How is Islam perceived by ethnic Russians

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After ten years of construction, Moscow's main mosque was opened on September 23. It offers space for up to 10,000 believers. According to the chairman of the Council of Muftis of Russia, Rawil Gajnutdinov, it is one of the largest Muslim places of worship in Europe. The mosque originally dates from 1904, but was demolished in May 2005 to make way for a new building.

There are now six mosques in the Russian capital. The number of Muslims in the greater Moscow area is estimated at around two million. In total, around 20 million Muslims live in the Russian Federation.

Islam is considered a kind of ideology

The people in Russia make a strong distinction between Islam as a religion and the Muslims themselves: This is the conclusion reached by Alexander Verkhovsky from the Moscow research center Sowa. According to him, up to 40 percent of Russians say they have a negative opinion about Islam, but only 12 percent say that about Muslims. Many Russians perceive Islam "as a kind of ideology, as something dangerous that is linked to terrorism," said Verkhovsky.

However, he emphasizes that in Russia there is generally very little tolerance towards certain ethnic groups - especially from the Caucasus. But it doesn't have much to do with religion. "People reject the construction of new mosques because they fear that many migrants will then move to their neighborhood. They fear less the mosque and more the influx of strangers," explains the expert. This often leads to open aggression. There are many ethnically motivated attacks in Russia - but hardly any religiously motivated ones.

According to Verkhovsky, the Russian state is increasingly viewing Islamic religious life through the prism of fighting terrorism: "From the authorities' point of view, all Islamic informal groups pose a risk. They can include peaceful people, but also extremists from the armed underground." The scientist criticizes that in Russia, together with actual extremist structures, peaceful communities have also been banned.

Immigration stirs suspicion

In Russia there is definitely anti-Islamism, says Alexej Malashenko, a well-known orientalist from the Moscow Carnegie Center. "It is fueled by the conflicts in the Caucasus, but also by internal and external migration and extremism." In his opinion, there is only a certain tolerance when it comes to clothing: "Nobody pays attention to whether someone wears a headscarf."

As for the construction of mosques in Russian cities, people see this question very differently. "A few years ago a large mosque was built not far from my house. I have never heard of conflicts," said Malashenko. He added that the chairman of the Council of Muftis of Russia believed that there should be a mosque in every Moscow city district. "And he is right because Moscow is the largest Muslim city in Europe," said Malashenko.

"But when you really wanted to increase the number of mosques, people spoke out against it because they were afraid of migration," says the orientalist. "But migrants are just people, they have to pray somewhere! Otherwise they tend to go to strange houses of prayer that are breeding grounds for extremism."

Complex everyday life

The head of the Society for Political Immigrants from Central Asia, Bachrom Chamrojew, is convinced that the Russian state is waging a real war against Islam - primarily against independent Islamic organizations and associations. "The situation is extremely complicated. There is repression and fabricated criminal proceedings, even against Tatars and Bashkirs," said Khamroev.

"Today it is very difficult to be a Muslim in Russia. There are very many cases where local authorities try to ban the wearing of the hijab or religious literature as being extremist," said the activist. Often people would not even know that they have literature in their house that is considered extremist. But Khamrojew also says: "In everyday life, Muslims are generally treated well."

Yulia Vishnevetskaya

© Deutsche Welle 2015