Putin might hope. ...
Russia faces another uncomfortable if inexact parallel with America's wars in the Middle East in the form of its two wars in Chechnya, where Muslim Chechen separatists were quite successful in mobilizing financial support and recruiting fighters from the Middle East and particularly the Persian Gulf. There also was Russia's support for pro-Serbian forces against Bosnian Muslims as Yugoslavia disintegrated and against Albanian Muslims in Kosovo. ...
It is too soon to say whether Russia's emerging values-based diplomacy is here to stay, much less whether it can succeed. Nevertheless, it is important, as a clear and self-conscious effort to shape a national identity that incorporates and leverages Russia's diversity — due primarily to its former imperial possessions — to build strong ties based on shared opposition to the West.
Sep. 10, 2014 update: According to World Bulletin, Russia's Orthodox archpriest Dmitri Smirnov told congregants in his sermon on Sep. 7 that the future of Russia belongs to Muslims because they are more devout than Christians:
during their festivals, the people are scared to enter their areas [in Moscow] because tens of thousands of young Muslim men fall down on their knees and worship God. Where have you seen that many Orthodox men? You cannot see them anywhere at any time.
For this and other reasons, he explained, "the future will belong to the Muslims. The future is theirs. They will plough this land, because today's Christians are not in need of these things."
Dec. 19, 2016 update: Ilan Berman extends his important work on this topic in "Russia's Fraught Demographic Future," a chapter from Russia in Decline, forthcoming from the Jamestown Foundation.
Just two of his many points: Russia's population will likely decline by 20-30 percent by 2050; and "a variety of projections have estimated that Russia's Muslims will account for a fifth of the country's total population by the end of this decade, and may make up a majority of Russians by as early as mid-century."