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Sunday, May 25, 2008

The Sunday Sacrilege: Banning Islam in Russia

Paul Goble reports on the amazing irony that, while cozying up to radical Islam in Iran and Syria, Russia is seeking to wipe it out within Russia itself:

Russian judges are now prepared to ban as extremist Muslim broadsides and Internet pages about the actions of the Federal Security Service FSB), the militia, and the courts in dealing with Islamic groups, so broadening the definition of “extremist” as to create a precedent for any effort to comment on the actions of the legal system or force structures. According to Islamnews.ru, the latest list of “banned” literature includes not just additional Muslim religious texts Abd Al-Aziz bin Muhammed’s “What One Needs to Know about the One God,” but also pamphlets and web pages about the actions of Russian officials like “How to Act when Dealing with the Special Services.”

Many Muslims as well as civil and human rights activists have been concerned by the increasing proclivity of Russian courts to ban books, an approach that most of these groups believe is not only immoral and dangerous but unconstitutional, ineffective, and counterproductive as well. And Muslim leaders across the Russian Federation have pointed out not only that the courts seem to come down on Islamic literature far more often than that of any other faith, even though there are radical texts in the others, but also that most judges and prosecutors lack the expertise to distinguish between extremism and anything else.

Over the last several months, an increasing number of Russian officials have come to agree, with a few suggesting that the government should get out of the business of banning books and a large number of others arguing that prosecutors and the courts should rely on Muslim theologians who will be able to analyze the texts more fully and accurately. Recently and despite the convictions of many Muslim leaders that banning books is a bad business – the Muslim Spiritual Directorate (MSD) of Tatarstan, for example, disciplined a senior leader who appeared to back the idea by suggesting Muslims should burn the books Russian courts have banned – some Muslims were stepping forward with offers to help.

That makes the latest list especially disturbing. On the one hand, several of the works on it are more or less standard texts widely used not only in the Arab world but in Russian Islamic schools, an indication that Russia’s prosecutors and judges are not inclined to approach their content with greater care. And on the other, banning articles about how Muslims should deal with the authorities – and the one listed this time urges the faithful to ask that their rights be respected and to keep records of what officials say and do – and banning materials on the Internet in this way indicates that the authorities now feel increasingly free to violate other Constitutional rights of believers.

Given that the Islamic community in the Russian Federation relies more heavily on the Internet than on the print media – distributing materials via the web is both easier and cheaper – this expansion of judicial power opens the way to the closure of more sites – several have been blocked in recent days – or to the basing of Russian Muslim sites abroad. Moscow has demonstrated that it has the capacity to shut down sites whose content it doesn’t like – the perversely named www.islam.boom.ru site, for example, was closed last month – but the Russian government has not found a way to close far more radical ones, like those of individual jamaats in Daghestan and elsewhere.

Whenever the authorities have sought to shut these sites down, their owners simply move them to IP providers in Muslim countries, an action that often makes them even more radical than they were before. And there is no reason to think, given the nature of the Internet or the number of such sites that the Russian government will be any more successful in the future. Consequently, what the Russian authorities are likely to achieve by their latest actions will not to restrain extremism but rather to increase alienation among Muslims living in that country and to raise questions among both them and all those concerned about civil and human rights as to Moscow’s commitment to observe its own laws and Constitution.

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