Muslim Birthrate Worries Russia

Michael Mainville, Washington Times, Nov. 21, 2006

Low domestic birthrates and rising immigration from the former Soviet republics are producing explosive growth in Russia’s Muslim community, which is on a track to account for more than half the population by midcentury.

“Russia is going through a religious transformation that will be of even greater consequence for the international community than the collapse of the Soviet Union,” said Paul Goble, a specialist on Islam in Russia and research associate at the University of Tartu in Estonia.

Two decades ago, the Sobornaya Mosque was the only Islamic house of worship allowed in the Soviet Union. It stood largely empty, filling only with the occasional large foreign delegation from an Islamic country.

Today, it is one of four mosques in Moscow serving a Muslim population of about 2.5 million. On Fridays and holy days, it overflows with worshippers, leaving many to kneel on newspapers outside, their foreheads pressed against the concrete.

As in many countries with growing Islamic populations, tensions are also on the rise. Many ethnic Russians fear their country is losing its traditional identity, while many Muslims are offended by widespread discrimination and a lack of respect for their faith.

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Russia’s overall population is dropping at a rate of 700,000 people a year, largely because of the short life spans and low birthrates of ethnic Russians. According to the CIA World Factbook, the national fertility rate is 1.28 children per woman, far below what is needed to maintain the country’s population of nearly 143 million. The rate in Moscow is even lower, at 1.1 children per woman.

Russia’s Muslims, however, are bucking that trend. The fertility rate for Tatars living in Moscow is six children per woman, Mr. Goble said, while the Chechen and Ingush communities are averaging 10 children per woman. At the same time, hundreds of thousands of Muslims from Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan have been flocking to Russia in search of work.

Russia’s Muslim population has increased by 40 percent since 1989, to about 25 million. By 2015, Muslims will make up a majority of Russia’s conscript army and by 2020 one-fifth of the population.

“If nothing changes, in 30 years, people of Muslim descent will definitely outnumber ethnic Russians,” Mr. Goble said.

For many Slavic Russians, the prospect of becoming a minority in their country is terrifying.

“Russia is historically a Slavic, Orthodox Christian land, and we need to make sure it stays that way,” said Alexander Belov, the head of the Movement Against Illegal Immigration, an increasingly powerful lobby that has organized dozens of rallies in recent months.

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