Polar Islam in Russia: The Muslim Community experiencing the Arctic

Polar Islam in Russia: The Muslim Community experiencing the Arctic

Foreword: In this month’ issue, we present a paper that reflects the porosity between cultural areas as it covers a geographical area situated in the extreme North, partly in Asia and partly in Europe. It concerns a population whose religion links to the Muslim world, more often addressed in connection with the Middle East in the French institutional system. This article therefore emphasizes the plurality of approaches to particular geographical areas in that they contribute to several complementary prisms of analysis.

In the 10th century, the famous traveler Ibn Fadlân was sent as an ambassador by Abbassid Caliph al-Muqtadir to the Bulgarians of the Volga, now in Tatarstan. He witnessed the constraints of the environment in the boreal zone on the nascent Muslim community. Indeed, how to perform the prayers of dusk and night when the night lasts only a short while during the white summer nights? (Reference 1).

Today in Russia, the Muslim community represents about 13% of the population: this includes Russian Muslims (Tatars, Bashkirs, Northern Caucasians, etc.) as well as migrants from the former Soviet Muslim Republics (Uzbeks, Tajiks, etc.). Islam now extends to polar latitudes, and cities such as Murmansk, Novij-Urengoj, Salekhard, Norilsk, Magadan, all of which located beyond the Arctic Circle, witness the construction of mosques and houses of prayer since the 1990s. In addition, the development of halal markets contributes to the creation of a new Muslim Arctic culture, which presents itself as a powerful religious resource.

How was this Muslim community born in Arctic Russia? How does it cope with extreme living conditions?

The end of the USSR in December 1991 provoked multifarious breaks and unprecedented upheavals in the former Soviet republics when they became independent, and each of them had to reshape their own identity. Socio-economic and political transformations had a major impact on the migration of people from Central Asia and from South- and North- Caucasus. These populations are either Sunni Muslims from Hanafi (Central Asia), or Shafi'i Sunnis (North Caucasus), or mainly Shi’a (Azerbaijan); they are also very influenced by Sufi Islam (Naqshbandiya, Yassawiya, Qadiriya). These societies found themselves confronted with the incapacity of the new states to cope with immense socio-economic challenges and with the needs of the young adults (youth bulge) without economic opportunities. The disintegration of social safety nets, formerly guaranteed by the Soviet state, pushed the working-age population to seek work in Russia (reference 2). This old "metropolis" became then for many a kind of reference, where the Russian language and the understanding of perennial modes of operation provided an alternative to the void of the 1990s. Let us recall that population growth was negative in Russia between 1992 and 2013 because of very low fertility rates. This situation created a need for importing a large workforce, in the context of the economic recovery that took place in Russia in the 2000s, reflected among other things by an impressive boom in construction work. It is in this context that labor migration of Muslim populations accelerated. These migrations are not new, because in the Soviet era professional mobility already existed and was widespread, but they were organized in precise frameworks and according to trajectories following central planning: industrialization policies, large infrastructure projects, the army, academic studies, etc.

After the collapse of the USSR, these migrations took another form: they continued to fit, for some time, into existing trajectories, then evolved, transformed themselves depending on the local contexts, on the evolution of relationships between nationalities in a landscape of economic and political change. A striking example is the emergence of a true economic "aristocracy" among the Azeri diaspora that has secured its access to various economic and political resources, and has developed links with powerful local networks. Exploitation of the ground wealth (hydrocarbons, ores, etc.) in the highly industrialized cities of the Russian Arctic accelerated after 2003. This created new job opportunities, invested in parts by young men from the Caucasus and Central Asia who had training in engineering, mining, geology, and by others without any training (reference 3). The Russian Arctic (2.5 million inhabitants in 2015) then became a new ‘Klondike’ with a strong attractive power for young men. The Russian Arctic cities are the most populous cities in the global Arctic: Murmansk has 305,000 inhabitants, Norilsk has 176,000, Novij-Urengoj has 116,000 inhabitants. Most arctic cities developed around ground riches, the extraction and transformation of which are sadly associated with the gulag, whose economic function is well established (reference 4). Muslim populations are increasingly present, numerous and visible: the proportion of Muslims is estimated between 5% and more than 20% in the Arctic industrial cities. This presence materializes by the revitalization of the religion in the Northern public space: mosques are built, imams from different nationalities (Uzbek, Tajik, Kyrgyz, Dagestan, etc.) are appointed by religious leaders, themselves often former migrants who acquired Russian citizenship and a new social and religious legitimacy, either through training at an Islamic university in Russia or elsewhere, or through a certificate from a Spiritual Direction. Let us recall, here, that religious authorities are very divided in Russia: there are three spiritual directorates, more than 80 sub-directorates, and hundreds of associations.  These authorities are competing for the control of local communities, and of regional associations of believers, in a complex Islamic and political context. In this competitive logic, the idea of forming an Arctic Ummah was mentioned in the Yamal region, an area which holds a substantial share of hydrocarbon resources and where the proportion of Muslim migrants is high.