A steady stream of devout Muslims pours into the Sobornaya Mosque on a cold, grey Friday afternoon. The Arabic call to prayer echoes incongruously among Soviet-era apartment buildings and monolithic relics of Moscow’s 1980 Olympics.
As usual, the mosque’s blue walls cannot contain the hundreds of people looking to pray.
“I’m sorry, it’s full,” a bearded man in a white skullcap repeats again and again to worshippers showing up at the doors.
Soon, the courtyard outside the mosque is crammed with men removing their hats and shoes to pray. Some lay down elaborate prayer mats of finely woven silk; others settle for tattered newspapers. When the men kneel in the direction of Mecca, their foreheads press against hard concrete.
Attending the prayers with his 8-year-old son, Zabir Valeev can hardly hide his frustration at having to pray under these conditions. The two come to the Sobornaya Mosque nearly every Friday and are often forced to pray outside.
“We shouldn’t have to stand out here in the cold,” says Valeev, 32. “What does it show to my son that there is no place in Moscow for us to pray?”
The Sobornaya Mosque is one of only four mosques in Moscow serving a Muslim population of 2.5 million—the largest of any European city. Crammed amid the grey monoliths of Moscow’s 1980 Olympics complex, it was the only Islamic house of worship allowed to function during the Soviet period, usually empty due to religious repression.
Today, like Moscow’s other mosques, it overflows with worshippers on Fridays and holy days. Muslim leaders have been trying to get permission from the city to expand the mosque, and to build many more, but their attempts have failed.
“In the Soviet period, people were forbidden from practising their religions. Now, they are embracing their faith again,” says Ildar Alyautdinov, an imam at the Sobornaya Mosque. “But to have only four mosques in Moscow, obviously that’s not enough . . . We deserve more respect.”
Russia is in the midst of startling transformation. Islamic faith is thriving across the country. If current trends continue, experts say, more than half of Russia’s population will be Muslim by mid-century.
Few expect it will be an easy transition. Tensions are already high between the country’s ethnic Russian population and the diverse group of nationalities that make up the Muslim community. Inter-ethnic violence is on the rise and extreme nationalist groups are gaining influence.
A backlash is already underway. Attacks on mosques are not uncommon and in September an imam in the southern city of Kislovodsk was shot dead outside his home. During days of rioting in August, angry mobs chased Chechens and other migrants from the Caucasus region out of the northwestern town of Kondopoga.
Spurring on the mob was Alexander Belov, charismatic head of the Movement Against Illegal Immigration, an increasingly powerful lobby group that has staged dozens of rallies in recent months. In an interview at a Czech restaurant in central Moscow, Belov railed against what he called the growing “Islamification” of Russia.
“Russia is historically a Slavic, Orthodox Christian land and we need to make sure it stays that way,” he said, adding that Orthodox Christianity should be enshrined as Russia’s official religion and efforts made to convert Muslims. Islam is currently recognized as one of Russia’s official religions, along with Orthodox Christianity, Judaism and Buddhism.
Like many nationalists, Belov makes no distinction between Muslim immigrants and Russian citizens of Islamic faith. He says Muslims, no matter what their citizenship, should be restricted from living in “traditional Russian lands.”
Muslim leaders say the Russian media is fuelling antagonism. Many Russians associate Islam with religious extremists from Chechnya who have carried out dozens of bombings and other attacks against civilians. On Russian television, Muslims are most often portrayed as either criminals or religious radicals waging a holy war against Christians. One of Russia’s bestselling novels last year, The Mosque of Notre Dame de Paris, depicts a mid-21st century Europe where Islam is the state religion and Christians are forced to live in ghettos.
“I worry all the time about my children,” says Timur, a 44-year-old Moscow businessman, after prayers at the Sobornaya Mosque. “I worry that they’ll be attacked on the streets or in the subway. My wife is afraid every time they leave the house.”
After Friday prayers at the mosque, many worshippers linger, chatting in small groups or browsing amid stalls selling prayer mats, skullcaps and tasbih, the traditional Muslim prayer beads. The languages spoken reflect the incredible diversity of Russia’s Muslim population. The Turkic sounds of Tatar and Azeri mix with the guttural tones of Chechen and the Persian rhythm of Tajik.
Some here are newly arrived immigrants from the former Soviet states of Central Asia; others are from Muslim-majority regions that remained part of Russia after the Soviet collapse.
Russia’s Muslim communities boast far higher birth rates than those of the country’s Christian Orthodox, ethnic Slavs. Russia’s overall population is dropping at a rate of 700,000 people a year, largely due to the short life spans and low birth rates of ethnic Russians.
According to the CIA World Factbook estimate, Russia’s overall fertility rate is 1.28 children per woman, far below what is needed to maintain the country’s population of about 143 million.
Muslim Russians, meanwhile, are bucking the trend, with some communities averaging as many as 10 children per woman. The Central Asian states that traditionally send large numbers of immigrant workers to Russia also have much higher birth rates.
Since 1989, Russia’s Muslim population has increased by 40 per cent to about 25 million. By 2015, Muslims could make up a majority of Russia’s conscript army and they could account for one-fifth of the country’s population by 2020.
If trends continue for the next 30 years, people of Muslim descent will outnumber ethnic Russians, says Paul Goble, an expert on Islam in Russia and research associate at the University of Tartu in Estonia.
“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.”
The country’s Muslim leaders look on the population spurt, and media coverage, with apprehension.
“The image of Muslims presented in the media is very distorted,” says Rusham Abbyasov, a spokesman for the Council of Muftis. “When people hear the phrase Allahu akbar (“God is great” in Arabic) they immediately think of people shooting at them or blowing themselves up.”
Sensing the nationalist mood, Russian authorities have begun to crack down.
Four Russian regions recently introduced mandatory classes in Orthodox Christianity in all schools. On Nov. 15, the Russian cabinet announced a new law that will ban foreigners from working in retails stalls and markets next year. The law doesn’t specifically target Muslims, but the vast majority of people working in Russia’s markets are either Muslim immigrants or from traditionally Muslim parts of Russia.
Goble says the growing anti-Islamic sentiment threatens to push Russian Muslims further outside the mainstream and into the arms of radicals.
Because of the Soviet legacy of religious repression, the majority of people living in Russia with Muslim backgrounds are secular, attached to Islam mostly as part of their ethnic identity. But with interest in Islam surging, Goble says, these people are open to being influenced by extremist idea.
“People who know they are Muslims but don’t know exactly what that means could be radicalized, especially if they feel excluded from Russian society. It’s a real threat.”
At the Sobornaya Mosque, there are already some signs of the dangers ahead. One bearded young man, who refuses to give even his first name, anticipates a day when large chunks of Russia can be broken off into Islamic states. “It’s only a matter of time,” he says.