In the West, Russia is usually thought of as a generally intolerant country, and not without reason. In addition to a creeping authoritarianism that is cracking down on NGOs and human rights monitors and seeking to roll back gay rights, ethnic stereotypes run rampant in Russia, even in more educated and “liberal” circles. While many more examples could be adduced, I suspect I am far and away not the only non-Russian who can recall being told by Moscow University trained native-speaking Russian instructors, in the classroom, something to the effect that Pushkin was so passionate and jealous because he had an African grandfather.
This being the case, it may be surprising to many that after reading about the vandalism that took place at the Al-Farooq Mosque in Nashville, TN in the wee hours of the morning on February 11, I found my mind wandering not so much over parallels to Russian racism, xenophobia and extremism (which could certainly be drawn), but rather to the day-to-day realities of Russian inter-religious and inter-ethnic coexistence. There are undoubtedly ethnic tensions here, tensions arising from an increase of nationalism in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse and from economic disparities relative to Russia and certain CIS countries. The abuse of migrant labor is a serious problem, and it is unsurprisingly accompanied by rampant racism.
Nevertheless, Russia is a country of contradictions that frequently surprises, and at the anecdotal level of my on the ground experience in Moscow, a couple of recent incidents—I credit them with sparking my unconventional train of thought with respect to the most recent occurrence of anti-Islamic violence in the US—have given me pause. They have also reminded me that Russia is a place where Muslims are an ordinary part of everyday life to an extent that is probably not the case in many US communities, while such normalization in the US would be a positive development.
The first experience I have in mind occurred a few months ago, when my friendly neighborhood kebab vendor asked me if President Obama was a Muslim. While, much like the US, Russia is a country full of wild conspiracy theories and people willing to believe them, for the kebab vendor, it was clear from the way in which he asked that the US president being a Muslim would have been a good thing, a point of pride. I actually hated to burst his bubble as I struggled to answer the unanticipated question, rambling quite inadequately about how some of our conservatives had in fact concocted that notion in order to discredit the president, not that there’s anything wrong with being a Muslim, you see, we have this very complex politics of religion in the US… More recently, after a talk I gave about US education philosophy at the progressive Higher School of Economics, a business professor engaged me in a discussion of politics and asked if I thought it was possible for a Muslim to become president of the US. I hesitated. “Maybe in 100 years?” he asked. “Maybe in 100 years,” I answered lamely.
One could easily turn the tables and ask when Russia will elect a Muslim president, or indeed elect a president without rampant election violations and vote manipulation at all. But I found it more fruitful to reflect on the question in light of the day-to-day, functional, peaceful coexistence between members of different religious groups I observe here in Russia on the ground. Such coexistence doesn’t make the news much. “Local Muslim Kebab Vendor Exhibits Friendly Interest in Non-Muslim Ex-Pat’s Life and Country,” to say nothing of “Muslims and Christians Ride Subway, Nothing Happens” don’t make for very intriguing headlines. While such commonplace occurrences must make up the bulk of actual Non-Muslim-Muslim interactions on the ground in the US as well, I think it’s fair to say that Islam as such is much more of a problem for the US chattering classes than it is for their Russian equivalents, if we exclude extremist commentators in both places. There are historical reasons for this, and Russia’s experience derives from an imperial history that it would be neither possible nor desirable to replicate. Thus I leave the question open about whether Russia has something concrete to teach the US on this matter, although I will go so far as to state that I believe individual Americans might well learn something from observing and participating in such interactions, if they could.
So could citizens of other Western countries, perhaps. After all, while Switzerland has been about the banning of minarets in recent years, Russia is a country in which one can find a mosque and a church standing side by side in a city’s kremlin (kremlin referring to the old stone fortress of certain cities, and not only the Kremlin in Moscow). Such is the case in Kazan, where the reconstructed Qolşärif Mosque was inaugurated in 2005. In my one visit to Kazan 11 years ago, I was impressed with the ways in which an ethnically and religiously diverse population seemed, by and large, to get on just fine. It is a bit odd to think that Voltaire’s description of the eighteenth-century British Stock Exchange applies pretty well to at least some aspects of life in Russia today: “There the Jew, the Mahometan, and the Christian deal with one another as if they were of the same religion and reserve the name of infidel for those who go bankrupt.” One might simply add that quite a few of the Russian Christians, Jews and Muslims will go on spouting ethnic stereotypes about one another in the process of coexisting and economically interacting.
Of course, empires faced the fact of pluralism before pluralism became, according to numerous contemporary scholars, the single most defining feature of the Western modernity that was emerging when Voltaire penned those words. (Previously, where substantial pluralism had existed in the West, it had been wiped out through expulsions or very carefully controlled.) Pluralism was a fact that empires had to be manage, and they did, top-down, sometimes brutally. The de facto toleration that emerged during periods of business as usual entailed no liberal recognition of individual autonomy or freedom of conscience, which is something that should not be glossed over. But diversity, including religious diversity, is managed in Western nation-states as well. Russia today, like many Western European countries (Germany, for example), provides preferential treatment to historically recognized confessions, most prominently the Russian Orthodox Church and including Islam, Buddhism, and Judaism. This recognized coexistence diminishes the motivation for tension-causing activities such as proselytizing, and probably helps to render the presence of members of various religious groups, in day-to-day experience, essentially normal. (Jews, of course, had a particularly brutal experience in the Russian Empire, as did some Muslim peoples at times, but going into the details here would take us too far afield.)
From the perspective of American constitutionalism, of course, preferential treatment of historically recognized religiou groups is in theory an unacceptable form of discrimination. Nevertheless, while sociologists of religion frequently credit the USA’s “free market” approach to religion for the vitality of the country’s religious life, Islam’s increasing presence in the religious marketplace seems to be testing the limits of these constitutional and “free market” principles. If we want these principles to withstand this test, it couldn’t hurt for Americans to take a look at the experiences of countries, such as Russia and Indonesia, where moderate Islam is a perfectly normal part of a religiously diverse society.