(Note: this column was written for the Unz Review: http://www.unz.com/tsaker/russias-civilizational-choice/)
This week, Vladimir Putin and a large number of national and foreign dignitaries and guests have inaugurated the biggest mosque in Europe: the new Moscow Cathedral Mosque. This was a big event, much awaited by the many tens of thousands of Russian Muslims who live in the Russian capital and who, in the past, have had to pray in the streets due to the lack of a mosque big enough to accommodate them all. This event, however, has a significance which much exceeds just the local lack of space. The truth is that most Muslims who prayed in the Moscow city center wanted more than just a bigger building – they wanted an official acknowledgement of their existence and of their importance for Russia. Now this much awaited acknowledgement has finally happened and the famous Moscow city center will feature 240 foot tall golden minarets which will elegantly complement the traditional Orthodox cupolas. But I would argue that this event is even bigger than just a recognition of the role Islam plays in modern Russia – I believe it to be the expression of a profound civilizational choice.
We have heard a lot about “civilizational choices” in the context of the Ukrainian civil war. The Western propaganda machine turned what was a struggle between various Ukrainian oligarchs into a “civilizational choice”, hence the slogan “Україна це Європа” (the Ukraine is Europe). What is implied here is that the Ukraine is part of the civilized “West” while Russia is some kind of “Asiatic” realm, populated by people who neither understand nor like the so-called “European values” and against whom the “civilized” Ukrainians need to stand in defense of Europe. This is just a rehashing of the old russophobic notion of the Marquis de Custine who famously said “Grattez le Russe, et vous verrez un Tartare” (scratch the Russian and you will find the Tatar). Hitler also warned about the “Asiatic” nature of the “Russian subhumans”. Paradoxically, while these Russia-haters never understood Russia, they still were unto something very real: the fact that while even though in the recent past (roughly between the 18th and 21st centuries ), Russia was ruled by pro-Western elites, most of the Russian people never surrendered to the acculturation process imposed by their rulers and while they externally complied, internally, on the level of their ethos, they kept their ancient roots.
Historically, Russia has been the product of three main factors: Russians take most of their ethnic stock from the ancient Slavic people who lived in what is today called the Ukraine, their religion and worldview from the Orthodox Christianity inherited from the Eastern Roman Empire (mistakenly called “Byzantium” in the West), and their statehood from the Tatar occupation which unified various small principalities into one unified state. True, since Peter I Russian elites (Monarchists or Communists) tried hard to “westernize” the Russian people, but since the coming to power of Putin this tendency has finally been reversed. This is why Putin enjoys a 80%+ support in poll after poll while the Russian elites hate him. The events in the Ukraine further accelerated this process: the Ukrainian pseudo “civilizational choice” did result in a real Russian civilizational choice which has too many implications for full discussion here, but one of these is the embrace of Islam as an integral part of Russia.
In itself, this acceptance of Islam as part of Russia is nothing new. Czar Nicholas II, who was an extremely pious Orthodox Christian and who has been glorified as a saint by the Russian Orthodox Church, personally chose the central location of what was then the biggest mosque in Europe – right in the middle of the then capital of Russia, Saint Petersburg. So what Putin is doing now is just in the direct continuation of what was done before him.
Still, less than 20 years after two wars in the Balkans (Bosnia, Kosovo) and two wars inside Russia (both in Chechnia) very few had predicted that Muslim Chechens would fight in defense of Orthodox Christians in the Donbass, while Putin would inaugurate the biggest mosque in Europe just a mile away from the Kremlin. The reality, of course, is that these wars did not pitch Russia against Islam, but Russia against a very specific form of Saudi-backed Wahabi Islam which, itself, was organized and controlled by the AngloZionist Empire.
Most Russians, including Putin himself, are acutely aware of the huge difference between what they call “traditional Islam” and Wahabi/Takfiri Islam and they see the latter as an instrument of the USA to destroy those countries and regimes which refuse to submit to the AngloZionist Empire.
In the West we mostly hear about how “Islamic terrorists” kill Christians in Syria, Yazidis in Iraq or even Hindus in India. In Russia, however, people regularly hear how Wahabi terrorists murder Muslim religious leaders and personalities (especially in southern Russia) and how the Wahabis consider all other Muslims, as infidels and idolaters. In other words, Russians don’t see an “Islamic threat”, but only a “Wahabi/Takfiri” one.
The same goes for history. While in the West we are told that the Crusades opposed “Christendom” and Islam, in Russia the Orthodox Christians fully remember that they were on the same receiving end of the Papist Crusades as the Muslims and many Russians even remember that the Pope ordered a “northern Crusade” to destroy Russian Orthodoxy. Finally, even a cursory look at the history of the Ukraine tells Russians everything they need to know about how the Papacy has always persecuted the “Photian schismatics” (Orthodox Christianity) “ad majorem Dei gloriam” (for the greater glory of God). In contrast, relations between Orthodox Christians and Muslims have by and large been peaceful. The notable exception to this was the Ottoman Empire which has always viciously persecuted Orthodox Christianity, but that kind of behavior was always an Ottoman characteristic, not a Muslim one.
As Colonel-General (3 star general) Vladislav Achalov said “Православные и Правоверные всегда договорятся!” (the Orthodox and the Faithful will always find an agreement). He is right. While on a dogmatic level Islam and Orthodoxy are fundamentally incompatible (Islam sees Christ as a man, Orthodoxy as Son of God and God Himself), on a cultural and social level there are no incompatibilities at all. In fact, the two religions share a lot of common views, especially on daily social issues. It is not a coincidence that the same city which now will host the biggest mosque in Europe also banned “gay pride” parades for the next 100 years.
The recent events in the Middle-East are also having their impact on Russia. One can often hear in the Russian media and blogosphere the idea that “the Syrians are killing Wahabis terrorists over there so we don’t have to do that over here” and most people understand that Daesh is not only a problem for the Middle-East, but also a direct threat to the Caucasus and Central Asia. Nor are Russian decision makers under any illusions about what can happen in Afghanistan. This is why they have turned the so-called “soft underbelly of Russia” into what I would call the “armored underbelly of Russia”.
Still, while Russian soldiers and special units can kill Wahabis in their thousands, no amount of military force can really eliminate Wahabism itself. Only Islam can truly defeat Wahabism. The perfect example of that reality is Chechnia were the Russian won the war, but Akhmad and Ramzan Kadyrov truly won the peace (even today, Chechen Muslims hold all the primary security functions in Chechnia, while the Federal Forces remain primarily as a reserve force). Russians have no special preference as to which branch of Islam to support against Wahabism, as long as it is a traditional one which does not pose an immediate and major threat to everybody else. In Chechnia most Muslims are Sunni, Iranians and Hezbollah are Shia while the regime in Syria is Alawi. As for the country closest to Russia – Kazakhstan – most of its people are Sunni Muslims. Russia is even exploring, albeit with difficulty, the possibilities of forging closer contacts with Turkey, even though the Ottomans used be the second worst enemy of Orthodox Christianity (after the Papacy, of course).
The contrast with the AngloZionist Empire could not be greater. While in the West most political leaders chose to deny that the West’s current conflict is one pitting the “West” against “Islam”, the western propaganda machine (Hollywood, TV, print media, etc.) is clearly demonizing Islam and Muslims in general. Furthermore, the current refugee crisis in Europe is often interpreted as an “Islamic” cultural threat to either secular or “Christian” Europe (pseudo and post Christian, in reality, of course). French racists chose to blame it all on “Islam” completely overlooking that Christian Romanians and Gypsies also could not integrate the French society either.
In the EU politicians are seriously asking whether the hijab is compatible with “western values”. For Orthodox Christians this is a no-brainer: enter into a traditional Orthodox church and you will see all the woman covering their heads with something which looks very much like a hijab. Or take a traditional Russian doll – the famous matrioshkas – and look at what Russian women used to wear for centuries before the Russian elites tried to westernize them: the very same hijab. Finally, look at any Orthodox icon showing the Mother of God and look what she is wearing and, you guessed it, you will see something very similar to a modern hijab. In fact, the rules of modesty are almost the same ones in Islam and Orthodox Christianity, as is the preference for men to have beards. What you will never see amongst Orthodox Christians are the Niqabs or Burkas, not even for monastics. But that is not a practice amongst Russian Muslims either. At this point somebody will inevitably ask about alcohol, so I might as well address that here.
Russians still like their alcohol, especially their beloved vodka, and most will be unwilling to give it up. But most Russians are also acutely aware of the devastating effect the abuse of alcohol has had on the Russian people and society. So, if anything, as long as they are not forced to give up their own right to drink alcohol, they respect those who, like Muslims, decide not to drink it. So while this topic makes for good social conversation, it is really a non-issue since Muslims in Russia have never tried to impose a ban on alcohol on non-Muslims. Again, Tatarstan or Chechnia are not Saudi Arabia (even in Grozny the sale of alcohol is strictly regulated, but it is not banned like in some US “dry counties”).
The inauguration of the new Cathedral Mosque in Moscow is a symbol of a much larger and deeper phenomenon – the slow but steady rapprochement between the Orthodox and the Islamic world, it is the expression of a Russian civilizational choice which has finally given up any illusion about being part of the “West” and which is turning south (Middle-East), east (Siberia and China) and north (Siberia and the Arctic) and, in doing so, returning to the true historical roots of what I call the “Russian civilizational realm” – those parts of the Eurasian continent which were affected and influenced by the Russian culture and people.
None of that means that Russia must necessarily be in any way hostile to the West. Of course, as long as the AngloZionists will continue to support Nazis in the Ukraine and Takfiris in the Middle-East, while constantly undermining Russia economically and threatening her militarily, relations will remain tense. But most Russians would prefer a friendly and mutually profitable relationship with the EU. The dream of a common house from the Atlantic to the Urals still has a lot of supporters in Russia. The sad reality, however, is that the Europeans seem completely unable to stand up even for their own, pragmatic, national interests. The way the EU shot itself in the foot with sanctions against Russia, or with the fantastically stupid war against Gadafi just proves to the Kremlin that the EU is just a voiceless US colony. I am sure that Russia will be willing to have friendly partnership with Europe if and when the US-designed EU and NATO are finally replaced with something more European. But until then all the Russians can do is wait and attend to the multiple risks and opportunities presented by the rest of the planet. Only time will show whether the so-called “West” can finally give up its centuries-old dream to subjugate Russia by one way or another. All Russia can do is to prepare for the worst and hope for the best while opening her capital to the Muslim world while keeping Papal visits and “gay pride” parades away.
PS: I have only superficially touched upon the complex topic of Russia and Islam. If it is of interest to you, you can check out the following series of articles: