Russia consolidates its ties with the Islamic world

A meeting late last month in Ufa, the capital of the Bashkortostan Autonomous Republic in the Russian Federation, was an opportunity to demonstrate the strengthening of relations between Russia and the Islamic world.

The meeting was organised by the Group of Strategic Vision: Russia-Islamic World, which is composed of 33 public figures from 27 Muslim countries and includes former prime ministers, former foreign ministers and scholars.

The group was established in 2006 by the late prime minister of the Russian Federation, Yevgeny Primakov, an outstanding figure of Russian diplomacy. The idea was to promote relations between Russia and the Islamic world and to highlight that Islam, unlike in many Western European countries, is an indigenous religion in Russia.

Islam was introduced to the present territories of the Russian Federation as early as the year 922. Aydai Khan, the ruler of Volga Bulgar, adopted Islam and the Abbasid Caliph Muqtadir sent him a delegation, which included the famous Arab philosopher and traveller Ahmed ibn Fadlan.

An anecdotal detail says that 65 years after their adoption of Islam, the Volga Bulgars invited Vladimir I of Kiev – who was a pagan until 987 – to also join the religion. He refused on the grounds that Rus peoples enjoyed drinking wine, which was prohibited in Islam. He eventually adopted Christianity when the Byzantine emperor offered him his sister’s hand in marriage as his seventh wife, on the condition that he converted to Christianity.

In 2014, Russian president Vladimir Putin entrusted the chairmanship of the Group of Strategic Vision: Russia-Islamic World to the president of the Tataristan Republic, Rustam Minnikhanov.

On June 19 this year, the group updated its strategy. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov pointed out that “the steps taken by the Russian leadership in order to strengthen traditionally friendly relations with the member states of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) had been actively supported by the general public, our regions, especially by those where the majority of the population practiced Islam.”  He added that the Strategic Vision Group would coordinate the efforts of civil society, business circles, religious associations, scientists and young people.

Ambassador Farit Mukhametshin, the group’s chairman explained the conceptual development of its activities.

The most important innovation introduced by the new strategy was the participation of various administrative regions with strong Muslim populations such as Bashkortostan, the Republic of Dagestan, the Republic of Ingushetia, Kabardino-Balkaria, Karachay-Cherkessia, the Republic of Crimea, the Republic of Tatarstan, North Ossetia-Alania and the Chechen Republic.

The new members of the Strategic Vision Group include Ambassador Abdullatipov, the newly appointed permanent representative of the Russian Federation at the OIC and representatives of various Russian legislative bodies, and heads of regions with sizeable Muslim population.

The participants of the meeting were hosted in a hotel located on the Zaki Velidi Street. This was a pleasant surprise for the Turkish participants of the meeting, because Zeki Velidi is an important public figure in Turkey. He was born in Bashkortostan in 1890 and studied in Madrasa Kassimiya in Kazan, where he established contact with Russian orientalists and, with their support, visited Turkic countries in Central Asia.

Vasily Vladimirovich Bartold, a Soviet historian of German descent who specialised in Turkology and the history of Islam, helped him to gain an exemption to his military service in Tsarist Russia. After the Bolshevik Revolution, he became the minister of war and prime minister of the Autonomous Republic of Bashkortostan. He cooperated with the Soviet authorities against the Tsarist generals. Upon the invitation of the Turkish minister of education, he came to Turkey in 1925 and served as professor in many Turkish universities before passing away in 1970 as one of the most revered orientalists in Turkey.

As for the group’s meeting this year, Russia is effectively using the presence of Muslims within its territories to promote relations with Islamic countries. It is doing this with the utmost care not to hurt religious sensitivities either at home or in the target countries. It may lead to closer people-to-people contacts with them – to the detriment of the tarnished image that Western countries have of the Islamic World.