Monday, 1 April 2013

No future for Mosque-ow

Years after she was brutally attacked, Milyausha Safiullina still harbors a sense of culpability. "It's possible that I was to blame, because I was coming back very late at night from the metro," she said. Safiullina, a Muslim woman in her 30s, was beaten by a stranger on the street in Moscow while on her way home in 2008. "I was walking, and there was a man walkiAt first he walked past me, then something must have shot through his head." "He turned around and, without saying anything, attacked me," Safiullina said. "He struck me across the face several times. I fell, my glasses flew off and I couldn't see anything. My whole face was covered with blood." Her anonymous attacker left, leaving Safiullina lying alone on the street. She went to the hospital two days later to discover he'd broken her nose. Safiullina still wonders what would motivate a strange man to wordlessly beat her in public, then walk away - and she's concluded that part of the reason must have been her attire. "I was wearing a long black skirt and a black headscarf," she explained. "As I understood, his aggression wasn't directed at me personally - just at a woman wearing a headscarf, dressed as a Muslim." Safiullina is one of a number of Muslim women who've become victims of their choice to observe traditional standards of Islamic dress. "I've heard of many incidents where people attacked a young woman, just to snatch away her headscarf," she said. A strong and sometimes-violent aversion towards Islamic headscarves is gaining steam in Russia. This trend is manifested in part by recent well-publicized bans on religiously affiliated head coverings in schools around the country. The movement against the right of Muslim women to wear religious headscarves is one symptom of a larger resistance towards the growth of Islam in Russia, said Hilal Elver, a research professor at the University of California Santa Barbara and an expert on religious freedom. "[This is] a strong symbol of anti-Muslim attitude. The Islamic headscarf controversy drew national attention last October. A teacher in Stavropol, a region in Russia's southwest, forbade several girls from coming to school wearing hijab - a traditional Islamic head covering. Islam's holy text, the Qur'an, does not explicitly require women to wear headscarves, but directs both men and women to dress modestly. Wearing hijab is a matter of Islamic custom, which depends partly on region. Local officials applauded the teacher's position and instituted a region-wide dress code in Stavropol public schools, which forbids any article of religious clothing. Muslim parents of the students filed a lawsuit, claiming that the dress code violated their daughters' constitutional rights. A Stavropol court, however, ruled to uphold the ban two weeks ago. In a separate instance, Krasnoyarsk media reported last week that a third-year medical school student had been expelled for wearing hijab to class. The university website states that students are forbidden to wear religiously affiliated clothing items on school grounds. RIA Novosti reported that the university confirmed the student was thrown out for "violating internal regulations," but did not specify which ones. When asked about the appropriateness of hijab, President Vladimir Putin expressed support for the ban. "There are no hijabs in our culture, and when I say ‘our,' I mean traditional Islam," he told journalists at a question-and-answer session in December. "Shall we adopt alien traditions? Why would we do that?" Putin also inferred separation of church and state as a justification when meeting with members of the All-Russia People's Front two weeks earlier. "We have a secular state, and we must proceed based on that," he told reporters at the event. According to its Constitution, Russia is a secular state. Yet Article 28 of the Constitution guarantees citizens "the right to profess...any freely choose, possess, and disseminate religious or other beliefs, and to act in conformity with them." Article 43 also protects the right to education. The combination of the two articles, some say, could technically render a ban on religious dress in schools unconstitutional. "The people who are against [wearing headscarves] are actually forcing women to sin," Nafigulla Ashirov, co-chairman of the Russian Muftis Council. "It causes great psychological trauma, because they have to choose between submission to their beliefs or those decisions of the court," he said. "This violates the constitutional rights of believers and causes great torment. Of course, it's unfair." Disapproval of headscarves is not ubiquitous among officials. A January decree by Federal Migration Service Chief Konstantin Romodanovsky made it legal for people to be photographed with head coverings for work permits, if required by religious beliefs. Opinion about the practice also depends on location. While some areas of Russia - such as Krasnoyarsk and Stavropol - are enforcing spiritual ‘objectivity' in schools by banning religious clothing, others are pursuing the opposite. Islamic dress is forcefully recommended in Chechnya. Ramzan Kadyrov, the head of the Chechen Republic, issued an order in 2007 commanding women to wear headscarves in government buildings, in direct violation of Russian law. Despite being technically illegal, the rule is still widely followed. The headscarf debate is just one aspect of a broader struggle against the spread of Islam in Russia. Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin announced at the beginning of March that he would allow no more mosques to be built in the capital in the near future - despite the fact that the city has only four and they are heavily overcrowded. "These [four] mosques can contain maybe 20 percent of Moscow's Muslims," said Ashirov, the Muftis Council co-chairman. "So if 2,000 can pray inside the mosques, four or five thousand are forced to pray in the streets." This becomes a problem not only for worshipers, but the rest of the city too. On Islamic holidays like Eid al-Fitr, the feast which breaks Ramadan, crowds of thousands obstruct the streets of Moscow for several blocks around mosques to pray. Ashirov expressed a desire for continued dialogue on the issue. "We hope that Muslims will be able to convince the Moscow government that, like other religions, we need to construct a sufficient number of places of worship," he said. By his own words, the mayor's reasoning is ethnically motivated. "It has turned out that the praying Muslims are not all Russian citizens. They are migrant workers," Sobyanin told Moscow radio station Ekho Moskvy in March. "Muscovites now get irritated by people who speak a different language, have different manners, and act aggressively." Sobyanin's attitude appears to be supported among city residents. The Islamic United Center of Muslim Organizations obtained permission in September 2012 to construct a massive new mosque, capable of accommodating 60,000 worshipers, in the city outskirts. But plans were canceled after thousands of locals gathered to protest. The capital is a magnet for millions of foreign migrants from around Central Asia, who are attracted to the relative amount of money available in Moscow - even through menial labor jobs - that can't be found at home. The true number of Moscow migrants is unknown, since many of them are unregistered, but some estimates put it around five million. A majority of them are ethnically Muslim. The sheer number of incoming foreigners can promote a sense of defensiveness among Russian natives, said Safiullina. "Russians are scared that their normal living spaces are being taken over [by migrants]," she said. Fear of religious radicalism is another factor. Islamic radicals were involved in several major terrorist attacks in recent years - including two Russian aircraft bombings in 2004, the Nevsky Express train bombing in 2009, two Moscow metro bombings in 2010, and a bombing at Domodedovo airport in 2011. "The attitude toward Muslims is more negative in Moscow than in other regions, because of the fear of being attacked," Safiullina theorized. "If you see a girl in hijab in the metro, it can be very scary. It means that she has a relationship to Muslims - she could be a terrorist." The Russian Orthodox Church may also be a driving force behind rising Islamophobia. Islam in Russia constitutes a small minority compared to Orthodoxy. In a December 2012 survey by the Levada Center, 74% of respondents claimed to be Orthodox believers. Yet Islam is the second most professed religion in the country, and growing. The same poll found that Muslims made up 7% of the Russian population, up from 4% three years ago. While the mayor forbids Muslims any new mosques, the Russian Orthodox Church is in the process of building 200 new churches in Moscow as part of an initiative instigated by the Moscow Patriarchate in 2010. "The Orthodox Church is trying to build support and a common identity," Denis Volkov, a social expert at the Levada Center. We must take into account the recent activity of Orthodox activists who promoted these heated social issues - like Pussy Riot. They forced people to take a position." Activism by Orthodox believers, in bringing a fight for ‘traditional values' to the social forefront, is helping to solidify public sentiment against Islam, Volkov said. "Obviously Islam is a minority," Volkov said. "This is an issue of conflict between religions and associated cultures." Russia should take care in its treatment of Muslims, warned Elver, the religious freedom expert. "European countries and the United States are very careful to respect human rights principles," she said. "If Russia wants to be a democratic neighbor to Europe, it also has to set positive examples."

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