As Salaam Alaykum Wa Rahmatullahi Wa Barakatuhu
Time to Burn Islamic Books
By Elmira Akhmetova
Muslims of Tatarstan, one of the Muslim-majority republics of the Russian Federation, began to destroy Islamic books mentioned in the Federal List of Extreme Literature issued by the Russian government on December 29, 2007.
The Spiritual Board of Tatarstan (Muftiyat) recommended on March 4, 2008, that all local mosques, Muslim schools, and other religious organizations burn these books in boilers. Until today, dozens of mainstream Islamic books were banned in the Russian Federation in compliance with the verdicts of several district courts.
On May 21, 2007, the Koptevsky district court in Moscow announced 14 books previously translated to Russian as "extremist" literature that should be banned from circulation. The books are authored by Bediuzzaman Said Nursi, a famous Muslim thinker of the 20th century. This prohibition resulted in anxiety among the local Muslims who have known Nursi as an advocate of a form of Islam strongly committed to peace and constructive engagement with the Christian world.
The international organizations and groups advocating freedom of expression have hitherto remained silent. Only some local human rights organizations, leading Muslim intellectuals, and the Oslo-based Forum 18 news service condemned the blacklisting of Muslim literature in Russia. They described the ban as a violation of the principle of religious freedom.
On December 29, 2007, the Federal Registration Service published the latest list of the "extreme" literature banned by the courts of the Russian Federation in 2007. The list contains 79 publications, including 16 Islamic books labeled "extremist" by the Buguruslan City Court (Orenburg region) on August 6, 2007.
All these Islamic books were declared as inciting interreligious and interracial hatred (as defined in the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation, Article 282, Clause 1) and promoting exclusivity and superiority on the basis of religion.
In an interview published on the website IslamRF.ru dedicated to Islam in the Russian Federation, the grand mufti of Russia, Ravil Gainutdin, said the Islamic books included in the federal list do not violate any law.
"It is absurd and deplorable that no Muslim expert, no imam, no head of a religious authority of Russian Muslims have been invited to the court hearing,"
Gainutdin said. He added, "The court proceedings were held without our knowledge — secretly. Nobody represented the defendant, and we consider this inadmissible."
The federal list presents the titles of the books without specifying their authors or publishers. It includes very general titles, such as The Life of Prophet Muhammad, Foundations of Islamic Belief, Foundations of Islam, Program of Studying the Islamic Shari`ah, and Islam Today. Up to the present day, dozens of books by different authors have been published in Russia under such titles.
According to the judicial procedure, only the author or the publishing house has the right to appeal the court's decision. However, as the names of authors and publishers were not listed, no one is likely to be granted an appeal. Besides, by the time the Muslim community in Russia learned about the ban, the time for appeal had already passed.
The books mentioned in the federal list include textbooks of institutions of religious education across Russia and mainstream religious books. Under the 2002 Extremism Law, mass distribution of prohibited books or preparation or storage with the aim of mass distribution can result in a four-year term in prison. As such, many Islamic institutions, publishing houses, and even ordinary Muslim individuals may be charged with keeping the books now prohibited.
According to Forum 18, on December 8 and 9, 2007, officials from the offices of the regional Public Prosecutor and the Federal Security Service searched the homes of many readers of Nursi's books across Russia.
Submission to Injustice
So far, the impact of the verdict of the Buguruslan City court is not widely felt. The mosques and religious institutions of Russia still use the outlawed textbooks. Yet, Russian Muslims do not feel secure from random searching of their homes.
If this actually happens in the near future, what should Russian Muslims do to avoid arrests? With thousands of copies of blacklisted books, what can they do to protect themselves and their institutions from possible charges?
Valiulla Yaqupov, deputy of the Spiritual Board of Tatarstan, recommended that the religious organizations of the republic burn all banned books in boilers. He said, "It is better to burn them all now; then, in case of reverse, we can reprint them."
Yaqupov added that the process of destroying these books has already started in the Republic of Tatarstan. Accordingly, Muslims of Tatarstan may lose a greater part of their religious literature, an incident which happened in history several times.
The Muslims living in the territory of modern Russian Federation have suffered a long history of religious and racial persecutions. The Mongol invasion of the 13th century resulted in a severe loss of the Islamic heritage. Also, over centuries of the Russian imperial colonization, several Islamic books and educational institutions were either destroyed or repeatedly persecuted.
The Islamic heritage of Russian Muslims was ruined for the third time during the rule of the Soviet regime. To avoid imprisonment or even a possible death penalty, Muslims possessing "forbidden" books were obliged to burn or bury their entire Islamic literature.
If other regions in the Russian Federation adopted the call to burn the banned books in line with the call of the Spiritual Board of Tatarstan, the Muslim community in Russia would lose its religious literature for the fourth time. Ironically, this time, the Muslims will voluntarily destroy their religious literature with their own hands in the 21st century Russian Federation, which claims to be the protector of Islam and Muslims in the modern world.
Too Early to Give Up
The hasty call of the Spiritual Board of Tatarstan to destroy the banned books was met by strong criticism from the Muslim community in Russia. Muqaddas Bibarsov, head of the Spiritual Board of Muslims in the Volga region, condemned the advice of the Tatarstan religious authority. He said these books have been positively used in spiritual training of Russian Muslims for many years.
"We have to use civilized means to reopen the case and cancel the court's verdict,"
Bibarsov said. He added, "It is too early to burn the books; we have to try all possible channels to solve the problem at home."
In fact, some positive steps have already been taken by Russian Muslims in order to solve the crisis. On February 14 and 15, 2008, the problem was discussed during the meeting of the Council of Muftis of the Russian Federation in the city of Qazan. The muftis addressed a petition to the President, the Duma, Office of the Attorney General, and supreme and constitutional courts of the Russian Federation.
The appeal was examined by Andrey Sebentsov, executive secretary of the Committee for Religious Affairs. He stated that banning Islamic books is an "obviously abnormal development."
He promised to take the case into account and probe the situation.
This positive approach of the committee and the promise of Sebentsov awakened hopes in the hearts of Russian Muslims for positive changes. It seems their optimism is well grounded. In fact, Sebentsov's statement was made at a time when the Committee for Religious Affairs was headed by Russian president-elect Dmitry Medvedev.
Appeal to European Court
Rustam Valiullin, a lawyer from the city of Ijevsk, believes that the appeals to the Russian government will not bring positive results. In his appeal to heads of Muslim organizations in Russia, Valiullin said,
Right from the very beginning, when a massive oppression of Muslims began in Russia, local Muslims responded with meetings and petitions to the government. But today, many of your brothers are in prison or forced to leave the country. Meetings and appeals did not help even a single person, though it was clear for everybody that all charges brought against Muslims were absurd. Everyone knows that they are only guilty of believing in Allah.
Valiullin added that the Muslims in Russia are now in a humiliated position because no one of them is secure from arbitrary detentions, forced confessions, and torture. "The only way to obtain justice in Russia is to keep filing legal complaints about every action of the authority violating rights and freedom,"
On February 6, 2008, Valiullin, jointly with the Association of Russian Mosques, appealed to the European Court of Human Rights against the Buguruslan City court's verdict. He said that a number of articles of the European Convention on Human Rights were violated, including Article 6 (the right to fair court examination), Article 9 (the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion), Article 10 (the right to freedom of expression), and Article 13 ( the right to an effective remedy).
The appeal of Valiullin to the European Court of Human Rights resulted in a number of positive responses, including the attention of the Russian press. In general, Russian juridical experts consider Valiullin's appeal a right decision. Lawyer Anatoly Pchelintsev, director of the Institute for Religions and Rights, stated in an interview with Russian newspaper Kommersant that "Muslims will win the case in the European Court because, along with the violation of human rights, the accusations directed against the Islamic literature are absurd."
Hope and Despair
The suggestion of the Spiritual Board of Tatarstan to burn the banned books induced the doubts of Russian Muslims about the future. If Muslims decided to challenge the Russian court's verdict, it might be possible that the Russian government will respond positively to the appeal of the Muslim community, especially that the Russian government apprehends a possible condemnation from the European Court of Human Rights.
In its appeal to the Russian government, the Council of Muftis noted that "for the citizens of Russia, the ban on Islamic books is an alarming sign that can be interpreted as the revival of the former censorship and totalitarian, ideological control."
According to a Forum 18 religious freedom survey published in April 2007,the Russian government does not have a policy of restricting freedom of religion or belief. However, corrupt lower levels of bureaucracy are responsible for a slow erosion of religious freedom.
Moreover, the Russian law allows district courts to ban any religious book without consulting religious experts. In addition, the favor of the government toward dominant Orthodox Christianity results in religious discriminations against minority groups, including Muslims.
Currently, the Muslim population of 20 to 24 million constitutes about 15 percent of the total population of the Russian Federation. As presumptive prime minister Vladimir Putin asserted, Russian Muslims are not alien immigrants of the country but ordinary citizens who have lived in their native land for centuries.
Although Russian Muslims today have achieved a considerable success in the country's educational and social spheres, they are passive and even too submissive in politics. There is no party, fraction, or even a single politician representing the interests of millions of Muslims in the Duma.
However, the Muslim-majority regions of the Russian Federation achieved highest participation during the parliamentary elections of December 2007. According to official statistics, 98 percent of voters in Ingushetia took part in the election. In neighboring Chechnya, this number was even higher: 99 percent of eligible voters cast their ballots for new Parliament. The situation was the same in Tatarstan. In Moscow, however, the attendance was less than 60 percent.
This too loyal spirit seems harmful to the Russian Muslims who rushed to voluntarily burn their religious books with their own hands, just to please some local and central authorities.
Forum18.org (April 2007) RUSSIA: Religious freedom survey, April 2007. Retrieved March 20, 2008