According to data from the Russian Population Census, about 350,000 people of nationalities that profess Islam live in Moscow. The Federal Migration Service adds another million migrants to this figure – most of them are from Central Asia. According to unofficial data, there are up to 2 million Muslims living in Moscow and according to other calculations another 2 million come here every day from nearby districts to work in Moscow. Muslims cause fear and repulsion amongst the Russian population and the authorities see centres of radical Islam in the unofficial prayer houses that are springing up everywhere. The New Times went to an underground mosque and spoke to people who feel alien in Moscow about how they are treated as strangers, and discovered how such problems are dealt with in other cities in Europe.

The industrial zone around the “Dubrovka” metro station – gloomy hotels, tram tracks – a taxi driver stares suspiciously at the bearded men congregating from all sides at the unprepossessing brown gates. “Jeez! They closed this mosque down, but they’re still coming! What sort of people are they?!” He mutters.

There is a sign on the gates that the Friday prayers will not be taking place and they ask the congregation to find another place for the namaz. But the people keep coming. Even without prayers. We are in one of the many “unofficial” Moscow mosques that are not governed by the Mufti’s office. Anyone can come here. They don’t ask about your nationality at the entrance, but most of the congregation are from Azerbaijan – Sunni Salafat. They have long beards, focused stares and some of them are wearing Tubeteika caps on their heads. There are people from Central Asia and a couple of Slav faces.

The mosque itself is a white two-storied building behind a tall fence. It has a small lobby with shelves for shoes and a drawer for sadak (alms) and a bathroom fitted for washing. The prayer room is carpeted with a green carpet with wooden minbar (pulpit) and books in niches (The Quran in Arabic and Russian, its interpretations and other religious literature). While waiting for the Imam the congregation is seated on the floor in Turkish style. They hold the Quran, read prayers and silently move their lips. A five-year old boy who has come with his father approaches an unknown elderly man and wakes him up. “You can’t sleep here, Uncle.”

Finally the Imam enters, dressed in the traditional long white robe. The mosque is full and the back rows listen to the sermon standing up. The two stories can take up to 400 people and not a single mobile telephone disturbs the calm speech of the Imam. “Every act,” he says “must be based on divine intent.” For example, it is not enough just to wash before prayers if you have not prepared yourself to communicate with God, and that no other act in life must be done with evil intent. Different Imams preach every week. Today’s Imam speaks in Azeri, although there are sermons in Russian as well. Finally the muezzin utters the “Allah Akhbar” chant that is familiar even to the unenlightened and the namaz begins. Standing in rigid rows the men stand up, then kneel again, reading verses of the Quran to themselves. Everyone is now alone with God, but at the same time with other Muslims, since this is the basic rule of any prayer, especially the Friday prayers. The more people there are, the greater the reward from God.

Imitation of the Quran

After the prayers, they do not leave immediately. They gather in groups in the courtyard of the mosque and talk. Russians are not looked upon in any special way here, but if you have come here for the first time, they will approach you and ask you how you are and if you have any questions. Kenan, an 18-year old Azeri student, and future architect came to Moscow together with his parents from Nefteyugansk. He offers to rub aromatic oil on my wrist. “You’ll smell nice, brother.” When I tell him about the purpose of my visit, he says, “Praise God, that there are people who are not afraid to come to us, write about us that we are not terrorists.” Kenan stares at me with his enormous brown eyes, expressing not only interest in the new arrival but gratitude and a degree of peace typical of many religious people, whatever their faith. “I am sure, brother, that if you begin writing about religion, you will become Muslim yourself,” says Kenan and begins talking about faith, Islam and the Prophet. He is helped by another Azeri who introduces himself as Renat. “If you want to write about Muslims, read the Quran. Best of all read the translation by Elmir Kuliev.” They talk about God a lot here. Proselytising is one of the most important duties of Islam. Many believe that if they manage to convert at least one unbeliever, their place in heaven is guaranteed.

In fact they quote not only the Quran. To the amazement of The New Times correspondent, Kenan suddenly begins to recite Pushkin.

Earth motionless; sky arches,
Creator, supported by Thee
He is merciful, He Mahomet
Noble opened the Quran
Yes, and we come to the light
And let fall from the eyes of the fog.

“You see even Pushkin wrote about the almighty God!” Kenan exclaims almost theatrically, and his voice resonates in the cold autumn air.

The Salafi movement is not so frightening

Of course, the only true movement of Islam in the Dubrovka mosque is considered to be Salafism. “Salaf in translation means “fellow traveller.” Fellow traveller of the Prophet, Kenan explains patiently. “Salafis maintain the path of Salaf, the path of purity as it is written in the Quran, without any additions.” The desire to go back to the sources is typical of every religion, and it is not new for Islam. “It is like the Christians being guided by the lives of the Apostles and literally following the Testaments,” explains the chairman of the Islamic Committee of Russia, Geidar Jemal to The New Times (he is also Azeri). “It is a teaching about the evil, satanic and unjust nature of the modern way of life, in which Islam is the only doctrine and community fighting for divine justice, an island of truth in an ocean of corruption and injustice. Salafism is universal; it is a means of self-expression for the masses who are exiled into the corner.”

The Quran and the Sunna (life of Muhammad) – are the basic texts of Salafism. They reject most of the later texts and commentaries that offer a reinterpretation of the primary sources. Not just monotheism, but direct reverence for God – is another feature of Salafism that does not recognise the clergy or any other mediators between man and Allah. This is the main difference from the Suffis that sometimes leads to bloodletting and conflicts***.

Salafism developed as a movement in the middle of the 20th century and forced its way in only in the mid-1980s in the countries of the former USSR that lay behind an iron curtain. “The first Salafi community appeared in Dagestan in the 1980s,” Ahmet Yarlikapov, senior research assistant of the Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology of the Russian Academy of Science tells The New Times. “However, they were immediately called “Wahhabi” and very soon closed down. Then the Chechen wars erupted and the forest soldiers began to be erroneously referred to as Wahhabi, and the Salafi were tarred with the same brush as terrorists and extremists.”

In the words of the academic, the Salafi movement is not homogenous. Salafi ascetics, peacefully living in western countries, might insist on the radical principle of literally implementing the rules of the Sharia, while Al Quaeda warriors’ primary aim is the holy jihad. They want to establish Muslim rule over the entire world. “There are not so many radicals prepared to take up arms, especially in Moscow,” Ahmet Yarlikapov tells us confidently. “For the majority, this is not radicalism, but just an unexpected awakening of religious sentiment, and you know that the eyes of neophytes are always burning.”

For a new faith

There are indeed many neophytes here. Kenan only began reading Namaz six months ago. His parents are not religious and initially looked critically upon their son. His Russian friend, Sergei, also from Nefteyugansk, is a footballer and a student in one of the Moscow institutes. He converted to Islam only two weeks ago. “I used to go to church, but I didn’t like it there. There was always some sort of pressure. I couldn’t take it. But here in the mosque, I feel calm and good.” Sergei’s parents reacted with hostility to Sergei’s new faith, and many friends rejected him. “They think I’m mad. They say I’m in a religious sect. I’ve just started living according to the Law. I previously lived incorrectly and did bad things.” When I ask what the bad things were, Sergei explains, “I drank, smoked and went to discotheques.”

Most of the adult congregation have similar stories. The 53-year old Mosque warden, Magomed from Azerbaijan, came from Irkutsk. He worked as a driver all his life (although he didn’t have a licence); he had a wife and daughter, but drank a lot, lost his job and his family. Islam saved him. He doesn’t drink now; he prays and is trying to pass his driving test. His 40-year old friend, Ilham, also from Azerbaijan, but from Ulyanovsk, read the namaz six years ago. One day he also lost his family and business. “I had everything and then one day I had nothing. Then God led me to the righteous path.” Kurban, a Tajik, joins our group and tells me that he has been reading the namaz since the 4th grade. His grandfather taught him to pray and he goes to the Dubrovka mosque because it is close to his home. The Quran in Kurban’s hands is in Arabic. He does not speak Arabic but he can read it. “When I was in Tajikistan, a brother went to Pakistan to study and when he came back he taught me to read. I like reading in Arabic, it calms me.”

Islam in the big city

Muslims are brought to the Mosque not just because of problems in their lives or youthful mysticism. For many members of the congregation faith is the only way of self-identification. “Previously they were Avars, Ingush, Nogai, but when they came to the big city, they suddenly realised that they are Muslim, and this Muslim identity became the most important,” Ahmet Yarlikapov explaines. “In addition to this Islamic communities are very active; people find support and moral comfort there. All this makes people become active believers. A certain part of them becomes radical and begins to follow stricter movements, and when they go home they frequently cause problems since they begin to think that the Islam practiced at home is not so righteous.”

By persecuting the Muslim minorities, the Russian authorities are doing a lot to radicalise Muslims. It was no accident that the notice that Friday prayers will not be taking place appeared on the gates in Dubrovka. On Friday, 7th July, law and order officers appeared and arrested 300 people. A similar raid happened at another Moscow Muslim community, “Darul Arkam” on Pavletskaya. On the 26th April, police officers from the Federal Migration Service blocked the entrance for a number of hours while they checked ID documents. A search was held in the mosque and 140 people were arrested. Today on the gates of “Darul Arkam” there is also a notice that Friday prayers will not be held, although in fact they are being held for a small number of believers. “You journalists write that 140 radicals were arrested, but no one wrote that they were all released afterwards,” complains Adam, one of the members of the community (according to Ministry of Interior communiqués, amongst the 140 persons arrested, two were on the international wanted list for committing extremist-related crimes and seven persons were charged with breaches of migration legislation). Adam was born in Chechnya, and began to read namaz just a few years ago. “Of course, the local residents don’t like it when two thousand people gather here on Friday. All the parking places were taken and many people prayed outside the gates. But where else could they go?” In “Darul Arkam” there used to be lectures, a nursery and an Islamic school. Now the community is in the process of re-registration in order to continue its work, albeit not to the full extent. “We were told that some of the people here are going to fight in Dagestan,” says Adam, “But who are we to blame? We don’t know what’s in the minds of the people who come here. In our sermons we don’t encourage anyone to go into the forests. Let the police come and listen, we don’t mind.”

The MoI did not respond to the questions of The New Times, saying on the telephone that there were no problems with underground mosques, and all the raids were aimed at identifying people who had breached the passport regime. Practice, however, shows that this is not exactly true.

Banned prayers

When the Mayor of Moscow, Sergei Sobyanin, promised at the beginning of the summer to bring order to the markets in the capital, this led not only to mass arrests of migrants but also to mass closures of prayer rooms and mosques. “We need to read namaz five times a day, every day,” Hadji Murat explaines to The New Times. He came to Moscow in the 1990s and is the owner of a halal cafe at one of the Moscow markets. “It is compulsory to go to the mosque only on Friday – we have to go to the sermons. On ordinary days we can pray anywhere, but it is best to pray together.” Market traders collaborated and rented market premises for prayer rooms. In the majority of the rooms cameras were installed to avoid any questions being asked. However, over the last three months, the administrations of most of the markets terminated the lease contracts for the prayer rooms and banned prayers. “The administration doesn’t care, the mountain Jews are in charge,” says Hadji Murat. “They got calls from the FSB, and they reacted immediately. Who cares about the markets? I’ve got a home outside the city. We were celebrating Uraza Bayram with a few families, twenty people or so, children, women… when the local policeman came to check our documents. He’d had instructions that there were a thousand radicals gathered here. I showed him that there weren’t any radicals, just children. He checked our passports and left, but the festivities were spoilt. How can you go to someone’s home without a warrant, without anything? It was good that he was at least polite.”

In the opinion of Geidar Jemal, the closure of prayer rooms and prayer homes is a normal process in a country, where law and order officers need to acquire stars for some reason, while they get their money from the markets the rest of the time.

Forty forties

According to the Imam of the Memorial Mosque on Poklonnaya Gora, Shamil Alyautdinov, a minimum of one hundred mosques needs to be built for the two million Muslims, living in Moscow who are citizens of the Russian Federation, one for 5-10 thousand persons (Shamil Alyaudtinov did not answer the questions of The New Times because he was too busy, but these figures were referred to in an interview with Radio Svoboda on the 11th October, 2010). The Mufti apportions blame, although not very actively, to state officials for the lack of construction of mosques. “The Mufti’s administration completely sabotages its own functions to defend the interests of the community,” argues Geidar Jemal. “They are cowardly Tatar religious functionaries who are more interested in their own personal survival. They sit in their bureaucratic ghetto, in their “duhovka (spiritual home)” as they call it on the street, and waste money.”

Practice, however, shows that attempts to build at least one mosque have been met with sharp opposition from the local residents. In 2010 the Muslim community collected money and received permission from the Moscow authorities to build a mosque on Volga Boulevard. However, after many protests the Mayor’s office changed its mind and the mosque was not built. The official reason was the conservation of the park that lies where the mosque would have been built. However, officials from the prefecture told The New Times on condition of anonymity that in fact no one wants Muslims putting down roots in Moscow. “First a mosque, then a Muslim cemetery, then what? While there’s no mosque, the migrants might move out, when it’s built we’ll have to live with them. Where will the Russians go?”

In the opinion of representatives of the Muslim community, the problems with the local residents are invented. “This was all organised by DPNI (Movement Against Illegal Migration — The New Times) and other similar nationalist movements,” says Geidar Jemal with certainty, “they pretended to be local residents. Representatives of the Mufti’s administration visited flats and asked the local residents, the majority did not really care.” This information was also confirmed to the newspaper by the chairmen of the Religious Director of the Muslims of the Asian Region of Russia, Mufti Nafigulla Ashirov: “All the protests are being encouraged by the authorities. Actually it’s always possible to come to an agreement with the local residents. When the authorities demolish monuments and build business centres in their place, no one pays any attention to the protests, but here they decide to give in.” Emil Pain, an ethnographer and political scientist, supports this point of view. In his opinion, the policy of inflaming international and inter-religious confrontation is deliberately supported by the authorities. “Prayers can be held in parks or in other public places. Of course, this will cause the discontent of the local population, many are influenced by different types of prejudices. However, not every public protest deserves support,” the academic believes. “We need to develop greater tolerance for the expression of religious feelings, otherwise religious opposition might turn into bloodshed.”

The official position of the Mayor’s office was expressed by Sergei Sobyanin at a meeting of the “Valdai” discussion club on the 16th September. In his opinion no additional mosques are needed in Moscow, while the existing ones are overflowing on account of migrants. “20-25% of the congregation are Muscovites,” the Mayor stated without mentioning why migrants should be refused their right to religious expression.

Prayers at a building site

When referring to the number of 100 mosques, Shamil Alyaudtinov was probably not taking into account Muslims who profess other movements of Islam and who do not want to pray in the mosques regulated by the Mufti’s administration. “After the collapse of the USSR, the outline of the Moscow Muslim community has changed sharply,” Ahmet Yarlikapov explains. “The majority of people living here earlier were Tatars, who follow the quite liberal Hanafit movement, then more recently many Shafi Muslims have come here from the North Caususus. Sometimes they pray together with the Hanafit Imam, but then they organise a second prayer, just in case, with their own Imam. As a consequence Shamil Alyaudtinov even had to issue a special fatwa that everyone must pray together. There are also Shiite Muslims in Moscow, (mainly from Azerbaijan) who prefer not to pray in Sunni mosques. And the Salafi Muslims in Dubrovka do not observe the official mosques. “They speak too much there,” Renat shakes his head, “and they also don’t follow the rules, they say that it is not necessary to wear a beard.”

Today in Moscow in addition to the mosque on Poklonnaya Gora, the other functioning mosques are the Historical Mosque on Bolshaya Tatarskaya Street and the mosque in Otradnoe. The Moscow Cathedral Mosque on Prospekt Mira, has been under “reconstruction” since 2005. The old building from 1904 was demolished and the new one has turned into a long-term project. “A huge amount of money was collected by Muslims for its construction; no budget funds were used at all. But this was all stolen by the Mufti’s administration!”, exclaims Geidar Jemal. However, even the unfinished mosque attracts up to ten thousand people every Friday. This has had an undoubted effect on the region’s infrastructure. There are halal stalls everywhere and a number of halal restaurants where you can have lunch after nazam. Old women sell polyethylene foot mats, others sell cut-out sheets of wall paper to be used as prayer mats, while others beg for alms from the “Muslim brothers”. There is nowhere, really, to pray. The temporary wooden building has room for no more than one hundred people and so the Muslims, after passing through metal detectors, spread their mats out on the asphalt, using the plastic bags they have bought from the old women.

The autumn in Moscow is not very suitable for street prayers. Rains pours straight onto the mats, the wind ruffles the newspapers laid out on the ground, construction dust has turned into mud under their feet, and whether you put newspapers down or not, you still get your trousers dirty. Just by judging their faces, most of the people here are from Central Asia, although there are imposing Azerbaijanis in their business suits, and young Ingush in narrow beige trousers and in possession of new white iPhones. All are equal before Allah and in the Moscow mud as well.

The sermon is in two languages – Tatar and Russian, although many of the Uzbek worshippers say that the sermons are too complicated for many of them. However, the most important thing for them is to pray together. They are not able to do so. The namaz is unexpectedly interrupted by the police. The worshippers have blocked off the transport entrance to the building site. “Why the f*** are you blocking the entrance? Who asked you to come? That’s your place over there,” the policeman shouts waving his hands. There are at least two hundred people in this banned zone and it is impossible to move them. “We haven’t blocked it off, we have come here to pray, we’ll be gone in ten minutes,” they reply. The policeman continues to curse. His colleagues seem to be running all around for some reason. Then they leave, leaving the young sergeant on guard. There is silence and rain. Arabic prayers resonate from the loud speakers. The blue-eyed sergeant stands dispassionately in the middle of a sea of backs spread out amongst the steel girders, fences, concrete blocks and mud. They don’t care about the sergeant. They are involved in their own conversation. •